Central Social Districts:
Creative Solutions to Complex Problems Facing Real Estate

Currently, just over 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, but that share is growing rapidly. By 2050, the UN estimates that 70% of people on earth will be city dwellers. As architects whose work comprises a wide variety of building types, from large-scale urban developments to single-floor interior renovations, KPF’s designs start around a central question: How do we elevate the basic buildings of the contemporary city?


This story is adapted from a presentation given by Principal Forth Bagley at the 2023 CTBUH Annual Conference in Singapore.

KPF’s projects successfully answer this question through design innovation, attention to finely crafted details, and by responding to neighborhood context. On an urban scale, our precincts blend greenery, support infrastructure improvements and connections, and develop people-focused neighborhoods. These large-scale projects not only prove that greater density can improve quality of life and positively impact the city, but are introducing a new type of neighborhood to the 21st-century city: the Central Social District (CSD).

The Birth of the Central Social District

Successful districts thrive when they are imbued with a diversity of uses. Since the pandemic, single-use business districts around the world, including both center-city downtowns and suburban office parks, have experienced a hallowing out of tenants and activity. But this trend is not universal. Some areas are repopulating faster than others. The uneven recovery has little to do with mandatory office attendance policies or regional politics. Instead, it is the result of a natural eagerness to live and work in places with mixed-use programming and social activity.

The downtown areas that are dense and diverse (places we term Central Social Districts due to their nature as mixed-use hubs for gathering) are returning, but those dedicated to only office space (often known as Central Business Districts, which tend to only serve commercial tenants) are struggling.

This phenomenon is not unique to the United States, and examples of districts around the world, including a selection of KPF projects, offer insight into the makeup of the most successful post-COVID neighborhoods. Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills, London’s Covent Garden, and Hong Kong’s Central have for years demonstrated that well-programmed, mixed-use districts can thrive due to diversity.

The Central Courtyard at Floral Court. Credit: Andrew Montgomery / Petersham Nurseries.
Roppongi Hills (left, credit: Chang Kim), Floral Court at Covent Garden (center, credit: Timothy Soar), and Landmark in Central (right, credit: Grischa Rüschendorf).

Another example is New York’s Hudson Yards. The firm’s involvement in the west-side neighborhood’s development began in the early 2000s and progressed through events including the 2008 financial crisis. The first sketches of the plan took place before the iPhone existed and ahead of an unprecedented technological revolution that saw the advent of ride-share and social media. Designed as an alternate CBD to Midtown and Lower Manhattan, Hudson Yards, and the area around it, has transformed into a mixed-use CSD that is evolving to meet the needs of its city.

Public outdoor space at Hudson Yards (left) and the Mercado Little Spain food hall. Credit: Connie Zhou.

Today, in Vancouver, KPF is involved in the repositioning of Bentall Centre, a 1.5 million-square-foot precinct that features reactivated public spaces, the addition of arts and cultural offerings and the rejuvenation and expansion of the existing retail and office stock. The project introduces Burrard Exchange, a mass timber building and at-grade restaurant pavilion that complements office space with retail and tenant amenities. Burrard Exchange exemplifies the evolution of the tenant lobby from a sleek but sterile entry point into a social center that engages its users by fostering community and embedding a diversity of retail and hospitality uses.

Confidential hospitality-inspired lobby. Credit: Plomp.

Putting a Value on Quality of Life

One result of shifting use patterns is a change in how we understand the value of urban developments. In collaborations with clients, KPF has seen decreased emphasis on profit gain as the sole measure of success. A focus on user well-being and environmental impact has intensified. Instead of maximizing the number of units in a residential building, office space in a commercial building, or spaces in a parking lot, our clients are paying greater attention to the inclusion of amenities and climate impact as a mechanism for driving returns.

Our clients are replacing garages with fitness and community spaces. In our updated designs for existing buildings, KPF is integrating terraces and green spaces (at Hudson Commons and Oriente Green Campus) and allocating greater space for program such as cafes, galleries, lounges, and food. New buildings, such as 1020 Spring Street, include multiple full floors of amenities.

A terrace at Hudson Commons. Credit: Mike Van Tassell.

Further, numerous municipalities are legislating requirements for green spaces in new buildings. In Singapore, KPF accomplished this in the design of 18 Robinson. In accordance with that nation’s Landscape Replacement Area policy, the project crafted publicly accessible green space that is equivalent to the site area and distributed throughout the vertical stack of the building. This allows access to the podium terrace and roof sky garden within an otherwise commercial building, while also having the simultaneous benefit of reducing the urban heat island effect.

18 Robinson. Credit: Tim Griffith.

We are leveraging our experience by pursuing adaptive reuse projects, reinvigorating existing structures to not only maintain the urban character and preserve the material continuity of the city, but also preserve embodied carbon. This results in a drastically smaller environmental cost than demolition and new construction.

