What exactly is a "lifestyle centre"? And is it just a dressed-up shopping mall?

Image: Santana Row.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose’s Santana Row covers 42 acres. Its dense, high-end retailing, residences, restaurants and offices create a city-within-a-city. The architecture – with urban row houses finished with earth tones and pastel stucco – overtly evokes Old Europe, and developers brought in antique metalwork, pottery and stone fountains to further instill a sense of history (one store even imported the façade of a nineteenth-century building from France).

Meet the shopping mall’s hipper, New Urbanist cousin: the “lifestyle centre.”

The form is becoming more and more popular among developers and shoppers. But while lifestyle centres are promoted as a 21st century, community-oriented alternative to the soulless shopping mall, their purported Main Street “authenticity” is perhaps a new style of retail façade.

A mall or not?

Lifestyle centres are defined by the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC) as a “specialized centre” that has “upscale national-chain specialty stores with dining and entertainment in an outdoor setting”. The ICSC further describes them as a

multi-purpose leisure-time destination, including restaurants, entertainment, and design ambiance and amenities such as fountains and street furniture that are conducive to casual browsing.

It’s a description that sounds an awfully lot like a mall. But there are noticeable differences. Whereas a mall is traditionally anchored by department stores (Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Sears), lifestyle centres are anchored by large specialty stores (Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma) or movie theatres. While a regional mall averages 800,000 square feet in retail space, a lifestyle centre is smaller – around 320,000 square feet.

The centres have been popping up in affluent suburbs across the country for the last 15 years, and they are often mixed-use developments, bringing apartments, condos, restaurants, movie theatres, grocery stores – even hotels – to the mall’s historically singular retail focus.

The ICSC estimates that 412 lifestyle centres are open in the United States today (which only comprises a little under 2 per cent of the total number of shopping centres). Meanwhile, some malls – like the Biltmore Square Mall in Asheville, NC – have even taken the radical step of ripping off their roofs to “de-mall.”

Attention to detail

Michael Beyard of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) sees the design of lifestyle centres as a shift from “‘wow’ architecture” to the “architecture of comfort.” According to Beyard, developers are trading the mall’s soaring atrium or the Mall of America’s roller-coasters for the lifestyle centre’s attention to detail: cobblestone sidewalks, cast-iron lighting, or Art Deco-inspired neon signs.

The traditional, indoor shopping mall is known for its soaring atrium and sprawling floor plan. Image: kishjar? via Flickr.

At Market Common Clarendon in Arlington, Virginia – completed in 2001 – the developers spent more on details like signage, pavement, facades, plantings, fountains and sidewalks. However, the price-tag for the extras was made up for elsewhere: the developers saved significant resources by not having to build a mall’s roof.

The architecture at lifestyle centres is purposefully “eclectic,” so as to feel “legitimate,” explains Robert Koup of Jacobs engineering. He says that developers either ask an architect to respond to a certain period of architecture or they use multiple architects on one project. For instance, BAR architects of San Francisco, who worked on two blocks of Santana Row, described their “arcaded loft and retail buildings…modeled on turn-of-the-century industrial structures” – all designed to “recall historic shopping venues.”

By incorporating elements from history into retail projects, “lifestyle centres are designed specifically to make it look like it all evolved over time,” Koup continues.

The mix of buildings also provides a solution to another criticism about malls: their homogeneity in both form and retailing. It’s an eclectic antidote to complaints about the sterility and sameness of chain stores. Indeed, as the lifestyle centres are dominated by chain stores (like their mall brethren before them) the quirky styles of the stores make them seem more unique, local, and un-chain-like.

Lifestyle centres seek to recreate the retail experience of yesteryear’s Main Street. Pictured are the Shops at Arbor Lakes, in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Image: Mgwiki via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s one of the lifestyle centres great conceits: it wants to look like a town’s perfectly preserved, picturesque Main Street from yesteryear, but it’s all being created from scratch. Of course, some might see an irony in manufactured authenticity.

Victor Gruen’s vision fulfilled?

