“A serious retail hole is about to be filled in the upscale Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, Mich. A gap of some 30 miles currently exists between major malls and brand-name retailers in the area, forcing affluent residents to take road trips to nearby Troy and Sterling Heights to purchase high-end goods. But that will change in September 2002 when locally based developer Robert B. Aikens & Associates completes its latest project, The Village of Rochester Hills.”

That from an article in something called “Retail Traffic Magazine” Gawd, I don’t know what I would do if I lived 30 miles from the nearest “high-end” goods! God forbid that happen … luckily something new is here to save the day. That something is an odd development called a “lifestyle center.” You see, after a certain point just another mall sounds boring to your average American suburban consumer, who has had just about enough muzak and orange juliases to last a lifetime. The answer, at least for people who read “Retail Traffic,” is to build something as close as a CBD (central business district, for the uninitiated) as possible, without of course public space, churches, community organizations, political pamphlets, apartments, poor people, or the homeless. Yes, it’s a lifestyle center. Like a mall, these retail developments feature high-end, uber-expensive retail outlets, but unlike a mall they have streets, are open-air, and are designed to include more restaurants, theatres, and the like than traditional malls. Well, it turns out that people really do like the urban environments their parents fled from way back in the misty past circa 1950, flocking to these antiseptic shopping paradises to escape the tedium of the local mall:

“The average retail mall makes about $211 in annual sales per square foot,” said Terry McEwen, of Memphis, Tenn.-based retail developers Poag & McEwen. “The average lifestyle center makes about $500 in annual sales per square foot.” (From this 2001 Freep article: Shopping mall alternatives)

If people are just yearning for something more authentic, and more interesting than a few hundred chain stores in the same climate-controlled mall, you can’t blame them. Luckily, I think the “Retail Traffic” crowd, the general public, and urban planners and government officials are coming closer to meeting than ever before. How else to explain the success of towns who built themselves a downtown (Southfield and Birmingham, perhaps) and the enduing popularity of downtown Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and that wierd island where all the republicans go to slap each other on the back every year because Detroit reveals exactly how successful their urban and social policies are. Lest you think my geography limited to Michigan, something called “New Urbanism” is all the rage, causing urban planning students to flock to places like Seaside, Florida to drool all over something they could probably find in their hometown. The dean of the Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Douglass Kelbaugh, is something of a leader in the movement. (All his books at the Ann Arbor Borders are signed!)

Luckily I am from a place that never really forgot how nice real cities are (Hello Atlanta!) and near a city with enough quaint, folksy, authentic charm to awe a suburban Michigander, not to mention our beautiful New England-y towns that attract reality-starved residents of Massachusetts’ sprawl like moths to a light.

To read more about all of this this, Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier is indispensable to understand the cliche ‘How We Got Here’. For a great discription of the problem, James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere is good, although dated since it is nearly ten years old. To read somebody who tries real hard to argue we can have a true city and still drive everywhere, but also understands exactly why sprawl happens from a business point-of-view, try Joel Garreau’s eye-opening Edge City. For a book about the nitty-gritty issues that either make or break modern urban planning, Andres Duany’s “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream” is excellent. Also, for a definitive work by the grandmother of American urbanism, see Jane Jacob’s supurb The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Author: Rob