When KPF began working on Waterline, Texas’ first supertall, located at the intersection of Austin’s iconic Waller Creek and Lady Bird Lake, the team took the unusual decision not to maximize ground-floor space. This tradeoff allowed the project to foster a zone for pedestrians traveling along the city’s waterfront path, which ultimately increased the value of the existing and proposed retail areas. The project is a Central Social District in and of itself, with an active pedestrian pathway at its base and office, hotel, and retail space occupying the tower.

The promenade at the base of Waterline, located along the path around Lady Bird Lake. Credit: Atchain (left) and WAX Architectural Visualizations (right)

Bringing the People Together

Building dense, mixed-use developments to enhance existing transit hubs is a common and sensible practice, as proximity to public transportation quickly increases the attractiveness and accessibility of a project, and new destinations bring more passengers to transit. Additionally, KPF pursues transit-oriented developments as an environmentally sustainable and equitable way to build cities, as it reinforces walking and mass transit rather than of journeys by private cars. One Vanderbilt amplifies its proximity to Grand Central Terminal by offering direct access to the subway, Metro-North Railroad lines, and the new East Side Access hub for the Long Island Rail Road. With office space, a restaurant, and an observation experience, One Vanderbilt offers tenants and tourists a seamless connection from transit to destination.

Entrance to Grand Central Terminal (credit: Evan Joseph Studios), office lobby entrance (credit: Michael Moran/OTTO), Le Pavilion restaurant (credit: Michael Moran/OTTO), and SUMMIT One Vanderbilt (Credit: Kim Smith Photo)
Entrance to Grand Central Terminal (credit: Evan Joseph Studios), office lobby entrance (credit: Michael Moran/OTTO), Le Pavilion restaurant (credit: Michael Moran/OTTO), and SUMMIT One Vanderbilt (Credit: Kim Smith Photo)
Entrance to Grand Central Terminal (credit: Evan Joseph Studios), office lobby entrance (credit: Michael Moran/OTTO), Le Pavilion restaurant (credit: Michael Moran/OTTO), and SUMMIT One Vanderbilt (Credit: Kim Smith Photo)
Entrance to Grand Central Terminal (credit: Evan Joseph Studios), office lobby entrance (credit: Michael Moran/OTTO), Le Pavilion restaurant (credit: Michael Moran/OTTO), and SUMMIT One Vanderbilt (Credit: Kim Smith Photo)

Similarly, at Hudson Yards, the extension of the No. 7 subway line was a defining piece of what made the project possible, both in terms of attracting funding and visitors. The new link brought increased access to Manhattan’s west side and by the time the development opened in 2019, smartphones, rideshare technology, and Citi Bike infrastructure had dramatically changed the way people commute in urban areas, making the emerging neighborhood even more accessible without a personal vehicle.

Early rendering of 55 Hudson Yards with the subway entrance in the foreground.

We are not only building solutions for density in well-populated places. We’ve set our goals on bringing new populations to purpose-built city centers at the periphery of traditional urban cores connected to regional transportation. These sites can offer affordable housing and attractive mixed-use communities that can more easily handle density with more cost-effective means. In neighborhoods in both Baltimore and Vancouver, KPF teams are developing districts within walking distance of transit lines outside of the urban core that blend programming and serve tenants of all ages. The plans include networks of green spaces and offer opportunities for affordable, multi-generational housing.

User-First Designs

Attention to user well-being is at the heart of the design of successful social districts. A simple way to gain insight into how to design for density is to pay attention to where people want to spend their time. People want to complement the time they dedicate to their work with different types of programming. For that reason, users are straying from isolated office buildings and favoring entertainment and lifestyle districts, where a smaller quantum of office space is woven into the fabric of restaurants, cultural, educational, and sports programs.

Centrally located near three of Detroit’s cultural landmarks, the Little Caesars Arena, Comerica Park, and Fox Theatre, KPF’s design for Columbia Street Corridor serves as the backbone for District Detroit, an urban regeneration plan that prioritizes community and lifestyle programming. The project solves the division of fragmented neighborhoods through a streetscape design that enhances the public realm.

Office terrace overlooking Comerica Park. Credit: Vero.

As our urban environment shifts to address the needs of growing populations in cities, one factor remains true: one’s enjoyment is necessary for a high quality of life. Projects that provide a sense of awe, foster the human capacity for curiosity, and reward our time are not only essential for our happiness, but they assist in revitalizing downtowns that are over-reliant on single-use commercial space. As cities continue to densify and our real-life experiences increasingly exist in tandem with media and increased access to information, KPF will look to embed joy and authenticity into our urban buildings and neighborhoods. Further, we will develop our plans to mitigate their impacts on the environment, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because the users of our designs will increasingly demand guilt-free consumption of joy. By prioritizing sustainability from the onset, an emerging collection of Central Social Districts will influence the way our cities grow in the future.