Management & Labor

Learning To Love Lifestyle Land

The problem is, it couldn't still be there. Small local bookstores can't make a go of it in most places these days. I wish that weren't true, but it is.
by | February 2003

My daughter, Jennie, who is 16 years old, has probably spent about as much of her teenage life in shopping malls as most kids do. But when a brand-new mall opened up in our Arlington, Virginia, neighborhood a year ago, she refused to go there, and as far as I know, hasn't set foot in it yet.

This was puzzling to me at first, because this new entry, Clarendon Market Commons, has a lot to recommend it. It's an open-air mall with carefully designed landscaping, nice restaurants with balconies, and plenty of places to buy clothes, books and CDs. Not only that, it's a five-minute walk from our house. Compare this to the competition-- ugly, sterile, climate-controlled boxes, surrounded by acres of asphalt, reachable only after sitting in a traffic jam and fighting for a parking space--and it's no contest. Market Commons is infinitely better. Nevertheless, my daughter doesn't like it.

Market Commons is a "lifestyle center." As one newspaper explained just last month, lifestyle centers are "the rage of retailing." The term itself was coined more than 15 years ago, by two Memphis developers, Poage and McEwen, but the concept didn't really take off until a couple of years ago. In 1999, there were perhaps 20 of these centers scattered around the country; now, there are more than 50, and dozens under construction--sometimes within a few miles of each other.

Meanwhile, the era of the regional mall is coming to an undignified end. More than 300 of them currently stand vacant, and last year only nine were being built, nearly all of them contracted for long ago. The conventional suburban shopping center is not going to disappear from the face of the earth, but its day of fashionability is done. It is embarrassingly 20th century.

The lifestyle center, on the other hand, is excitingly 21st century. It is easier to say that than to specify what one of these creatures actually is, but the International Council of Shopping Centers has helpfully come forward with a definition of sorts. A lifestyle center is an open-air mall with at least 50,000 square feet of specialty shopping, usually without a full-scale department store but nearly always with at least one sit-down restaurant.

If you don't like that definition, try this one: A lifestyle center is a mall designed to look like a street. The developers communicate their fascination with the old-fashioned walkable life by the names they give these places: "City Place;" "The Avenue at West Chester;" "The Village at Rochester Hills;" "Crystal Cove Promenade."

In some cases, the commitment to urban symbolism stretches beyond the streetscape and the nomenclature. Mount Pleasant, a new lifestyle center near Charleston, South Carolina, has a Belk's department store dressed up to look like an old-fashioned City Hall, complete with a clock tower. Southlake, in Texas, goes even further: Nestled among its upscale boutiques is the actual City Hall.

These centers aren't sprouting up because developers have become acolytes of Andres Duany and the New Urbanists. They are sprouting up because they make money. A study by the consulting firm of Piper Jaffray found that lifestyle centers returned 60.8 percent on their investment after three years. During the same period, conventional malls were returning less than 50 percent. And the gap (not to be confused with the Gap) was widening.

Several of the most ubiquitous retailing giants are, in fact, making massive commitments to the new concept. Talbot's has closed dozens of stores in conventional malls and opened up in lifestyle centers almost everywhere it could find them. The company estimated last year that, by 2004, more than a third of its locations would be in lifestyle land. Williams-Sonoma has made essentially the same decision. They are responding to voluminous evidence that affluent Americans, many of them products of anchorless, car-bound suburbs and regional shopping malls, are craving an experience of place that has been absent from their lives.

Here's the reason my daughter won't go to Market Commons: It's not really an urban experience. It's not a village, and it's not a small- town Main Street. The stores on a true Main Street are occupied in large part by independent local merchants. Lifestyle centers are occupied almost exclusively by national chains. Not only that, but they are the same national chains in every center. Of the first 30 lifestyle centers built in the United States, Banana Republic was in 26 of them, the Gap was in 25, Victoria's Secret in 20, Bath & Body Works in 17, and Barnes & Noble in 16.

