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Transparent motives

Greater storefront visibility helps to draw customers

April 01, 2001 |

Retailers are increasingly likely to give shoppers a preview of what is inside their store before they enter it, according to designers who work extensively on retail projects. Merchants are making their storefronts more transparent not only to better display their wares, but also with the hope that the ability to see activity inside will help entice shoppers.

A quick review of renovation and new construction projects illustrates this trend. Two recent projects that involve new construction each underwent a substantial change in program as they evolved.

The new, highly transparent storefront for Macy's 236,000-sq.ft. department store in downtown San Francisco actually evolved from a seismic upgrade study for an entire block, explains Tom Harry, senior designer with San Francisco-based Patri Merker Architects. Macy's occupied more than half of the street frontage, and its space included two unreinforced masonry buildings. It would have been more expensive to seismically upgrade these structures than to remove them, says Harry. Accordingly, they were razed and a new 155-ft.- wide storefront was constructed.

Federated Department Stores, Macy's parent firm, purchased the adjoining I. Magnin Building, a concrete-framed structure with punched window openings. Because the designers didn't want to duplicate the appearance of this building, a seismic-resistant frame was placed 4 feet behind the new glazed storefront, which subtly curves toward the store entrance. The space between the shear wall and the storefront is used for merchandise displays.

Harmony and depth

In order to give the façade a depth that would harmonize with the articulated features of neighboring older buildings, different mullion widths and custom glazing caps were used. The result, says Harry, is "not an off-the-shelf appearance," but a solution achieved with "off-the-shelf parts."

Nabih Youssef & Associates of Los Angeles was the project's structural engineer and San Francisco-based Swinerton Inc. was the general contractor.

Federated has been a client of Atlanta-based architect Cooper Carry Inc. for a decade. During this time, Gar Muse, the Cooper Carry principal who heads the firm's retail group, has seen Federated's design philosophy evolve to a more open appearance. Its current approach is exemplified by the three-story-high, 90-ft.-wide glazed storefront that is a feature of the recently completed renovation of its Rich's Department Store at Atlanta's Lenox Square Mall.

Muse recalls an earlier project at another Atlanta-area Rich's where the retailer decided against either display windows or views into the store-in part because of the additional maintenance such features would require.

"Federated certainly has bought into the idea of connecting the shopper with the outside," Muse says, also mentioning its San Francisco Macy's property. "It's pretty exciting, because it activates the building exterior. Department stores typically have not done much with glass. Architecturally, this adds depth-you can see beyond the exterior skin," he notes.

Retail presence increased

L.L. Bean, the catalog retailer known for its outdoor-related merchandise, used transparency in a big way in its first major retail venture outside of Maine. It opened a 75,000-sq.-ft. store, designed by Seattle-based architect Callison Architecture, last year at Tyson's Corner Center in McLean, Va. The store's 30-ft.-high, 50-ft.-wide storefront is glazed with clear glass that has a low-emissivity coating. "L.L. Bean wants customers to feel as if they're still outdoors," says Callison project manager David Heinen.

L.L. Bean's space was originally occupied by seven individual tenants. Its solid wall was replaced with glass, and a new glulam-framed roof was raised 10 feet in order to permit clerestory glazing on all elevations. At night, interior lighting turns the L.L. Bean store into an icon that stands out from its neighboring stores, which have few windows.

Regulations promote glass use

In Portland, Ore., the retail element of the 27-story Fox Tower was originally to have two stories. When multi-screen Regal Cinemas became a tenant, Portland-based architect Thompson Vaivoda & Associates added a third level. The retail element's glassy storefront accommodates the theaters and Banana Republic, which occupies a substantial portion of the first two floors. The insulated glass units are filled with argon gas to increase R-value.

The extensive use of glass was driven in part by a city requirement that mandates a certain percentage of glazed wall area for street-level spaces in the downtown. In order to meet this requirement, in fact, it was necessary to incorporate windows into garage doors, according to Thompson Vaivoda project manager Eric Li.

As was the case with Fox Tower, the concept for Lenox MarketPlace, a 450,000-sq.-ft. "power center" located in Atlanta's Buckhead district, experienced a significant change in concept as it evolved. The center is located at a curve on heavily traveled Peachtree Road that places it in the line of sight of approaching motorists. Atlanta-based architect Ozell Stankus Associates responded with a plan that placed a partly enclosed rotunda at this corner.

The project was initially envisioned as an entertainment-themed center that could attract ESPN Zone as a tenant. When ESPN did not materialize and the center became predominantly retail in character, the rotunda was more fully enclosed, with full-height glazing interspersed with four brick piers that extend upward-and outward-to a height of 50 feet.

"We threw a lot of design at that corner," says Ozell Stankus Vice President Roman Stankus. "You have to create a place to throw your chips, and we decided that corner was a key place to do that."

Typical "power center" stores have limited glass areas, and generally consider exterior glazing a loss of merchandising space, Stankus says. "We pushed hard to provide a lot of glazed openings, even on the second floor," he recalls.

A greater diversity of retail designs

Callison principal Martin Anderson sees a trend toward the use of more expressive storefront materials, including wood and stone, and a more adventurous use of concrete finishes-both departures from a typical aluminum storefront appearance.

Patri Merker's Harry has observed a move toward improved storefront design, as illustrated by some retail chains' customization of standard designs to be more compatible with their surroundings. He attributes this to a greater effort "to meet peoples' desire for authenticity."

Summarizing a number of ongoing developments, Stankus comments: "Retail is diversifying, and is becoming less formulaic. Because of that, there are more opportunities for unique projects and unique expressions."

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