The story of Pinocchio is a variation on the Pygmalian myth: Fashioning a fantasy companion with one's own hands, and then bringing the inanimate object to life. In the case of Pygmalian, the sculptor was able to bring to life the statue of a beautiful woman. In the case of Pinocchio a theme that gets obscured in the popular Disney version by cinematic details like telescoping noses and boys turning into donkeys is the poignant wish of Geppetto, the lonely wood carver, who wishes that a wooden marionette can become "a real boy."
While retail development may seem less poignant than making fantasy children out of wood, the notion of the town center is another manifestation of the Pygmalian myth: The idea that developers can create instant shopping streets that will be accepted as the genuine urban article. So-called town centers are essentially outdoor shopping mall, with more or less the same mix of tenants as the interior variety, but look and feel very much like city streets.
The town center concept has spread far beyond California to become a national phenomenon. Cities that had lacked downtowns including Santa Clarita, Thousand Oaks and Emeryville awoke one day to find that a little bit of San Francisco's Maiden Lane, or Palo Alto's University Avenue, or Los Angeles' Montana Avenue had seemingly sprung up like giant, stucco mushrooms in their pedestrian-bereft cities during the night.
Sometimes town centers fit into existing urban grids. At other times, these developments stand alone in suburban isolation. Predictably, such streets have their critics, who cavil about "inauthenticity" and "Disney-fication." Admittedly, just as kosher-style hot dogs are not genuinely kosher, many town centers are more urban in style than substance. With their manufactured cheerfulness, non-specific nostalgia and vaguely "traditional" architecture, town centers are easy marks for the authenticity police. In fairness, some genuine historic districts, like San Diego's Gaslamp District and Old Pasadena, are so covered in town center-style signage, neon and other types of marketing bric-a-brac that they are indistinguishable from the cheap imitations.
But what if the authenticity police were wrong, or at least not entirely right? They are correct insofar that many town centers are phony, saccharine and "timeless" in a retro kind of way. But those who are sticklers for realism may be missing the larger point that instant downtowns like Santana Row in San Jose or Bay Street Emeryville have the potential to mature gracefully and merge into larger urban patterns.
As we wrote a few years back about another town center, The Grove at Farmers Market in Los Angeles (see CP&DR Places, January 1999), the most important criterion is not whether artificial streets are garish or in questionable taste. The proper question, instead, is whether a particular set of buildings has the right "bones" to evolve from a private retail center into a for-real public street, just as Pinocchio eventually became a real boy. Even if the town centers are really monolithic malls in disguise, they look like rows of individual buildings, each with a distinct faηade, and this artifice has an urban rhythm that can adapt itself to a larger context. For these reasons, I suggest we hold off judgment on the town centers, because some of them may serve as the seedlings from which entire pedestrian-oriented districts will grow, and, as such, may turn out to be defensible.
With this criterion in mind call it long-term urban viability for the lack of a better phrase the comparison of Santana Row with Bay Street Emeryville becomes more focused. Bay Street developed by Madison Marquette and designed by The Charles Group of Los Angeles, in association with David R. Hoffman may be the more typical of the two town centers under discussion here. Bay Street is a single, elongated, inward-looking street that stretches down one long block. In another words, it is an inverted strip center. The front entrances are mostly on Bay Street, the official "walk street" of the project, while the center turns its back to Shellmound Street, a major thoroughfare. The retail portion is complete, while a residential portion, to be built atop the retail buildings, is currently under construction and will not be ready for occupancy until next year. A 300,000-square-foot IKEA outlet is on the south, while Powell Street Plaza, a smaller retail center, lies to the west across Shellmound.
The stores within the Bay Street complex do not address Shellmound, and the Bay Street "urban village" offers the paradoxical image of turning its back on the largest local arterial, although architect Pigg has provided plentiful glass on the Shellmound side of the building so motorists see merchants and wares, not just blind walls. With the IKEA, Bay Street and Powell Street Plaza all in place and the enormous Chiron campus to the east, Shellmound looks like a major shopping street in the making, even if Bay Street has few, if any, storefronts on the corridor. The big barrier is the large scale of the retail projects, which may make it difficult to redevelop these big parcels on the store-by-store, fine-grained level that seems most desirable to add interest and variety to monolithic malls and big-box retailers.
It would not be easy for an individual developer to come in and create, say, a restaurant with outdoor seating or a nightclub or a coffee shop or used bookstore, or other small "specialty" retail businesses that would give Bay Street some individual character. Worse, Bay Street is landlocked between Shellmound to the west and the Union Pacific tracks to the east, preventing developers from creating a district; Shellmound will always be a retail strip, dominated by cars pulling into garages, cars coming out of garages and still other cars zipping by quickly on the road not the most pleasant experiences for people on foot.
On the other hand, Bay Street has the potential to convert its blind backside into storefronts along Shellmound at some future time, creating a two-sided shopping street on this important corridor. Despite some challenging odds, this Pinocchio may yet become a real boy.
Although the site plan of Santana Row probably preceded Bay Street in time, the San Jose project seems like an improvement over the Emeryville shopping street. Located within an existing, if under-used, intersection, Santana Row does not suffer from the obvious limitation of Bay Street of being a single street without the ability to expand. A "demalling" project built on the site of an earlier shopping center, Santana Row was developed by Federal Realty Investment Trust, and master planned by Street Works with architecture by Sandy & Babcock and Backen Arrigoni & Ross.
Like Bay Street, Santana Row will be a sandwich of retail below and residential on upper floors. The advantage of the San Jose project is that it has taken root on an existing urban grid, and has the grace and ingenuity to address that grid in all four directions. This outward-looking design promises than Santana Row may age gracefully and merge with the surrounding urban fabric.
On the other hand, there are some self-imposed limitations to Santana Row: The project pretends to be a continuation of a regular street grid while, in reality, drivers tend to find themselves dead-ending against parking structures or buildings. As in a Roach Motel, the target audience may find it easier to enter than to leave. Even with this problem, it is not impossible to imagine that some roads could be cut through the blind-siding streets, and that Santana Row could be reconfigured as a set of regular blocks. This is one urban marionette that has an excellent chance of becoming "a real boy."