As far as my daughter is concerned, this is the furthest thing imaginable from a return to communitarian values. It is a plain- vanilla mall pretending to be something it's not. She'd rather shop at the ugly box on the freeway that doesn't have any pretensions.

And she's not the only one who thinks that way. "It feels like a quaint village, but you know it's not," an Ohio architect complained last year, as one after another of these centers began to take shape around him. "It's a homogenized perfect world, like a place where the Stepford Wives would shop. You can't tell whether you're alive or not."

In other words, the lifestyle-center phenomenon is a fraud. Real urbanists shouldn't have anything to do with it. Or should they?

It's not an easy question. If the developers of Market Commons had been determined to re-create an urban ambience, they could have come closer than they did without going to too much trouble. They could have divided it into blocks, for example. Jane Jacobs demonstrated convincingly in the 1960s that one of the keys to vibrant city life is keeping the blocks short, so people get a sense of compactness, not a sense of distance. Market Commons was built as one long horseshoe, with a massive Barnes & Noble store at the end of a long walkway. It almost cries out for a cozy little intersection in the middle. But it doesn't have one.

On the other hand, it has one virtue that is even simpler than short blocks: It is outside. It is not a climate-controlled universe intentionally cut off from the outside world. This is the first element of the lifestyle-center catechism: build it in the open air. They are doing that even in Detroit and Chicago, where the open air can be a little chilly five or six months out of the year.

Not only is Market Commons outdoors, but you can take the train to it. There's a Metro rail station less than a quarter of a mile away. People who live at Market Commons--there are a couple hundred apartments above the shops, and townhouses surrounding them--can commute to work in downtown Washington, D.C., without a car. Granted, the place has two big parking garages tucked in behind the storefronts, but at least transit is an option. It's an option in many of the lifestyle centers.

All of this still begs my daughter's fundamental question: How can you call something a "village" or a "town square" when it's lined with the same chain stores that can be found in any mall on the highway? It's true: As far as I know, there's not a single locally owned business in the entire Market Commons. Some of what's there is a threat to local business. The Ben & Jerry's on the second-story patio competes with Lazy Sundae, the ice cream parlor started a few years ago by two neighborhood residents. We're lucky to have a neighborhood ice cream parlor. We wouldn't want to lose it.

But it helps to be realistic. There are other neighborhood businesses we lost a long time ago, and wouldn't have now even if Market Commons didn't exist. When my wife and I moved to the area 25 years ago, there was a tiny independent bookstore, Books Unlimited. The name wasn't really accurate. It was very limited. The selection wasn't great and the proprietor wasn't especially helpful. Even so, if it were still there, I'd use it, rather than going to the gigantic new Barnes & Noble with the Starbucks inside.

The problem is, it couldn't still be there. Small local bookstores can't make a go of it in most places these days. I wish that weren't true, but it is. The market has evolved to the point where many kinds of goods and services can be delivered at a profit only by a large- scale retailer with many outlets. Ice cream, fortunately, is not one of them. But books are. Boycotting Barnes & Noble isn't going to change that.

What is changeable is the physical setting in which shopping takes place. Between the 1950s and the 1990s, American entrepreneurs invested billions of dollars in creating the most sterile environment possible, forcing people into automobiles just to purchase the necessities of life.

Now, members of the generation that grew up in these sealed shopping compounds have come to realize the places are boring. They sense, however inchoately, that there is a better way to organize human commerce, and that it has something to do with cities, streets, avenues and villages.

And the market is responding, however clumsily, to the demand that has come to exist. Just as it took billions of dollars of investment to establish the landscape of the last generation, it will take billions to change it, even a little bit. This is not a job that small-scale merchants will be able to tackle. That's unfortunate, but it's true. Right now, for a variety of complex reasons, developers are emerging with the financial incentives and the resources to experiment with new forms of commercial life. In the end, I have to conclude that's a good thing, even if a lot of what gets built is far from ideal.

So this year, I bought my daughter a couple of Christmas presents at Market Commons. I didn't tell her where they came from. I think she knew, though. She still accepted them. I took that to be progress.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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