Bangkok has for several years been the epicentre of a novel class of property space that was kind of a shopping centre but not really. It defied traditional definitions, but property analysts and the retail industry settled on the term ‘community mall’. The genre has had several poster children, one of which is The Commons Thonglor, opened in 2016, a four-level atrium designed for people to hang out, work, work out, eat, drink and socialise. Open-air and deliciously landscaped with an unusually low ratio of leasable area to total floorspace, the Thonglor project developed something of a cult following. Its customer base has been primarily local professionals and expats, but over the years it has also drawn an increasing number of tourists, particularly from Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and Japan, despite the fact that it has not really been trying to attract that market.
Starting during lockdown
Across town, The Commons Saladaeng was opened in February 2020, just two weeks before the pandemic arrived in the city, and now still seems new because of the disruption to normal business from multiple rounds of lockdowns over the last two years. It is only now really getting started. Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan, co-founder and managing director of The Commons projects said of the project: “We love the area because it’s right in the middle of the business district, but set back in a little soi [side street] that is tree-lined and feels residential. Our target customers include office people and residents in the area. The design is a bit different [to The Commons Thonglor], but the core intention is the same: to be a community space that has open outdoor areas for people to hang out and to promote wholesome living in the city.”
The pandemic was cruel to both projects. In both locations, the focus is on highly social uses of space, with tenants that nurture wellbeing: exercise studios, healthy foods, activity spaces for kids, and salons. Local suppliers and vendors account for all the tenancies. These kinds of tenancies were in the crosshairs for social distancing measures and have been either limited or outright shut down at various times from 2020-22.
Vichit-Vadakan is well aware of the challenges faced by conventional malls during the pandemic lockdowns but said: “The past two years have been the most trying and challenging of times for us as well. We are a community space and our whole reason for being is connecting and bringing people together. So when Covid hit, it really felt like we were shaken to our core and, honestly, we felt totally lost at first.”
She continued: “During those times, we had to pivot and find ways to help our tenants. We turned ourselves into a cloud kitchen to help our food vendors still be able to cook and deliver food to stay afloat. We also set up a curbside pick-up station for customers to still be able to order and enjoy The Commons products. We provided tremendous rent reduction/support to our tenants, especially to those who were not able to operate at all.”
The Commons also provided help to staff and people in the broader community, setting up an Employee Relief Fund to raise money for supplies and dry food. The organisation also established an initiative called Silverlining, in which it helped promote local artists and assisted them in selling their work during the most difficult months.
Special events: fun is not optional
Success with the two projects’ raison-d’etre – building the two communities – has been the most rewarding thing for the owners in the six years since the opening of the Thonglor mall. They found that events, workshops, and activities were not just critical to the process, but fun as well. Vichit-Vadakan explained: “Prior to Covid, we would run multiple workshops as well as playgroups for families each week, and at least one big event each month. Our events are around family and kids, arts and crafts, music, cooking, sustainability and more. This is really what sets us apart from other community malls and we love doing it. When we have these workshops and events, it’s our way to bring like-minded people together, our way of connecting people.”
The reference to such activities setting The Commons projects apart from other community malls might be surprising, considering the fact that social interaction is a defining feature of the genre and one expects special events and activities to be core components of it. However, a large number of such malls fail in part because the operators don’t grasp the importance of staging events on a permanent basis. It has not been unusual for owners to conduct some events shortly after opening a project but then not persisting with the same energy or even not bothering at all. The outcome of this neglect has frequently been negative.
Positive outlook and impact
Community malls were enjoying something of a boom in development up until 2020 in both Thailand and neighbouring Cambodia, but it is difficult to get any kind of precise sense of how many are viable. Many are not professionally managed and they are often developed by wealthy individuals from outside the industry. Because the developers eschew big-name anchor tenants, lenders are reluctant to touch such projects and some prospective tenants that would probably fit in well with the community mall ethos remain on the sidelines.
Still, many more community malls are likely to emerge in urban Southeast Asia, since there are legions of property owners who have land or empty buildings and are looking for ways to activate their spaces.
What about demand? It is definitely there. The increasingly affluent local demographics in cities like Bangkok and Phnom Penh suggest a juicy customer base for well-designed and well-managed community malls. Clearly, Covid has underscored the urgency of the community mall mission. Social distancing and other containment measures deeply fractured social networks. Cities like Bangkok were shut down for months at a time, forcing people to remain in their homes and isolating them. Shopping was mostly done online, there was no going to the gym, and dining out – that most Asian of customs – was often reduced to pushing buttons on a phone app.
Projects like The Commons have the tools for restoring those broken human connections. Now, they just need to be allowed to work their magic.