New Urbanism: Give the People What They Want

triprptWe know that food photographers have a stable of tricks to fool the viewer. That appealing ice cream is really mashed potatoes sprayed with olive oil. Those cheerios are lying in thinned out glue or yogurt, certainly not milk. And that stack of pancakes is probably swimming in photogenic but inedible motor oil, because it will not soak in. But the key ingredient to these deceptions is that the viewer must never know they are being tricked.

Today, I’m in suburban Charlotte, although I could have been in any of several dozen different cities across the country (more every day). I got to visit one of the newest “state of the art” town-center style developments. Something on the footprint of a 1980’s mega-mall, but referring to itself as a “village” or “town”. I learned about it, and its compatriots, at the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) conference I attended in Detroit in June, at the start of my summer long trip.

During the conference, I noted the name and location of this development here in Charlotte, and I have waited with anticipation for over four months for today’s brief visit, and tomorrow’s detail walk around. My excitement was palpable as I drove almost three hours down from Raleigh Durham. But when I got here, it was like that eye catching picture of pancakes in motor oil; I couldn’t help but think this was anything but a village.

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But boy, is it ever popular!

It has a “town center”, a two-block long park of green grass lined with majestic mature shade trees. And just where the hell did those trees come from? This place is only a few years old, and the trees are lined up evenly spaced in both the X and Y axis (like pawns on a chess board) so they surely were not here from before construction. Abutting this long park space is nose-in diagonal car parking. This way the green ribbon of central town square prevents this parking area from feeling like the lot that it actually is. Also the two encircling streets are one way traffic, just like the aisles in a parking lot.

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Greenbelt, Mature Trees, Parking

Facing into the two streets (and the “town square) are blocks long shopping stores; outdoors, opening onto pedestrian friendly sidewalks. Here in Charlotte, in early October, that’s really nice. It has a European flavor and people run in and out of stores in shirt sleeves and one after another restaurant are filled with diners seated at open air cafe tables. This would not be quite so desirable located in Boston in November or Phoenix in July (or El Paso ever).

In front of the stores abutting the sidewalk is parallel car parking. This increases the total cars available to customers by another quarter, and keeps crossing the street consumer friendly. Note, NOT pedestrian friendly, since there is plenty of car traffic. However double blind studies show that shoppers will cross from mid-block of this side to mid-block of that side to spend money at that store over there IF this side has only parallel parked cars abutting the curb. If the sidewalk cars are nose in, the distance is PERCEIVED as too far, and shoppers say “nah, never mind”. (OMG, lost sales!) Diagonal parking in the island has been studied and found is not visually perceived as a deterrence to a consumer walking across to buy their ice cream or handbag … IF there is a green space breaking up the parking lot. Who here remembers the 1940’s gravel boulevard parking lots with their girder guard rails? Old is new again!

Are you ready for those glue-soaked cheerios yet?

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Atop the stores are then stacked three stories of rental units, which then branch off back, away from main street, to the adjoining blocks. It turns out, upon inspection, its just a pretty standard apartment complex. Around back is the mailbox, unit access, car wash, kiosk, etc, for residents. Actually, its an apartment complex stacked over a one story suburban shopping mall that has been slicked up and rolled out around an optimized green break to trick your eye to walk to the most number of stores while parking close. Wow!

104cnu4And those huge three story apartment blocks? You guessed it! One subsection is Tudor, one is brick, one is tan, one is gray, one is blue with green trim and one is green with blue trim. You see, nobody wants to live in giant Soviet or Chinese central planned mega housing blocks … so we build giant housing blocks and then give different parts of them different balcony shapes or different outcroppings, and we paint and stucco sections of them to look like quaint European villages. Oh my, just like Disneyland.

The stores fill the first floor of perimeter of the entire block, facing all 360 degrees. The high rent / high foot traffic stores face into the park and the low rent or car oriented places are on the back of the block, facing the opposite way. And on the opposite side of them is acres of flat parking lots, just like that 1970’s mall or a modern day big box retail store. Those cars are just hidden away, on the far rear end of the idyllic “town center”. If you park out there, you can walk through little cubby hole tunnels and emerge right in “downtown”, as if my magic.

And in the interior of the block, where true European cities have courtyards or playgrounds or natural preserves for spiritual renewal … there is a multi-tier parking garage. Again, hiding stacks of cars to preserve that “walk around Mayberry” feel, but making sure that eager shoppers can to drive right up in their Subarus or Volvos.

In a truly inspired design, at the far end of the town center park is a multi-plex cinema. This way anybody that lives in the rental apartments can walk downstairs to a hair salon, a high end fashion store, the wine shoppe or Victoria’s Secrets (how often do you need to do that?) … and can walk a couple blocks down and see a current flick. Of course there are a dozen restaurants along that path, or along the path back. The acreage to the side and behind the theater is more flat parking lot, so the theatre draws patrons from miles around to the cinema.

Hmmm, the cineplex now creates that highly desirous “synergy” as a destination; distant visitors can see a move and just stroll down the street and eat at one of those cafe’s (and maybe swing by Victoria’s Secret). The restaurants increase the movies’ drawing power, the movies increase the restaurant’s crowds … just like at those 1970’s mega-malls and their early (but failed) high end food courts.

Adjoining this little island of make believe are real neighborhoods, single family homes with attached garages and backyards, high density houses, town homes, and more apartments I’m sure. These places are located from only a few blocks to distances of over a mile from Main Street USA. That must be a nice perk. In the little time I was there, I did see one family walking from a restaurant, across the divide into the adjoining neighborhood. Nice Perk. Also, the downtown area is very bicycle friendly, so the two of you could ride bikes every time you needed to go to the wine shoppe or a movie or Victoria’s secret.

Finally, the two block long green belt “town square” is split in half, and has a traffic circle instead of a busy intersection at its apex. Located within that circle is one of those zany modern open fountains for the kids to play during hot weather. That is surrounded by park benches and 4-top picnic tables for coffee or chess. The entire center park is fenced with child-proof gates, to keep the kids inside from the circling traffic (and to keep people like me befuddled trying to get in).

But the most interesting of all (and you must admit there has been a lot of interesting things) was the signs outlining the acceptable “code of conduct”. Failure to adhere might result in “your expulsion from the center”. “The rules” exist to make everybody’s visit “more pleasant”. No threatening, interfering or “inconveniencing” others. Mind city rules and curfews. No skateboards, littering, obscene t-shirts. OK. But no distribution of pamphlets or petitions anywhere. Shirts and shoes required? And no photography of the property without permission. Now this probably means commercial photographing, like for architectural magazines or for a fashion spread. But it didn’t say that.

It was just one more little piece of Stepford meets Disneyland.

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