After the mall: retrofitting suburbia
As it once sucked the life out of Main Street, the suburban mall is being reconsidered – or torn down – as towns move back to the concept of a multiuse town center.
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“Our research indicates that there are more people looking for an urban-type environment,” Williamson says. “It’s a cultural shift, and it’s a demographic shift – there are a larger percentage of households without children, either empty nesters or young couples who don’t want kids. There used to be a split, where you’d live in the city until you had children and then move to the suburbs. That’s not being borne out by the middle class right now.”Skip to next paragraph
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Recent US Census data reveals a rise in childless families, and a soaring market for suburban, multiunit housing. Meanwhile, an April Brookings Institution report shows that between 1998 and 2006, jobs moved from city centers to first-ring suburbs, bringing younger, livelier residents.
“Suburbs have become a very specialized species,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architect and Williamson’s coauthor. “They’re not very adaptable. The urban form, on the other hand, is remarkably adaptable. It can keep changing. Think about cities – that patina of culture accumulated by all the generations that came before.”
She and Williamson argue that a swift urbanization of the suburbs is important – for the environment, the economy, and American culture. Urban areas, for instance, compel people to drive less and encourage a sense of community and the all-important “interconnectivity.”
This “downtown feel” was vital, says Craig Vickers, a landscape architect with the Denver firm Civitas who worked extensively on Belmar. “Even people who haven’t been exposed to urban densities [are] seeking urbanism. For [city people], Belmar may not look like a gritty urban place. But this is a gritty urban place for people who grew up around here. And people really wanted it.”
Still, no matter how many residents clamor for revitalization, changing the face of a community can be slow and thorny. One major problem is the specter of density – the antithesis of the suburban ethic of the home as an island in a lawn.
Mike Rock, Lakewood’s city manager and an instrumental figure in the creation of Belmar, says that he “immediately found [himself] butting up against this idea that if you allow commercial and residential units to touch each other, you’re diminishing the value. People will say, ‘We’re not the city, but we aren’t the city on purpose.’ ”
In Colorado, where the libertarian instinct runs deep, there were also concerns about cost and governmental involvement.
“The Villa was built at a time when malls were still the shiny new thing,” remembers Mr. Rock. “You look at photographs from when it first opened, and it’s just a sea of all these cool, ’60s-era cars. It’s hard to overestimate just how strong peoples’ attachment was to the mall. They loved the place.”
More contentious still was Lakewood’s decision to finance Belmar through a public-private partnership with Continuum Partners, a development firm based in Denver. Continuum took on much of the cost, which is expected to reach $850 million when the project is finished. Lakewood then enacted a 2.5 percent “public improvement fee” for retail transactions in the Belmar area, to be remitted directly to Continuum. (City officials also waved a third of Lakewood’s 3 percent sales tax, partly to placate consumers.) Continuum also secured $200 million in federal funds through the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, which issued bonds to developers using eco-
friendly building techniques.