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Baltimore firm to design China's biggest mall
Published on: 2011-01-04
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A Baltimore-based architecture and planning firm announced Monday that it has been selected to design China's largest shopping center.

Design Development Group Inc. said it won a contract to design the retail component of a mixed-used project called the Tianjin City Culture Center Development, planned for a site less than 50 miles outside Beijing's central business district. It didn't disclose financial terms of the contract.

Design Development Group, or DDG, is responsible for designing a seven-story, 4 million-square-foot retail and entertainment center that will be the centerpiece of a 9 million-square-foot commercial and cultural district in Tianjin City, which has a population of 22 million.

The retail project is several times larger than the average regional shopping mall in the United States, which contains about 1 million square feet of space. Other elements of the Tianjin City project, to be designed by other architects, include a theater and opera house, a library and three museums.

Roy Higgs, CEO of DDG, said that the firm has been working in China for the past decade, primarily on residential projects, and that the Tianjin City project is its largest retail commission there to date.

Higgs said DDG landed the commission after it was approached by the Chinese developer, who was familiar with the firm's reputation and its previous work in China and elsewhere around the world. He said he believes the project will lead to even more work in China.

"This is a huge coup," Higgs said, adding that the firm had not landed the "retail entree" in China that it has in other countries. "This is our first breakthrough in retail in China."

These days, close to 90 percent of DDG's work is on sites outside the United States, in South Africa, Turkey, Vietnam, China, India, Mexico and Canada, Higgs said. In previous years, he said, only 30 percent to 40 percent of the firm's work has been offshore. The firm's local projects include Belvedere Square in North Baltimore and portions of Harbor East, as well as National Harbor in Prince George's County.

Higgs said the company learned just before New Year's that it had been hired for the Tianjin City project, beating several other U.S. firms

The project is part of a burgeoning trend. Chinese developers are building more retail centers as Chinese shoppers, who have more disposable income, clamor for goods from America and Europe, including clothing from retailers such as The Gap, said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade organization for the shopping center industry.

With 4 million square feet of space, Kavanagh said, the Tianjin City retail center will be about the same size as The Mall of America, the largest shopping center in the United States.

Kavanagh said it makes sense for Chinese developers to hire American architects who have extensive experience with retail design and know how to create buildings that are aesthetically pleasing and work well for shoppers and merchants.

"By hiring a firm such as DDG, you get a firm that knows how to balance the functionality of a shopping center — how customers shop, how stores function as a group — with a very pleasing architectural solution," he said.

"They have a good reputation," Kavanagh said of DDG. "If you are going to build something of this size and magnitude, you need to have somebody who knows what they are doing."

Brian Darmody, associate vice president for research and economic development at the University of Maryland, College Park, said DDG's China project is a good way to keep Marylanders employed at a time when developers aren't building many retail centers in America because of the economic slump.

"A lot of people think the U.S. is over-retailed, but China is not," Darmody said. As the Chinese people gain more purchasing power, he said, "you are going to see more retail, and somebody has to design it."

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