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 façade, 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."
… And that's the end of the fairy tale: Prince Nokia came to Princess Downtown Sunnyvale, providing the city with new jobs, plus helping complete the long-unfinished office building that had annoyed Sunnyvale for years. And the prince and princess lived happily ever after ….
Oh, Gramps, I love that story! Tell it to me again.
It's past your bedtime, swee' pea, and it's even getting late for me….
Don't be fooled by the peaceful, pastoral look of West Village, a proposed housing development on the campus of UC Davis.
"Shucks," the conceptual site plan seems to say, "I'm just a little old country town. See my bib overalls?"
I'm not falling for it. West Village may be bucolic and all, but this 220-acre project, intended to provide rental housing for students and for-sale housing to faculty, shows an uncompromising commitment to sustainability. Although pastoralism is not always the same thing as environmentalism, in this case it comes with some hard-minded environmentalism.
This is a message to all California cities: Take your hats off to Chula Vista. This city of 210,000 people between San Diego and the Mexican border has adopted a plan for an all-new downtown in the Otay Ranch district that makes most other downtown plans seem tentative and incomplete. Perhaps another California community has the political will to approve something equally forward-looking; for the time being, the Otay Ranch Eastern Urban Center is among the plans that are raising the proverbial bar in city planning.
Can 12 million fish be wrong? Virtually no finned critters were to be found in the San Dieguito Lagoon as recently as 2007, when bulldozers began to push tons of earth to create berms along the banks of the coastal waterway. Seven months later, in January 2008, marine biologists were astonished to find millions of baby fish – far in excess of their expectations – squiggling in the newly irrigated lagoon in San Diego County.
NBC Universal has unveiled a master plan for buildout of its 391-acre property in the hills between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Morris Newman offers his analysis by way of a dramatic monologue.
Planners, architects and developers think they make stuff that lasts forever, or at least for a very long time. For them, empty lots are merely temporary conditions. However, empty lots can be interesting and even useful, especially during economic down times. In San Francisco, a number of architects and landscape designers have created temporary uses for cleared construction sites or abandoned construction pits.
Something seems to be missing from the site plan for Quarry Village, a 42-acre proposed housing development in Hayward. Here are orderly rows of streets, a scattering of small parks and a "village center" for neighborhood-scale retail. The 950 housing units are made up entirely of three-story townhouses, arranged in rows of four and six units. What's missing? Garages.
The broad, concrete shoulders of Interstate 5 divide the Docks development parcel from the rest of Sacramento. Until recently, this 43-acre triangle of land remained almost entirely out of sight and out of mind. Now, the city is weighing several plans for large-scale homebuilding plans and parks on the riverfront.
A working-class neighborhood north of downtown L.A. is slated for a development project unlike any other previously built in the state: A combination of housing and a public school on a shared site. Set to start construction this winter, the Glassell Park project is being built jointly by Los Angeles Unified School District and Abode Communities, the nonprofit homebuilder formerly known as Los Angeles Design Center.
The Beach and Edinger Corridors Specific Plan for Huntington Beach seeks to remake Beach and Edinger into first-rate streets. But the plan's elevation of retail sales above other needs could compromise the city's urban design goals.
The Eastern Neighborhoods Community Plans are complex, comprehensive documents that attempt to safeguard surviving industrial sites for business, while providing both incentives and requirements for new housing. The long-awaited planning documents essentially are declaring, "Gentrification stops here."
Wilshire Boulevard is the Main Street of Los Angeles, and the Ambassador Hotel (1921-2006) was its biggest, swankiest, classiest address. The hotel is but a memory these days. Now, after nearly two decades of false starts and lawsuits, construction has finally started on the scheme to convert the Ambassador Hotel property into an education center. >>read more