Adrift in the overwhelming first few days of their first large-scale mall project, the Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) team designing the new Natick Collection in Natick, Mass., decided to focus on the details, or one in particular: the meaning of the town's name. In the language of the Native Americans who christened the area, Natick means the “place of the rolling hills.” With that simple inspiration, the design for a massive 1.7-million-square-foot renovation and expansion began to take shape, transforming an average suburban strip mall into a center for high fashion.
The Natick Collection is situated near several major thoroughfares: Route 9, Route 30, Interstate 95, and the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) that siphons traffic into nearby Boston. The site has been a midlevel shopping center since 1966, known until last year as the Natick Mall, with anchor stores such as Sears and Filene's Basement.
“When we got to it, the building was kind of postmodern,” says Stanley Wong, an associate partner at BBB and the lead design architect. A modified dumbbell shape, the structure had undergone at least two separate renovations, the most recent in 1994. The client, General Growth Properties, realized the site's potential as a high-grossing, high-end retail site—it sits by wealthy suburbs like Wellesley, is accessible from Boston, and boasts an average yearly household income of $118,000 for the surrounding area. The time was ripe for raising the mall's profile.
Enter BBB. The firm was charged with gut renovating the existing mall (referred to by the project team as Natick I) and creating a new structure to more than double the retail capacity. Armed with its new high-end name—“The Natick Collection” evokes the experience of museum-going as readily as that of shopping—the design team created a space that would lure well-heeled tenants and shoppers alike.
Rather then expand up, the developers bought an adjacent plot of land to the north, which housed an old Wonder Bread factory. Existing wetlands on this new site informed the curved T shape of the new wing, which was part of a master plan by Richard Blinder.
The team's rolling-hills idea took shape as an undulating roof plane in the new wing with clerestory windows above the roofline, which added to the abundant daylight in the space. “The rolling hills also allowed us to create moments of contrast,” Wong says. “[Elements like] the elevator towers are very hard edged.” The new wing is connected to the old one by the Teardrop Court, which eases the transition between the two wings, making them feel like one fluid space.
The gut renovation of Natick I and the selection of a warm materials palette for Natick II went a long way toward upgrading the space. “In the end,” Wong notes, “the only things you can really design in a mall interior are the ceilings, the fascia, and the floor. When you reduce it to that, it seems pretty helpless, but we really pushed it.”
When BBB came onto the project, the original mall “looked like a very typical mall space with ceramic tile and a fancy ceiling,” says associate and lead interior architect Stefanie Ashton. “We wanted to warm up the materials and make it more high-end.” The renovation saw the addition of large-scale, stonelike porcelain tile floors on the first floor and Gammapar impregnated engineered wood floors on the upper level. Glass handrails increase transparency in the space.
The new wing took the idea of warm materials to a new level, using honed limestone and Jerusalem stone flooring, Venetian plaster on the exterior of the elevator shafts, and cherry wood ribs to line the light wells between the first and second levels. The flooring on the second level is modular carpet tile, a switch from the original intention to include the same style of hardwood flooring as in the old space. “The wood floor had a big learning curve in regards to maintenance,” says Ashton. “There is so much foot traffic, and it took a lot to get them up to speed on maintaining it.”
The curvy footprint and ceiling of the arcade almost wrecked the plans for the carpet tile, however. Because the pattern has a lot of direction, there was initial concern that it would fight visually with its shapely surroundings. Instead, the pattern ended up providing a welcome linear contrast. As tiles wear out, the maintenance staff can replace them individually, which was also a benefit in the high-traffic space.
Of course, by definition, a mall is a collection of retail tenants. Each has its own branded identity, over which the architects of the larger space have no control. But Wong and Ashton did what they could to make sure the high level of design was upheld.
“We created a new tenant criteria manual,” Ashton explains. “In certain cases, the manual worked, but what we realized is that when there are nationwide tenants, that can put a lot of pressure on the developers to do what they want.” Most tenants complied, because they recognized the benefits of being in a newly enhanced space, be it the old building or the new.
Part of the BBB team's scope of work was to oversee the tenants' designs. “Every time the drawings came in, we would look them over and tell them, ‘This is great, but could you push this section a bit more?' ” Ashton remembers. “You have to give credit especially to the small businesses who really bought into it and pushed the envelope,” Ashton says. “It was great.”
“In some ways, it was good that we hadn't designed a mall before,” says Wong. “We were thrown into the deep end of the pool.” The firm's strong design direction ultimately attracted 100 more high-end clients, including Neiman Marcus.
Shoppers are following. In retail, increased foot traffic is the truest sign of success, especially if the feet bring their credit cards.