I met real estate developer Joey Miller on a sunny winter day amid the din of his newest construction zone. We were in the core of Culver City, a once-industrial enclave of Los Angeles now transforming into a luxury condo and tech-headquarter breeding ground. Miller, 33, was impeccably groomed and styled, and he spoke fast and with an equally quick wit. “Real estate’s Ari Gold” seems like a lazy description, but it’s too accurate to pass up. He is short in stature, but held an undeniably puffed-up presence as we traipsed through his five-acre shopping development called Platform, which is set to open in March. “We’re doing stuff here that no one in our business has ever done,” Miller said flatly. “The experience we offer is for a different generation, a different type of customer.”
In the 1950s, baby boomers were served up shopping that fit their postwar tastes — gargantuan indoor malls with sprawling parking lots and utilitarian anchor stores like Sears and JC Penney. “The air-conditioned, sanitized, standardized shopping malls have become the new Main Streets of America,” Consumer Reports wrote in 1986 while citing the mall as one of the top 50 wonders of the consumer world. Now, 20 years later, they all seem to be dying.
Over the next decade, an estimated 15 percent of US shopping malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space, according to real estate analytics firm Green Street Advisors. In 2014, when food court mainstay Sbarro filed for bankruptcy, they cited an “unprecedented decline in mall traffic” in their bankruptcy court filings. “These staples of American retail life for the past 50 years are over for me and my generation,” Miller told me. “No one will ever buy diapers in the store again.” Good point. We have Amazon. So why then did he and his partner David Fishbein purchase a few coveted city blocks of L.A. to build retail space? “Retail is changing, but what is not is people’s desire to go hang out somewhere,” he said.
“These staples of American retail life for the past 50 years are over for me and my generation,” Miller told me. “No one will ever buy diapers in the store again.”
If suburban malls were the solution for parents who fled the cities, Platform is the response to the gentrifying set that is coming back. The space offers yuppie-greatest-hits like Soulcycle, Sweetgreen, Blue Bottle and Aesop, but Miller demanded that each brand have a twist exclusive to Platform. Soulcycle and Sweetgreen are putting down roots with corporate HQs, Blue Bottle is planning a unique cafe concept, and Aesop is carving out a one-of-a-kind spa area. Fashion is a major focus too, with leather goods purveyor Parabellum and high-end activewear brand Kilter both setting up shop, among others. Platform’s biggest space, awash in light and boasting 24-foot-high ceilings, will house a stylish, modern take on clothing and home goods from local wunderkind Nevena Borissova and British designer Tom Dixon. In terms of food, New York-based butcher shop and restaurant Cannibal will get its first location on the Left Coast and Baja-inspired taco joint Loqui, currently operating only as a pop-up in San Francisco, will make its brick-and-mortar debut.
This eclectic mix of stores arises from Miller’s “obsession” with the idea of Platform as a lifestyle location, rather than just a place to buy. “Platform is this place to hang out from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., not just a place where you can just go acquire more things,” Miller said. “People aren’t going out to shop because they have to go to that big store; they can do that online. They are going to shop for the experience.” Platform’s location is well thought out too, with L.A.’s newly expanding light rail zooming overhead and corporate offices from Beats by Dre, Nike, Maker Studios and a bevy of startups nearby (not to mention the on-site offices for Soulcycle, Sweetgreen, film company Technicolor and e-commerce marketer Criteo). The development should weave itself into the daily routines of the young, local workforce and it’s easy to see it as the cherry-on-top of Culver City’s recent urban planning renaissance. With Platform, one could theoretically, and seamlessly, commute to work by Metro rail, grab a cup of Blue Bottle on the way, enjoy a Soulcycle class after, and cap it all with dinner at Cannibal. This conglomeration of zoning might seem standard to New Yorkers or other urbanites, but it’s a revelation to Angelenos.
Also, while mall giants like Simon and Westfield typically ask stores to commit 10 to 15 years at a time, Platform will be able to change their mix much more often. Most plots have small footprints and many leases are short-term. Platform’s goal is to stay relevant. “This could be a guide for the future of what could be successful in retail,” Miller said. Another part of Platform’s vision includes mixing established, well-known brands with fresh-faced ones, so they charge rent on a tenant-by-tenant basis. “We look at each individual business and understand their P&L and understand what they can pay,” Miller said. “I just don’t see anyone else out there doing it, which is actually why we think we might have a good business. Simon and Westfield are reaching, but I just think the scale of their operation makes it hard for them to innovate.”
Miller is running Platform more like a startup than a classic mega-development. When talking about the project, he often invokes Steve Jobs.
According to Miller, there hasn’t been a large-scale, heavily curated retail development like this in recent memory. There has, though, been some precedent. Limiting it to Southern California, there’s been The Lab in Orange County — a similar curation of shops gathered to appeal to younger generations. But The Lab differs from Platform in that it’s marketed at “urban youth,” rather than Millennial young adults. It’s a small, but important shift of demographic (and The Labs’ “anti-mall” motto attempts to foster a more counter-cultural approach than Platform). There’s also Rick Caruso’s The Grove, a European-inspired, outdoor spin on the American mall, developed in Los Angeles in 2002. But despite Caruso’s attempts to give shopping a fresh take, and the development’s resounding success, The Grove has stores that seem out of touch to, once again, the Millennial generation (See’s Candies, Barnes & Noble, and Cheesecake Factory are all tenants).
Platform, on the other hand, is run more like a startup and it appeals to the startup types. And Miller is the quintessential startup-mall CEO. When talking about the project, he often invokes Steve Jobs, offers no shortage of grandiose vision, and is prone to extended metaphor (“We’re in the second inning. The game is just starting.”). Still, it’s no small task to reverse the declining brick-and-mortar shopping habits of the American public. And will a SoulCycle stick around as long as Sears? “There is risk, but if you think the way people did stuff in the past isn’t great, you should change it,” Miller said. “It’s a lofty goal, but you have to try.”