Celebration, Florida – Lessons Learned – Using Retail as an Amenity
One of the most challenging aspects of developing a new mixed-use community is the retail component. Retail development can be a Catch-22. One of the most desired features of a new community is a quality retail environment. A place you can go shopping, dine, drop off your dry cleaning, have a drink with friends or visit your dentist. But, to have an economically viable retail environment, you need to have enough nearby rooftops or traffic moving by the site. People are looking for a quality retail experience while at the same time a quality retail experience is looking for people.
Very few developers can do what we did at Celebration – build the mixed-use downtown before the first resident moved in. Downtown Celebration, with its 21 buildings and nearly 300,000 square feet of apartments, restaurants, shops, and offices nestled around a human-made lake was envisioned to be the heart and soul of Celebration. Unlike many retail developments which have to stand on their own financially, Downtown Celebration was considered primarily as an amenity for the residents of Celebration. Using the design talents of many of the premier architects of the time, Downtown Celebration was meant to be significant stake-in-ground built to show The Walt Disney Company’s commitment to the vision of Celebration. It was to be a clear and concrete demonstration of our concern for quality design and place making and to have a critical mass of development on Day One.
One question we frequently received during the early days planning and development of Celebration, was “Why did you put Downtown Celebration where you put it?” Downtown Celebration is embedded deep into the project and far away from Route 192, a major Central Florida east-west traffic corridor. If you were a retail-centric developer, the more typical and logical choice would have been to place the first major retail component for a new community immediately adjacent to a heavily traveled road. But, we weren’t just building a retail project. We were building a new town incorporating design strategies found at some of the most cherished and beloved towns throughout the county. This is why it is important to have someone who is a “community developer” involved in the retail/commercial component of your development, not just a commercial broker. Community developers tend to look at the whole picture and how relationships can be fostered between the various aspects of the community so one plus one can equal more than two. Commercial brokers and agents tend to be more transactions oriented and only look at the commercial component in isolation.
To create a pleasant place that could set the tone for the balance of the town, we needed to be as far away from Route 192, both in distance and character, as possible. If you have ever driven the along Route 192, heading east from US Interstate 4, or seen the movie The Florida Project (filmed on location in a motel along Route 192) you know exactly what I am talking about. Route 192, was the antithesis of what we were trying to create. In fact, one of our consultants referred to Route 192 as the “armpit of Central Florida.”
While placing Downtown Celebration away from Route 192, was perhaps not the best thing to do from a purely retail perspective, it was the best thing to for the entire town of Celebration. Downtown Celebration is Celebration’s civic center. It is where residents bring visiting out of town guest, July 4th parades are held, and the town Christmas tree is placed each year.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the standalone financial success of Downtown Celebration was probably around a 5. Several of the original retail shops left after the first few years of operations because of lack of sales or poor management. Some shops and restaurants had to be repositioned to accommodate who was shopping and dining in Celebration. The movie theater went dark in 2010 and remains that way today. The operator of the small footprint grocery store closed in 2005 when a grocery anchor retail center opened up near Route 192.
On the positive side, many of the original restaurants are still in operations and, based on my recent visit and difficulties in getting a table, seem to be doing very well. Most, if not all of the ground floors on the mixed-use buildings along Celebration Avenue, one of the major roads in Celebration, have been converted from residential uses to commercial uses. The occupancy rates for the hotel and offices are above industry standards. Similar to what is happening in many new and repositioned retails area, the number of food and beverage operations has increased from five to thirteen. The place feels fun, active and vibrant.
In 2004, Downtown Celebration was sold by The Celebration Company to Lexin Capital, a New York-based private investment firm. Neither the seller or buyer disclosed the sales price, but local commercial brokers estimated the sales price to be around $42.3 million. While I don’t know the exact amount invested in developing Downtown Celebration, I’m guessing it was significantly more than the estimated sales price. That said, all of the other value generated by Downtown Celebration, made it a sound investment. Downtown Celebration, along with the school, was on the top of reasons people decided to move to Celebration. Celebration had a consistently strong sales record with houses prices and sales pace that far exceeded other communities in the Orlando market. And perhaps most challenging to measure, but incredibly valuable, Downtown Celebration generated a significant amount of free publicity and earned media. Newspapers and magazines around the world who published articles on Celebration always featured Downtown Celebration in copy and images.
So, if you had to do again, would you do it again? While the answer to this question is a definite “Yes”, there are a few things that could have improved the retail experience in Celebration.
Increase the size of the office component of Downtown Celebration.
Allowing for an increase in the amount of office space overtime or reallocating some of the office program from Celebration Place, an office park located near Route 192, would have had multiple benefits. The office works would have had needed weekday traffic for the restaurant and shops and would have put office space more accessible by bike and foot for those living and working Celebration.
Create opportunities for retail uses outside of Downtown Celebration.
For the first few phases of Celebration, Downtown Celebration was within a short walk or bike ride from most of the houses. But, as Celebration grew, the distance between many of the houses and Downtown Celebration also grew. Grabbing a coffee, getting a bite to eat at a restaurant or meeting friends for drinks required the use of a car.
In many of the places we studied and used as benchmarks for Celebration, we found within primarily residential areas commercial uses housed within buildings of compatible scale and character to the adjacent residential properties. It would have been prudent to identify a few parcels of land at crossroads or central locations in some of the neighborhoods farther away from Downtown Celebration that could become locations for small commercial hubs containing live/work buildings with a small café, coffee shop, wine bar or co-working spaces. Fostering the organic evolution of commercial uses away from Downtown Celebration could have created additional amenities for the residents, encouraged entrepreneurial opportunities, increased the distinctive character to the neighborhoods and put more places to work, shop and dine within walking distance for the residents.
If you are interested in learning more about Downtown Celebration, retail as a community amenity or best practices in urban retail, I recommend you attend Urban Retail: Essential Planning, Design, and Management Practices at Harvard this Summer. This 3-day program lead by Robert Gibbs and Terry Shook examines the planning approaches, retail design and merchandising principles necessary for the creation of place-based commerce. I was honored to be asked to be a guest speaker at this event and will be talking about retail as a community amenity.
 Michael Graves Architects designed the post office, Venturi Scott Brown designed the bank, Moore-Anderson Architects designed the sales center, Philip Johnson design the town hall, Graham Gund Architects design the hotel, Cesar Pelli Architects designed the movie theatre. Robert A M Stern Architects and Cooper Robertson Partners designed the master plan for Downtown Celebration and the “background buildings” including the mixed-use apartments and office buildings.