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.
(Page 4 of 4)
“We were clear the first time we came out to Lakewood,” says Thomas Gougeon, a principal at Continuum. “We said, ‘It’s broken, it’s dying, but it’s not dead enough. It’s going to be messy. And someone is going to try to stop you. Someone always does.’ ”Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In 1999, Continuum acquired the land under the mall; a year later, it acquired the mall itself. But after reaching agreements with most of the tenants, Continuum was stymied by the former May Department Stores Company, which then owned a longtime Villa anchor called Foley’s.
“Shoppers coming into Foley’s were being told, ‘You are going to lose your store because the city of Lakewood is forcing us to leave, and if you don’t like that, then contact the city council,’” Rock remembers. “That’s a lot of pressure on us.”
Then in 2001, Continuum initiated eminent domain proceedings against the May Company, ratcheting up pressure on elected officials.
“Think about it: eminent domain is contentious. Urban renewal is contentious. And we had both,” Rock explains.
But after Foley’s was forced out, and the mall demolished, Rock says that the “majority of the public went from mourning, through a period of skepticism, to a serious sense of pride. A pride based on the idea that people actually want to live here, that they bring their friends here, that Lakewood finally has its own town center.”
On a cold day this spring, the streets of Belmar were mostly empty, with only a few passersby ambling along the sidewalks. Big metal lamps hung over the streets, a decorative touch designed to make Belmar feel a little cozier. Pop music swirled eerily from speakers into the air. Much of the activity seemed to be centered on “Block 7,” a strip of art galleries and storefronts subsidized by Continuum. Jeffrey Steffonich, a college student working at a studio, said, “There’s been a lot of interest [in Belmar] among young people … interest in the culture ... the galleries. People see it as a cool place to live.”
Other vendors and residents expressed concerns about a nationwide drop in retail sales and the ability of the developers to complete the retrofit. “I think there’s a lot of potential here, and certainly more than there ever was at Villa Italia,” said Ann Rivera, the co-owner of a local PostNet franchise. She paused, and added, “There’s still a long way to go.”
The question now is whether Belmar will consistently draw residents and shoppers – and whether the model can be translated elsewhere. In “Retrofitting Suburbia,” Ms. Dunham-Jones and Williamson argued that similar revitalizations are necessary to accommodate the rapidly changing suburban culture.
Mr. Vickers agrees: "Right now it’s a balancing act. We need enough retail to bring people down here, and enough residential to make retail function. I don’t know if [Belmar] is the magic bullet, but it’s an important step in that direction.”
Richard Farley, a principle at Civitas, said that in the end, it “won’t matter if Belmar is panned or praised in the architectural journals. Real success will be if Lakewood really embraces Belmar.... Real success will be if the people really love it.”