Village People

From retail revitalization to neighborhood nurturing and all the planning in between, VHB’s Jim Hall and Joe Kolb are thought leaders in “place making.”


Jim Hall, director of planning and urban design for VHB, has more than 30 years of professional experience. Nearly the same goes for Joe Kolb, VHB’s director of land development. Each plays a significant role in the firm’s core areas of improving mobility, enhancing communities, and balancing development and infrastructure needs with environmental stewardship. As such, both help to shape the look and feel of a region that is enjoying resurgent growth on numerous fronts.



FORWARD FLORIDA: Given all the news of retail development and redevelopment across the region, what do you see?

Joe Kolb: Most of the opportunities our clients are seeing are on the redevelopment side, usually retail centers that are already well performing. We are helping them to add square footage or enhance them in other ways to improve revenue streams. These are lower-risk opportunities because they’re stable assets that are just tweaked to add a more ROI.

A good example is Crossroads shopping center at Lake Buena Vista.  The restaurants and shops there do phenomenal business because of their location right at a major Disney gateway.

We worked with the owner to increase GLA [Gross Leasable Area] to their center. This not only improved guest access but also created space for additional restaurants.  That’s the kind of development opportunity we’re seeing.

FF: Any other retail trends?

JK: Another interesting trend is how owners are reinventing their centers to respond to changing demographics. Take Central Florida’s largest mall, the Florida Mall. Opened in 1986, its customer was the luxury shopper, with Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor as the primary draw.

But, as the location evolved into a tourist destination, Florida Mall redeveloped by re-tenanting anchor space with trendy brands like Zara and American Girl. The Saks box is now a 105,000-square-foot restaurant district. When Nordstrom’s moved out, they quickly filled the anchor space with Crayola Creation, a unique entertainment destination.

All of these changes add appeal to their target demographic. This redevelopment is all about transforming a location to better relate to the needs of the customers, thereupon increasing revenue. From a design and approval perspective, it has been important to plan for incremental changes that enhance the overall experience while minimizing the disruption of service.


FF: Creating places, or place making, where pedestrian traffic is prominent in design, also appears to have become popular in land development. What are the dynamics there?

Jim Hall: We’ve seen a strong trend toward improving pedestrian traffic and providing more transit options in many of our redevelopment projects. We add these elements by introducing the “complete streets” policy, which includes pedestrian and/or bike facilities in tandem with vehicle lanes.

If you just change the street, it doesn’t necessarily change the habit. You have to change the land use. You have to change the building form. You have to do it all.

For example, if you made State Road 50 [a major thoroughfare in Orlando] narrower, but the city didn’t require pedestrian-oriented, complete-street redevelopment, that narrowing still wouldn’t work to create pedestrian traffic.

The Florida Mall (14)
Florida Mall is an example of a location transformed into something new that registers even better numbers and better relates to the needs of its customers.

We’ve done research on complete streets and road diets — make the street narrower — the economic return to the businesses can be from 20 percent to well over a 100 percent increase in sales if the street is done right. If you put a trail through a community, the average lot price goes up $3,000 to $7,000 per lot. When you start doing these place-making features, the economic return is significant.

FF: As developers and urban designers change the way they approach projects, how are municipalities reacting?

JH: Municipalities are getting it. Orange County is redeveloping its land development codes. They’re lessening the importance of the actual land use and increasing the importance of the form of development. The actual use that goes into the building isn’t as important if you’ve created the right environment.

Orange County is realizing it’s home to a lot of great urban places; it’s just not a suburban place anymore. This is being done at select locations, and it’s also being done on International Drive to make it more and more urban. (Page 11).

Altamonte Springs is doing the same thing. Officials picked out five spots of the city that are what they call their
“activity centers.” VHB just helped Altamonte Springs rewrite its code for those five areas as a different type of code than the rest of the city. It’s a form of development-type code rather than a land-use-based code.

FF: What are you seeing down the road as far as trends in development?

JH: Location is still paramount along with development form. Properties like the land between the Econlockhatchee River and Chuluota Road in east Orange County that have been left behind for decades are now in the mix to be considered for development.

At Chuluota Road and Colonial, you’ve got 50-foot lots, a Publix, two schools and a McDonald’s. But for three quarters of a mile back west to the Econ, you have cows and one unit per 10 acres. It doesn’t make any sense, but it is a big political fight. If you take the emotion out of it; it makes economic sense to allow the appropriate form of development to occur there.

In west Orange County, Horizon West is doing so well. This 20,000-acre area was all planned at once with development form as the guiding principle. Now the Wellness Way Sector Plan was just transmitted to the state in Lake County. It’s 16,000 acres next to the State Road 429 and the new interchange, Independence Parkway. It is a mix of land uses guided by development form principles keyed to jobs to housing ratios, required pedestrian orientation and a trail network for active recreation.

FF: There has been a lot of talk about “healthy” communities. What is their impact on development?

JH: A strong component of Healthy Community design is the need to have activity available right there in the neighborhood. You also need to have reliable sources, not just fast-food restaurants. There must be access to healthy food readily available to the community. There need to be places for the community to interact socially, so that it starts to feel like a place. It’s not just physical health, it’s spiritual health and mental health as well.

A school is a great gathering place. When you have kids, the school is the magnet where the community gets to know each other and talk, discuss what’s going on in the community. The more you know of what’s going on in the community, the safer the neighborhood. Add in some active recreation, at least walking, and a true neighborhood form starts to come together.

Editor’s note: VHB’s passionate team of engineers, scientists, planners and designers provides consulting services to clients in the transportation, real estate, institutional and energy industries, as well as to federal, state and local governments. Ranked 76th in the nation among top design firms by ENR, VHB partners with clients from 22 offices along the East Coast to improve mobility and enhance communities while balancing development and infrastructure needs with stewardship of our environment. []