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Mixed-use projects gaining ground

While mixed-use developments are nothing new in the U.S., they are really starting to gain a foothold in Mississippi. From North Mississippi to the Gulf Coast, mixed-use development of all sizes are springing up all over the Magnolia State.

The definitions for mixed-use developments are varied, running the gamut from combining several uses (retail, entertainment, office, residential, etc.) in one complex to a broader concept of combining several different land uses within the same area. The New Jersey Department of Transportation defines these projects as “characterized by more than one use in a single building, a single development or neighborhood. An example is a five-story building with shops and stores on the first floor, offices on the second floor and apartments on the fourth and fifth floor. Another example is a residential block with a deli on one corner and a doctor’s office on the other corner.”

The projects in Mississippi reflect these broad definitions, from the $1.5-million Tombigbee Lofts in Jackson, comprised of 30,000 square feet of residential and office space, to the Town of Lost Rabbit in Madison County, which will provide everything mixed-use developments offer situated on a sprawling 260-acre site on the Ross Barnett Reservoir. So, what’s the appeal? For customers (residents and businesses), the attractiveness is in both form and function, while developers have found a way to make money with such projects.

Sense of place

The arrival of the automobile in the early 20th century changed the landscape of the land and the dynamics of communities. The added mobility meant “neighbors” moved farther and farther apart. Whereas Americans once walked to work or the store, stopping to chat with neighbors on front porches along the way, the car reduced neighborly interaction to a wave at a passing motorist, and many of those businesses that once enjoyed real “walk-ins” relocated out on the highways and byways to stay in front of consumers. The sense of place or community was altered, in many cases destroyed.

Thus, one of the appeals of mixed-use developments is convenience. But, the broader appeal is a longing for the day when neighbors knew each other’s name and shopped, worked and played together. That has provided the biggest catalyst for mixed-use developments and the New Urbanism movement as a whole.

“People are tired of their cars,” said Brynn Joachim, vice president of sales and marketing at Tradition Properties Inc. in Biloxi, the developer of the $1.8-billion Tradition master-planned community in Biloxi. Tradition will encompass the Town Center on 628 acres and The Village @ Tradition on 314 acres with approximately 50,000 square feet of retail, office and commercial amenities. Joachim added,

“Mixed-use developments reach back to a simpler time when neighbors connected. It is more than just convenience. It’s about simplicity and connection.”

“It’s definitely sense of community and ambiance,” said Clay Short, vice president of commercial leasing and sales at TRI Inc., which is developing The Oxford Commons, a 580-acre project in Lee County.

“There is a double appeal,” said Tanya Scott-Graves, president and CEO of Ceva Green Development, LLC, which is gearing up for its July 2007 start to Ceva Green, a mixed-use development encompassing 55 condos and other non-residential amenities on South State Street in the heart of downtown Jackson. “These developments create a world of their own, their own flavor, their own culture,” she said.

Making it work

Obviously, getting these often massive projects, composed of such disparate components, out of the ground is a monumental undertaking. The pre-construction efforts are wide-ranging and time-consuming, and are easily the toughest part of the equation.

For example, Tradition has a targeted completion date of 2020. But development planning started back in 1990s. When infrastructure work began in June 2006, Tradition had already been on the planning table for nearly seven years.

“The Corps of Engineers process alone took three years,” Joachim said. “At the time, Tradition was the largest mixed-use project the Corps had ever seen. Gaining all the permits and approvals takes months if not years.”

All this behind-the-scenes work also creates another kind of challenge, according to Short. “If you are not out there moving dirt, people think your project is dead,” he said.
Yet another hurdle for developers is, ironically, the lack of cars. A majority of the mixed-use developments in the state are incorporating a relatively large amount of green space. Ceva Green did not just stick “green” in its title — it is utilizing Energy Star-certified and other environmentally-friendly components, even down to the furniture, and though it predates the nearby Old Capital Green project, another mixed-use development encompassing 16 blocks of downtown Jackson, Ceva Green is coordinating its efforts with that project and focusing even more on green space.

So, who would have a problem with all the trees and grass? Well, one group that has its reservations is retailers, who like parking lots and cars.

“The last thing you want is a sea of asphalt,” Short said, “but retailers love asphalt.”
To overcome this, Scott-Graves sells prospective tenants on a larger ideal, that mixed-use projects such as Ceva Green serve as an economic development generator and tourism pull.

Joachim said the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.

“I think the rise in popularity of mixed-use developments is that people want to get out of their cars, and, just as importantly, developers have found a profitable economic model for these developments. They have found a way to make money at it.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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