In many respects, lifestyle centres seek to fulfill the ambitious ideas of 1950s shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen. Gruen, a Jewish architect from Vienna who emigrated to Beverly Hills, promised that the shopping mall would bring urbanity to the “phony respectability and genuine boredom” of postwar suburbia.

In the shopping centre, Gruen saw a means to bring what he termed “community” to soulless suburbs. It would be a place where people could gather, stroll and socialize, and his ideal mall would include community theaters, libraries, daycare, bomb shelters (it was the Cold War, after all), jazz concerts and art shows. “By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities,” Gruen argued in his 1960 book Shopping Towns USA, “shopping centres can fill an existing void.”

Victor Gruen’s community-oriented vision for shopping centres wasn’t entirely fulfilled. American Heritage Centre, Wyoming.

While it’s difficult to imagine now, when suburban shopping malls first opened in the 1950s, contemporary observers compared them to the best-known retail experience of their time: downtown. In Gruen’s first mall – the Southdale Centre, completed in 1956 in the suburbs of Minneapolis – most thought Gruen had succeeded in bringing downtown to the suburbs. Southdale was “more like downtown than downtown itself,” claimed the Architectural Record.

The main appeals of the mall were its commercial density, pedestrian spaces, cafes and artwork (faux as they may seem now), which suggested an aura of urbanity for new suburbanites who had just left the city.

With his Southdale Centre, Gruen liked to brag that he had re-created “the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares.” But while Gruen had imagined Southdale as a mixed-use complex of offices, medical facilities and apartment buildings, retail became the predominant focus of the suburban mall. Many of Gruen’s less-profitable schemes ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sitting in the middle of a sea of parking, Southdale largely isolated itself from the surrounding community, creating a giant island of retail. Even Gruen acknowledged that all the “trees and flowers, music, fountains, sculpture and murals” were all designed with an eye towards increasing profits.

Or as he wrote, “the environment should be so attractive that customers will enjoy shopping trips…This will result in cash registers ringing more often and recording higher sales.”

A 1956 photograph of shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen’s Southdale Mall. Image: Life Magazine.

Nonetheless, Southdale was an immediate success: on its first day of business, 75,000 visitors stopped in to view the new phenomenon. The mall’s grand design proved that suburbanites could be enticed to stay within a climate-controlled, private space for hours upon hours of shopping, and a new model of American retailing was born.

A different flavour of the same thing

For decades, the interior-focused, blank-faced suburban malls – always surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking – would become characteristic of the postwar retail model. In the process, malls stole the market-share, tax dollars, jobs and pizazz of traditional downtown shopping districts.

But malls were eventually doomed by their own success: the formula became too easy to replicate, and the design became ubiquitous. With the same chain stores and cookie-cutter designs, malls came to symbolize both mind-numbing homogeneity and loss of community.

“Suddenly people realized this mall formula is everywhere and is getting boring,” says Beyard.

It’s also possible that the sheer size of many malls overwhelmed shoppers. For instance, the 2.4 million square foot King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania includes over 400 stores; it’s anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, JC Penney and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Lifestyle centres propose to remedy that mind-numbing situation. However, Cooper Carry architect David Kitchens is skeptical of their longevity.

“They are a better, fresher mousetrap that will work for awhile and then go away,” he says.

Rather than making real connections with the surrounding community, he thinks that many of them – especially the ones devoted solely to retailing – are “designed to be a category killer that will suck the lifeblood out of everything else.”

Yet the shift from large malls to smaller lifestyle centres is part of a larger story, Kitchens insists. He sees lifestyle centres as tapping into Americans’ “emotional desire to rebuild their community.”

“As development gets larger and larger,” he continues, “people now want to decentralize and build personal feeling back into their lives.”

Parading themselves as Main Streets from a bygone era, these new retail centres hope to recreate what was lost in the rush to cover America with large malls from the 1950s through the 1990s. Yet at their core, Gruen’s ideal mall and the New Urbanists' lifestyle centres share the same aspiration: a thriving community centre, yes – but one that ultimately turns a tidy profit.

And whether we like it or not, suburban Americans have been building community on a foundation of commercialism for the last sixty years.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jeff Hardwick is a Senior Program Officer in the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for Humanities.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.