Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Something from the archives that bears repeating

From issue 48 of Smart Growth News, the e-letter published by Smart Growth America. This weekend I read a science fiction book from 1998, Distraction, by Bruce Sterling. It has some interesting things to say about commodification of the public sphere and the decline of community and civility in the wake.

Lifestyle Centers vs. Traditional Commercial Districts

Imitation, Authenticity and the Public Realm

Richard Layman is a historic preservation and urban revitalization advocate and consultant in Washington, D.C. He sat down with SGA Communications Associate Steve Davis to answer a few questions about lifestyle centers and the trend away from the traditional shopping format.

1) What is it that makes lifestyle centers so attractive to developers, as well as to potential customers, whether they're from the city or from the suburbs?

In many respects the lifestyle center reaches back to the roots of the old downtown department stores, which were as much about spectacle—well-dressed windows, Santa, the restaurant, special events—as about shopping. Lifestyle centers better connect "retail-tainment" and the shopping experience. Malls were never about the experience, but about providing more stores under one roof in a climate- and safety-controlled environment. Lifestyle centers open the mall to the (privatized) street, with activity inside and outside the stores.

From the standpoint of developers, they just want to build what's successful, and they are "commodifying", or monetizing the value of experience within the commercial retail environment.

From the standpoint of smart growth, malls don't work in terms of compact development, but it is possible for lifestyle centers to be integrated into denser fabric. You have greenfield lifestyle centers, but also the equivalent of a lifestyle center being used to re-energize the retail environment in Silver Spring, Maryland. There's also South Side Works, a brownfield redevelopment immediately adjacent to the East Carson Street shopping district in Southside Pittsburgh, and Bethesda Row in Maryland, which was an early version of a lifestyle center, albeit on a much smaller scale.

However, today's lifestyle centers are much more akin to sprawling malls, rather than places like Bethesda Row—a compact development that embraces the streets and buildings beyond the land controlled by the developer.

2) Speak a little bit about the authenticity that an old-fashioned main street or center city commercial district can possess that is a difficult for any type of mall to achieve?

The difference between a mall, a lifestyle center, and a traditional commercial district is in part between chains and independents, standardization versus quirky. More important is the difference in the built environment and the mix of uses beyond selling only retail goods. The TCD (traditional commercial district—downtowns as well as neighborhood commercial districts) was constructed over time, by many different builders and architects, reflecting a wider variety and more authentic architecture. Plus, TCDs were never solely about commerce, and incorporated civic functions, ranging from uses like the post office, courts, libraries, and even schools, including institutions of higher learning, a greater variety of cultural venues (other than cinemas)

...TCDs are much more likely to be places for services catering to both consumers and businesses—from shoe repair to lawyers—as well as accommodating larger scale office buildings. Plus, the urban location allows for the sale of groceries, which are difficult to sell in mall/lifestyle center locations.

A commercial shopping center is built at once, designed by one architect, and built by one developer, and can never achieve organically the authentic feel of a place constructed over decades. Shopping centers, no matter the type, are all about the sale of goods and only the sale of goods. There is little room for civic and social functions or cultural venues.

3) What are the ramifications for public space in our cities and suburbs when spaces that typically were public (traditional commercial districts) are replaced by privatized malls, where speech and behavior can be strictly controlled?

The quality of municipal services has declined over the decades in response to reduced tax revenues resulting from the outmigration of residents and businesses. Residents didn't care to know the reason why, they merely changed where they shopped, traveling instead to shopping places that were safe and clean and accessible (even if not necessarily convenient—they had to drive instead of walk).

TCDs have always been more than just places for the sales of goods. Malls have never been more than just a place to sell. Supplanting public places for private has contributed to the decline of civic awareness and engagement.

As long as there is a new subdivision to move to, or a new shopping center farther out, people are freed from the obligation of rolling their sleeves up and getting to work on righting the problems that naturally result from the aging of our public places, institutions, and infrastructure.

Eventually, there will be no place further away to move to, in order to escape the problems at home. For public places and civic institutions to be great, it is essential that citizens work with others to repair our public places and institutions.

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