Beds of native grasses and pea gravel soften the concrete walkways and asphalt, while Z-shaped steel benches add grace notes of visual interest. “I know the design has worked,” he says, “because of the outdoor space. We designed an outdoor space, then someone [Subway] came along and said they wanted it.”
Brown also devised an alternative to the typical strip-mall store sign, stuck onto the façade like an oversized fridge magnet. He created gaps in the copper plating so that some signs, like the martini bar's, could be inset to lie flush with the copper. Why not a projecting steel frame to hold simple polycarbonate signs, like the one he used on the Blondo project? “We learned that tenants really want to have these canned letters,” Brown explains. “They fought us night and day on [Blondo]. So it's one of the things we have to concede.”
Randy Brown Architects and Quantum have collaborated on three further strip-mall projects: Monarch Place, in the Omaha suburb of Papillion (where “we could only get $10 to $12 a square foot, so [construction] had to be cheaper”); Village Pointe South, currently under construction; and Monarch Place II, across the street from Monarch Place, which will begin construction this month. Brown declines to reveal Quantum's gross annual profits from the malls but offers Village Pointe East as a telling example: In 2007, the partners together pocketed $100,000 after their expenditures (which included what they paid themselves in management fees).
However, Brown says, the real test will come when many tenants' five-year leases are up for renewal over the next couple of years. “We haven't lost one tenant yet, and [the malls] are 100 percent full. The challenge will be when we start having turnover.” Quantum has kept its current tenants in place as long as it has, says Brown, partly by being selective: “We didn't rent to people we thought might be gone in six months.” And as Quantum's reputation has grown, attracting tenants has become a little easier. “People know the name, so real estate agents who might be repping a Kinko's are thinking they want to bring clients to our centers.”
For Brown the architect, strip malls represent an opportunity to revise and improve an inescapable feature of the suburban landscape. “Utopian architects would say that you shouldn't design strip malls,” he says. “But [they're] a reality of who we are today and how we live. So how do we do the best ones we can possibly do?” Apart from this challenge, the strip malls also bring revenue that can be applied to other, riskier projects. Brown's firm and Quantum recently completed Hidden Creek, a small development of modern “eco-homes” backing onto a nature reserve on the western fringes of Omaha. “Another developer would never take a chance on a project like that,” says Brown. What's more, Hidden Creek has opened up a previously untapped market for Brown's architectural practice: custom homes. “By being a developer and doing some [residential] stuff on our own, other people have seen it, and they want to hire us. It's worked really well from that standpoint.”
But Brown is adamant that he will never give up outside clients—in fact, after a couple of years devoted mainly to Quantum-financed projects, he expects to do two or three times as much client work as Quantum work in 2008.
“We're limited with what we can do as developers,” he explains. “We're never going to do a museum as a developer. We're never going to do a big cultural project. If you want to do that, you have to also work for third-party clients. That's why I'm trying to find a balance.”
What you can learn from Randy Brown:
- Capital isn't that hard to come by. “You just borrow money—you use other people's money. That's the big secret, how little money you have to put in.”
- Local roots count. Brown worked in Los Angeles after completing his M.Arch. at the University of California, Los Angeles, but decided to move back to Omaha, his hometown. “Living in L.A., I was one of a thousand hungry young architects. I didn't think I was ever going to get anywhere.” In Omaha, he makes the most of family connections.
- Get better as you go. Brown says he's become a better general contractor and property manager—better at negotiating leases and at refining, for instance, store door systems—with each project.
- Become a developer to open up new practice areas. Once Brown's firm, with Quantum, had built a small housing development, clients began to approach him with residential work.