Designing Mixed-Use Communities with Residential: “The How”

designing mixed use communities

Designing Mixed-Use Communities with Residential: “The How”

By Jim Baeck, Simon Sykes, and William Lopez

Our last post explored “the why” of integrating residential to create mixed-use communities, this month we discuss how to create authentic mixed use communities with residential.

The Best Laid Plans

Of course, even if one concedes and embraces the business case for integrating residential into retail, there is still the matter of treading into unknown territory. There is, of course, both an art and a science to inventing authentic mixed-use communities and town centers, and it’s important to know, going in, what the typical pitfalls and challenges might be so that you can design around them.

designing mixed use communities

This is what we’ve been doing for the better part of three decades: literally designing around challenges and inventing master plans that not only avoid the pitfalls, but create dynamic, profitable, sustainable and lasting communities that continue to grow and thrive. Whether this new town center needs to be woven into—or become—the hub of the community, a variety of residential uses and strategies must be considered, planned and strategically conceived.

In other words, it’s much more than simply building a condominium complex or apartment building adjacent to the shopping center. While some homeowners and renters might want that type of product and lifestyle (walkable to retail, but not part of it), others will demand community integration: a lifestyle in which the “lobby” of their building is the open air of the town square. So, even within residential, it is imperative to design and offer a mix of living uses: residential above retail, apartments and condos integrated into the city block, as well as off-lot homes, apartments and condos for those who crave a degree of privacy, but who also want that connection to the community fabric. For those people, you might design a luxury product nearby but walkable to the town center. Downtown, you might have smaller and more affordable apartments just above retail. Homes to both rent and purchase, given the diversity of the modern customer base.  The integration of residential embraces cultural, economic and generational diversity and provides a foundation towards the creation of new sustainable neighborhoods. 

Understanding that mix of customer, mix of lifestyle preferences, and mix of property type is critical to the center’s success. Having designed for audiences everywhere from America to Asia, from South America to the Middle East, from Europe to Africa, we’ve learned a great deal about how people of all cultures want to live, commingle and live their lives, from densely populated city centers to more sprawling communities. We always start with the user/customer first, then design an experience around them.

designing mixed use communities

A Glimpse Into Your Residential Future

Having had the privilege of working with fellow designers, architects and property owners and managers spanning the globe, we are proud to count ourselves among those who have, indeed, been there and done that. Having, we feel, made both the business and strategic case for incorporating (more?) residential product into a single- or mixed-use center, we can nevertheless acknowledge a few of the challenges that lie ahead for those who may have never (or fully) ventured into the residential use type.

However, having worked both proactively and remedially to overcome those challenges, we know full well what to expect, what to account for, and how to use design as a proactive weapon against the uncertainties that lie ahead. 

It is certainly the case that there are vastly different methods of construction, different zoning regulations, and different materials internationally. All markets are different, and depending where you are building, you will have nuances to account for. But this is what good design does: it helps developers understand and figure out the compromises and tradeoffs that will arise in advance, so the changes are done on paper and with cardstock and Styrofoam, remarkably inexpensively and painlessly.

aleste mixed useHere are a few of the considerations you will need to work to address as you begin to master plan authentic mixed use communities with residential:

  • Architecture: How does the residential component complement and authentically weave into the existing community aesthetic and ethos, or can we use design to create an entirely new design aesthetic for the overall center?
  • Security: Your existing center likely has opening and closing hours; your new property will be “open” 24/7. You will want to design the space so that residents feel safe and secure from the unknown risks that restaurant and retail guests might conjure…real or imagined. 
  • Access/Address/Front Door: It is important to plan for your new residential user, who will want private access to his or her home, without feeling like the entire community is at the doorstep at all hours. This is a detail often overlooked, but easily accounted for in the masterplan and design.
  • Loading and Unloading: If you’ve never lived in a downtown, you must shudder at the idea of moving in and out of units in densely populated areas. Even rubbish removal and service/package delivery can seem nearly impossible. But not if you design for it in advance.
  • Amenities: Regardless of where and how they live, consumers are increasingly demanding adjacent and accessible amenities, such as pools, fitness centers, community clubhouses, rooftop uses, and so on. A true mixed-use town center becomes the ideal property type to incorporate all of it, making that residential/retail two-way street a thriving thoroughfare—literally and figuratively.
  • Parking Adjacency: Parking for residents must be separate, safe, ample and secure from other guests and pedestrians. To wit, the more dense the uses are (residential above office above retail, say), the more densely you can design the grid, perhaps designing an entire parking structure underground, beneath and serving all three uses.

That’s not the entire laundry list, but it’s enough to get most retail owners thinking and planning. It’s also a fairly representative list of ways in which the creative application of design in the early stages of master planning can be your secret weapon in overcoming your “mixed feelings” about residential and embracing a new paradigm for a more profitable, more valuable and more sustainable community of the future.

If you have any questions or comments about how you can start reimagining your existing property, please feel free to contact us at