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Culture, Retail Create Downtown in SoCal Suburb

There is a certain kind of excitement — my guess is it is uniquely American — when cities reach a moment of transition, such as when a small city gets its first high-rise building. On the other end of the urban life cycle, another moment occurs when an aging downtown blooms with second-hand stores and ethnic delicatessens amid retirement homes and tattoo parlors. Suburbia, too, has its moments of excitement and transition, even if the idea might make some urban loft dwellers snigger in their cappuccinos. That sense of arrival may be triggered by the arrival of a "town center," or a shopping street with old-fashioned-looking architecture built all at once by a single developer. Another prestige play for a growing suburb is development of a cultural center, which is often a live-performance theater combined with galleries and community spaces that support the arts. Rancho Cucamonga — a fast-growing, young community in San Bernardino County with a population of 177,000 — has "gone one better" by combining a town center with a cultural center into a single project. No doubt, such a project is a barn door for snobs who want to sneer down their noses at suburban presumption, which is not my aim. As I mentioned in the June 2003 Places column, even a phony street can grow up to become a real city district given the right kind of aging. Just as buildings can "learn" and undergo modification over time, so too can cities learn — if very slowly. Victoria Gardens does not promise to be a masterpiece. The town center is of the crypto-New Urbanist type, which copies the moves of better designers without fully understanding them. The cultural center, for its part, has suburban soccer mom written all over it. Still, the addition of a cultural center, however bland its offerings may turn out to be, is preferable to the typical town center project that is devoted entirely to retail. Even for suburbanites, there is more to life than shopping. The idea of creating a "synergy" between the mall, which brings in the crowds, and a cultural center, which provides an alternative to consumption-as-entertainment, is worthwhile. Also interesting is that the cultural center, construction of which follows the retail space by about a year, is to be directly subsidized by the shopping center. It is entirely appropriate for retail to generate something more than sales tax revenues. Both facilities — retail and cultural — can reinforce each other and help create a more genuine and varied sense of public life between them than retail or theater by themselves. The site plan of Victoria Gardens is mostly competent if uninspiring. It provides the beginnings of a coherent set of streets and spaces. Even if Victoria Gardens does not really challenge the suburban paradigm of parking in front of the store, at least much of the parking is tucked out of the way, and the pride of place is given to open space and streetscape. One obvious problem is that the scale is too big, which I suspect is a reflection of designing the largest retail stores for big box retailers. It is clear that the open space, especially the park-like spaces at the center of the plan, have been determined by the size of the retail buildings. This is an almost equally bad error; actually, it is the same error reflected into open space. I estimate the largest buildings are about 400 to 500 feet long, which is equal to a long city block, such as those in downtown Los Angeles. Fortunately, the length of the green space appears to be lined with a row of retail storefronts, and presumably those storefronts will open directly onto the green space. This is a plus because glass storefronts are pleasant for pedestrians and retailers can activate an otherwise static space. Ideally, some of these retailers will be small, food-court type merchants. To make the town square more inviting, the developer should add plentiful trees and tents shade — an extremely desirable feature for public space in hot, arid San Bernardino County. Merchants should also fill the town square with cafι-style tables with umbrellas. Keep in mind that the old Farmers Market in Los Angeles created an environment that has been popular for six decades, despite very few upgrades and a complete lack of landscaping, by providing a simple combination of food, shade and places to sit. The open space has further problems: Again, the central green space, which seems inspired by Beaux-Art plans, goes from nowhere to nowhere. There is no reason to walk on it. Further, even though the plan suggests a corridor, it is in fact unwalkable, unless pedestrians are willing to jaywalk across the street and push their way through the landscaped median: As far as I can tell, no crosswalk or signal are provided through the center of the plan! Also dubious is the design of the cultural center's fan-shaped courtyard, which opens invitingly into… the parking lot. However well intended as a "friendly" space, the courtyard is actually a dead space that needs a Lawrence Halprin fountain or a Richard Serra sculpture or some other large, interesting object to activate it. And without meaning to seem arch, the facade of the cultural center tries too hard to be interesting, as if a theater and a library needed to advertise themselves like a party store. Serenity, not anxious attention-seeking, should be the key here to sound a note of timelessness amid the gaudy, transient images of the shopping center. Despite those design flaws, the project is a step forward for Rancho Cucamonga because it gives the city a public realm that offers more than shopping. Rancho Cucamonga is trying to become something more than a bedroom community, and it is doing so by providing for a more public way of life. Without irony or snobbism, I look forward to seeing a sense of community manifesting in these buildings and spaces.
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