Perspectives

How A Suburban Seattle Strip Mall Is Being Transformed Into A Healthy Community

March 2022 / By Ben Gist

This article was produced for and originally published by Bisnow.

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There’s a growing movement to change the way American communities are designed that places a greater focus on the well-being of residents. At the heart of these new communities is one thing: accessibility. 

Sometimes called the 15-minute city, the design goal for these neighborhoods is to have all the necessities a person could need — from groceries to medical attention — within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their home. According to a 2019 report titled Foot Traffic Ahead from Smart Growth America, these types of walkable developments lead to improved social mobility, economic growth, and several other factors in residents’ lives. 

The team at Seattle-based architecture, design, strategy, and branding firm MG2 believes strongly in the potential of walkable developments, which is why they are focused on designing what they call healthy communities

“Our focus goes beyond the traditional ‘live-work-play’ tenets of mixed-use developments,” MG2 principal Ben Gist said. “We also take into account what we feel are the vital principles of ‘nourish, move and learn.’ We’re combining all of our expertise in designing everything from grocery stores to healthcare clinics to create one cohesive, walkable, healthy community.”

Gist said that for MG2, some of the key components of a healthy community include easy access to grocery stores, daycare centers, office space, healthcare facilities, parks, and mixed-income housing. The firm has spent the last few years focusing on how to take its architects’ varied experience in designing a variety of retail spaces and pivoting that toward transforming underused retail sites — like malls — into dynamic neighborhoods. 

One of its most recent projects is located in Kirkland, Washington, a suburb east of Seattle. Here, MG2 and its partner Madison Development Group have taken the site of a former strip mall and are redesigning it into a 1.35M SF development called Rose Hill. This new community, located right off the 405, will feature four mixed-use apartment/retail buildings. Each is designed with a different demographic in mind, radiating its own personality inside and out while still speaking the same design language. 

Along with just over 800 apartment units, these buildings will feature retail components including a healthcare facility and a daycare center. There will also be workspaces, an outdoor party deck, and several other amenities open to all residents. 

“We’ve distributed the amenities throughout the project, enticing residents to explore and get to know buildings beyond their own,” Gist said. “We’re trying to encourage a sense of community, curiosity, and movement throughout the site.”

On-premise, residents will find a 40K SF full-service grocery store, as well as a Costco just across from the site. This is especially appropriate since MG2 has designed hundreds of Costcos across the globe. Further setting the stage for the walkable community, Google finalized a purchase agreement for the nearby Lee Johnson car dealership in November, with plans to use the site to expand its Seattle footprint with new physical offices.

Gist said that up until this point, most American communities were designed with vehicles in mind. In contrast, Rose Hill is focused on creating accessible, well-lit, and artfully landscaped pedestrian walkways that make it easy for residents to walk to any building in the development. Even the main parking garage features plants and natural lighting through skylight-esque openings as it leads residents and visitors directly into the grocery store entrance.

Construction on the development is expected to begin this spring. 

Rose Hill isn’t just for the people who will live within a 15-minute walk from its buildings,” Gist said. MG2 envisions that it will be a hub for the entire Kirkland community, which at this time mostly comprises strip malls, parking lots, low-rise buildings, and single-family neighborhoods. 

He added that the nature of retail is changing, shifting the formula for malls across America. Traditional anchors with smaller shops in between no longer address consumers’ current needs, and have accelerated mall closures across the country. 

“This is why we’re taking a new approach to retail development, starting with asking the question ‘How can retail encompass a community, not just retail opportunities?’” he said. “This effectively shifts us from developing ‘places to shop’ to designing sought-after destinations that feel like home.”

Reach out to Ben Gist to learn more about Rose Hill & the team behind the healthy community design.