Vanilla suburbs seek an identity

Small 'edge cities' are building downtowns in a brick-and-mortar quest

New Lenox, Ill., doesn't want to be Oz, it just wants to be better. For years, the Chicago "edge city" has been a poster child for the soulless American suburb - lots of traffic, subdivisions, and commercial sprawl but no sense of community.

Now city planners hope to change all that by building a downtown where none existed before. Out of farm fields will rise a town hall, library, and brick commercial buildings - all near a lake and park.

The city's experiment is symbolic of a growing nationwide movement to transform America's vanilla suburbs into communities with distinct identities.

Call it a civil war against the "United States of Generica." From Cape Cod, Mass., to Redmond, Wash., blueprints are emerging for "retro-downtowns" - antidotes to the subdivision angst that "there is no there there."

The neo-downtowns come in a variety of flavors, but all share roots in "new urbanism," the view that even in an age of e-mail and the Home Shopping Network, people yearn for public places on a human scale.

"It's a character issue and an identity issue," said Robin Traubenik, New Lenox's planning chief. "Here there's nowhere to take your kids on a Saturday and walk around. There's a feeling something's missing."

Even Levittown, N.Y., the quintessential postwar suburb, has joined a movement that includes half a dozen new downtowns in Texas and several in Florida, including Boca Raton and West Palm Beach.

Nationwide, an estimated 30 to 40 new downtowns are planned or completed, according to Robert Gibbs, founder of Gibbs Planning in Birmingham, Mich. And in about 6,000 cities, renovations of existing downtowns are under way or recently completed.

Everything from the whimsy of shoppers to lifestyle changes to trend-sniffing developers is driving the movement. Some experts argue mall fatigue is at the heart of the change. Enclosed shopping centers are often viewed as sterile and lacking a sense of community and connection.

In addition, surveys show that time-starved shoppers want to get in and out of parking lots and stores quicker than ever, which works against malls with stadium-size parking lots.

Developers are taking note, Mr. Gibbs notes: Where last year only a handful of 8,500 proposed shopping centers were town center ones, now about 1 in 3 are.

The retro-downtowns come in several types. In Redmond, Wash., developers essentially fused mall design with elements of a traditional main street and ended up with a segmented shopping center patterned by narrow streets and fronted by two-story brick buildings.

In Eastgate, Tenn., an outlying section of Chattanooga, a derelict 1950s mall and oversized parking lot were converted into a town square with a grid of narrow streets and a mixture of office, retail, living, and civic space.

Although it may be too early to declare any of the retro-downtowns a success, Eastgate, which opened this year, is thriving, with 95 percent occupancy in a part of town local real estate agents had written off. Stores in one new Texas downtown reported record openings and sustained sales exceeded forecasts.

Still, where a developer is the impetus for a retro-downtown rather than local sentiment, the results can be mixed. Rather than living, breathing downtowns, the end product is sometimes little more than a prettified shopping center with grass highlights. Such "faux" or "pseudo" downtowns remind some of Hollywood sets.

Betsy Jackson, president of the International Downtown Association, promotes the renaissance of urban downtowns, but is wary of the rush to create them from scratch.

"The motivation is fine, but the danger is, authenticity can't be manufactured," she says. "Real downtowns weren't built by a single developer at a single time. They reflect the evolution of a community.... What people really want is something genuine."

Gibbs agrees in part, saying some early retro-downtowns have already been rendered obsolete by better designs and new technology. He points to problems like the failure to give tenants proper visibility, "cheesey" designs that lacked genuineness, and a too-big swing of the "parking pendulum." Instead of a sea of asphalt, retro developers weren't allowing for enough parking.

But that doesn't mean the current "second wave" of retro-downtowns can't work, he says. "In fact, many pre-World War II suburban downtowns were built by developers."

Whether developers are leading or following the trend, most experts agree the true driving force is a deep-seeded human desire for community and social interaction. They dismiss "burbs bashers" who contend that bucolic, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes are unattainable nostalgia fantasies.

People hunger for a "third place" that is neither home nor work but connects with one's sense of community, argues Ray Oldenberg, a sociologist at the University of West Florida.

Valued highly in other cultures, these informal public gathering places simply do not exist in most American suburbs, he says. "But there's an aspect of this [downtown movement] nobody wants to talk about, and that is: Just how much community do people really want?

"A hundred years ago community meant responsibility, really pitching in and working together." Now, he says, "I'm not optimistic we'll ever re-create community like we had before there were smooth roads and television."

While shopping is the lifeblood of any downtown, new-urbanist planners have found that it takes more than neatly arranged stores to create a successful city center. A library, post office, or other civic building to attract foot traffic is viewed as a necessity, plus office and living space.

The right retail tenants are also considered key. Designers largely expect malls and "power centers" - grouped around big box retailers like Wal-Mart - to continue to thrive. Downtowns, meanwhile, must strive for a unique blend of restaurants, specialty shops, and galleries.

Planners increasingly see automobiles not as mortal enemies to be slayed but as wild animals to be tamed. High-speed boulevards and downtowns don't mix, but purely pedestrian downtown malls haven't been won big. One answer: narrow streets that provide access to vehicles even as they slow them down to coexist with pedestrians.

Indeed, humans feel an inherent sense of security when bounded in by narrow streets and tightly-packed buildings, says Robert Orr, an architect in New Haven, Conn., who did early work on the famous planned community of Seaside, Fla. "People tend to congregate in tight spaces, like at cocktail parties. People huddle in the kitchen or in doorways, rarely ... in the middle of rooms.... You start by thinking of buildings as part of the street. The street hasn't been a civic space for a long time."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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