Driving west on Dodge Street from downtown Omaha, Neb., skyscrapers give way to the rolling green turf of Memorial Park and a neighborhood of genteel but slightly worn early 20th century houses (any local will point out the one where Warren Buffett lives). Around the intersection with 70th Street, still inside the city limits, the sprawl starts in earnest, with rank upon rank of strip malls. You keep driving, then hang a right on 120th Street. And then, at Blondo Street, you do a double take.
Because what is that? A metal trapezoid, its base hovering several feet above the ground, juts up two stories—a compelling sight in the low-rise land of American retail. The floating form slices into a brown-gray stuccoed box. Down at ground level, a regular line of recessed doorways, each one crowned by a backlit, white polycarbonate sign with understated lettering, unlocks the mystery: This is a strip mall, too—a strip mall designed by Randy Brown.
When Brown, 41, completed the first phase of this office-retail strip back in 1998, “I didn't anticipate it having such shock value. It was on the radio,” he remembers. (The Omaha World-Herald ran the headline, “Architect Plays the Angles in ‘Weird' Office Building.”) He built the initial phase to house his father's law firm, Brown & Wolff (his own architectural practice, Randy Brown Architects, subsequently moved in, along with other tenants). The project's second phase, the retail component, opened in 2003. Omaha has warmed to the “weird” structure, apparently: 120 Blondo is fully leased by tenants including a coffee shop, a carry-out, and a salon.
Credit: Randy Brown Architects
The winner of seven national AIA Honor Awards-including those for a meat-packing plant and Omaha's Better Business Bureau-Randy Brown has set his sights on the retail strip as an architectural, and financial, opportunity. Backed by his own development company, Quantum Quality Real Estate, Brown has completed three strip malls, with another under construction and a fifth on the boards. "Strip malls are not going to go away," he says. "So how do we make [them] a better experience?"
120 Blondo is listed in The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, a first for Brown and for the state of Nebraska. But the retail phase was another kind of watershed for the architect: It was the first undertaking of his real estate development and management company, Quantum Quality Real Estate.
Quantum was formed in 2001 by Brown; his father, lawyer Paul Brown; brother Scott Brown, also a lawyer; and brother-in-law Rob Luellen, a real estate broker. “I was frustrated with the current developers I was trying to market,” the architect Brown says. “And what the developers were doing, I didn't think was very good. My brother's a lawyer, my father's a lawyer, my brother-in-law's a real estate agent. We got together and said, ‘Let's pool our resources.'”
Although the partners come from different professional backgrounds, what all their professions share, Brown points out, is a dependence on clients and client-driven work, which can be precarious in bad times. “But developers who own buildings are getting rent every month,” he says. “The common denominator was that we thought owning property as an investment made long-term business sense.”
Backed by the combined expertise and capital of Quantum, Brown has pushed his vision of high-design strip shopping into more locations around Omaha, continually refining it with an eye on tenants' needs and on Quantum's bottom line. The nuances of this balancing act are in evidence at his second strip-mall project, Village Pointe East, which opened in 2005.
The L-shaped mall, built into a slope, takes advantage of the terrain to maximize square footage—and Quantum's rental income—with a lower-level “walk-out basement” used by a daycare center. Among the other tenants are a doctor's office, a salon, a Subway, a Hertz, and, directly above the daycare center, a martini bar. “Day care with a bar above—that is what I call mixed use!” jokes Brown. But the arrangement “worked out well, because there are totally different times that [the businesses] operate,” he adds.
How important is the architecture? “To tenants, it's all about location, signage visibility, and rental rates,” says Brown. “The architecture, it's good if [tenants] like it or [think] it will help appeal to their clientele.” Village Pointe East is in a high-traffic, visible location, directly across from a new “lifestyle center” (or Main Street–style mall) in an upscale part of Omaha, and the rental rates, at $18 per square foot, are competitive, Brown says.
Still, he had fun with the $2 million project, on which Randy Brown Architects served as general contractor (as on 120 Blondo and Monarch Place, finished in 2006). A ribbon of copper panels winds from the trash pen at the bottom of the hill (a Randy Brown signature is the care he takes to tidy away dumpsters), up a beacon that announces the center to passing cars on Dodge Street, and around the front of the building, which is also composed of sandy brick and aluminum storefront doors and windows. “We used the same materials [as other buildings in the area], but we just did it in a way that is more logical, more clean and modern, and not at all fussy,” says Brown.