Monday, July 13, 2009

New Urbanism - Worse than Strip Malls

Outside of Chuck E. Cheese, few things are as vomit-inducing in the suburbs as "New Urbanist" developments. They're built by well-known architects and praised by James Kunstler-type critics and academics, none of whom ever have to shop or live there.

Rather than holding award ceremonies, the American Institute of Architects should actually visit the areas around these New Suburban outdoor malls. In the DC area, we have the heavily-praised Reston Town Center. It's got apartments and offices and is not enclosed, so it makes distant academics happy because people can live close to their jobs and walk outside. Yet in this "Town Center", there is a multiplex showing chick flicks, car chase movies, and standard mass market Hollywood crap, as well as a Panera Bread, a Starbucks, and some chain restaurants. Its nightlife begins with guys going to the chain restaurant bars to talk about their jobs, which is followed up by fake ID-less teeny boppers congregating around the entrances to these bars, all under the watchful eye of some mall cops.

Go 1 mile from the "Town Center" and you come to a K-Mart strip mall with a large surface parking lot, the kind you usually see in the "before" picture in an urban planning book. If you want something to eat in this place, you can choose from Indian, Afghan, Central American, and something other than the tasteless grilled chicken sandwiches available throughout Reston Town Center. Moreover, these K-Mart center dives are locally owned, and their menus are inspired by the owners' lives in their native countries, not by a marketing department in a corporate office park.

While the academic-urban planner-critic circle jerk can't stop hyping Seaside, Reston, Kentlands, and other generic nonsense, a sidewalk or an apartment over a store is not enough to make a place worth visiting twice. Meanwhile, not much is written about where locally-owned shops and restaurants actually are, because the AIA is not going to start handing out awards to a K-Mart anchored strip mall with an ocean of parking spots.

Whole thing is unsettling to New Suburbanists, because they can't cover their development costs or obtain financing if they lease to mom and pop's Moroccan restaurant, and those places thrive in many car friendly developments. Chain restaurant paradises like Reston are not even "victims of their own success" in a Jane Jacobs way, becoming too expensive because they're popular, rather they're just a re-configuration of the same suburban junk that's been around forever, down to the mall cops.

If you look at where you get both local merchants and local pedestrians, you almost always have local capital. Adams Morgan, the Marina, Fremont, Society Hill, the Pearl District, Uptown Minneapolis, Wrigleyville, Newbury Street, etc. do not owe their existence to one big bank loan, but a series of owners obtaining financing in small increments over a period of time. Moreover, they're not "mixed-use". Not many office towers in these places, yet they have a lot more going on at night than many of the skyscraper neighborhoods in their downtowns.

Parts of San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and DC are proving that there are minivan drivers willing to come out to dinner in neighborhoods where they're likely to run across a few, or more, homeless people. But none of these places have been replicated in the suburbs because of light rail, bike lanes, or new office/retail developments. You need local citizens to change neighborhoods, not distant academics.


  1. Unfair criticism. Gallery Place and DC USA are filled with chains too, but like Kentlands and Reston, they'll get their share of local joints as they age. That's how development always works. The highest renters pay for the newest spaces.

    This can be readily seen in Kentlands, which as it ages (it's now over 20) is beginning to be infiltrated by locally owned shops.

  2. Reston Town Center is pushing 20, and there are no local merchants in site. Don't know what you're seeing at Kentlands, but I still see Subway, Whole Foods, Chipotle, etc.

    More impressive than both of these overhyped developments is the store-by-store redevelopment happening right now in Falls Church. You don't read about The State Theatre, Stacy's, Lazy Sundae, or Clare N'Dons in architecture magazines, but they're coming in one-by-one, into an redeveloping area pock marked with dated 1970s shopping centers. This is how good development usually begins - one at a time in borderline areas, not through a national developer's big bang.

  3. I agree with some of these points, but I think you are combining two things that are not necessarily logically related. The trouble you are identifying is associated with mega-projects in general, not just New Urbanist ones. Take any huge new subdivision, or retirement golf center, or big box strip mall. All of these are as lifeless as anything you've described. Essentially, they violate Jacob's principle to let the new mingle with the old. Affordable space attracts innovation and excitement. There is nothing about NU that is inherently oriented toward megaprojects; those are just the ones that get the headlines, and the financial structure sometimes pushes in that direction. Even places like Reston or Kentlands, in time, will settle in, become customized, and grow there own affordable experimentation.

    Another way of putting this is that the cool international restaurants are not coming because of the crappy Kmart parking lot. They are there in spite of it. Building more crappy strip mall parking lots is not the answer.

  4. Daniel, appreciate the comment.

    Building more strip malls might not be the answer, but neither are more Cheescake Factory-anchored TODs. It's hard to let the new mingle with the old without local capital. Financing one 10,000 sq ft restaurant with the owner personally guaranteeing the loan is going to produce a very different result than financing a 500,000 Sq ft megaproject through distant bankers. The latter will require large, well-known chains to underwrite anything. This is why good development has to occur slowly, one unit at a time, not with a big bang.

  5. I agree in principle with your notion that corporate NU development undermines the emergent properties that make cities healthy in the long run, but I don't think that it's the worst possible thing insofar as these suburban developments reduce the hydrocarbon footprint of suburbanites themselves. Demonstrating that sustainability is even possible annoys the f*ck out of people like James Howard Kunstler, which is a good enough reason in my book.

    This said, I have my own aesthetic reservations about NU - watching Leon Krier et al. recoil hysterically from modern and postmodern architectural conceits would be funny if he didn't want so badly to ensconce people in his lily-white Truman Show nostalgia projects.