April 06, 2005

Those Sneaky Shopping Malls

I wonder if Virginia Postrel has seen this article in Slate yet (not sure how long the link will be viable).

From the opening sentence, Andrew Blum's article drips with condecension and scorn on commercially-motivated style (all emphases mine):

Like insecure teenagers, malls keep changing their style.

Once you get past his sarcasm, you actually learn that malls are updating their style, adding open-air plazas, sidewalks and street-side parking, and re-dubbing themselves "lifestyle centers." (I've been to one of those centers a few times here in Plano, called Legacy Town Center (or The Shops at Legacy). A near-perfect model of New Urbanist design if there can be one). A good thing, especially for a lefty writer at Slate, no? Well, actually, no:

[W]hile these new malls may appear to be public space, they're not public at all—at least if you want to do anything but shop. They represent a bait-and-switch routine on the part of developers, one that exchanges the public realm for the commercial one.

Got that? The commercial realm is exclusive of the public. It doesn't matter whether the style conforms to all the objectives of the (largely leftist) New Urbanism, it's all just a bait-and-switch routine because the developers want you to spend money in their shops.

Hmmm. I'm confused -- are developers just supposed to create these little New Urban oases without any thought of commerce? Does Blum's tone mean that he thinks the big sprawling suburban mall is better than this kind of development? Hold that thought -- next he goes on a walking tour of a few lifestyle centers and manages to get in a very subtle dig at Starbucks:

Parking my rented Chevy in front of a big-box emporium called Barbeques Galore, I walked through the arched portals that decorate the marketplace entrance. Inside, there were restaurants and stores lining a winding and narrow outdoor pedestrian street that opened up onto a series of little plazas. Padded wicker chairs were strewn about in a studied, casual way, and a huge fieldstone fireplace had benches built into it for those cool desert nights. This was a delightful place for a Frappuccino....

[At another lifestyle center], it immediately felt like a real, bustling neighborhood. The sidewalks were shaded from the sun by flowered trellises, and the streets narrowed at the corners to give pedestrians an implied right of way. An urban plaza with a good café and a band shell provided a central gathering place.

Blum seems uncomfortable with the success of this kind of development, but fortunately he recognizes and acknowledges the irony of commercial developers implementing New Urbanism:

This is civic life in America, circa 2005, and it's spreading....

[Old-fashioned indoor malls] turn their backs to their surroundings and concentrate activity in and on themselves. By contrast, lifestyle centers gesture toward their environments....

More incredibly, lifestyle centers do all the things that urban planners have promoted for years as ways of counteracting sprawl: squeeze more into less space, combine a mix of activities, and employ a fine-grained street grid to create a public realm—a "sidewalk ballet," in Jane Jacobs' alluring phrase. The irony is almost too perfect: Malls are now being designed to resemble the downtown commercial districts they replaced. What sweet vindication for urban sophisticates!

But now we get to the core of his concern, the fact that these developments are privately-owned, "carefully insulated from the messiness of public life," in his words. Blum has issues with the lifestyle centers' codes of conduct:

The list of forbidden activities includes "non-commercial expressive activity"—not to mention "excessive staring" and "taking photos, video or audio recording of any store, product, employee, customer or officer." "Photos of shopping party with shopping center décor, as a backdrop," however, are permitted.

Finally, his thesis, buried at the end:

There's something a bit unhealthy about faux public places designed to attract rich people and make them feel comfortable. (At least the traditional mall didn't try to hide the fact that it was a shopping center.) The lifestyle center is a bizarre outgrowth of the suburban mentality: People want public space, even if making that space private is the only way to get it.

There's so much wrong with that, I just don't know where to start.

Would it be healthy instead to create faux public places to attract poor people and make them comfortable? Or is it OK to create "authentic" public places to attract rich people? Are New Urbanist developments only to be allowed in the central business district of an existing city? Would it be OK if the money to develop these lifestyle centers was public money rather than private?

Well, go read it yourself. Some people are just impossible to please.

Posted by JohnL at April 6, 2005 11:36 PM
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