August 9, 2001

Rubbernecking leads urban retail revival

  • Creating better places for people watching is a key to successful urban neighborhood centers.

    Saffron Plaza
    Photo courtesy of Bumgardner
    At Saffron Plaza in Sammamish, Bumgardner set the planters at bench height and provided electrical outlets for laptops.

    Four decades have now passed since Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of the Great American City” was first published in 1961 as an attack on modern city planning principles that were promoting “vapid suburban sprawl” and ruining the vibrant diverse neighborhoods of our cities. It is disheartening to reflect on how much development has been created since then by people who were never exposed to her thoughts.

    But the balance may finally be tipping as relatively new yet powerful organizations such as The Congress for New Urbanism and long-established institutions such as The Urban Land Institute bring fresh focus and publicity to her insights. To some extent, our Seattle developers have been on the leading edge of this.

    Among her many thoughtful comments, Jacobs noted the need for “eyes on the street” to create safe, vibrant places for people. This involves designing opportunities for passive human interaction, or people watching, at virtually any time of day and night.

    People watching and window-shopping are enormously popular recreational activities. They are the world’s most popular forms of entertainment. People watching is good for business.

    People watching is done everywhere: deep inside massive regional suburban malls, along the wide sidewalks of our downtowns, at outside dining areas of neighborhood restaurants and on the porch of the corner grocery store.

    Unfortunately, much of America’s post-war people watching involved blazing down a wide concrete ribbon to the regional mall. Many of these malls were subsidized by federal highway funds or direct tax credits, which led to the abandonment of downtowns, neighborhoods centers and the beloved corner grocery store. As a result, by the mid 70s, Fremont was mostly boarded up and scary, Lake City was less a city than a highway, and cul-de-sac living on the Sammamish plateau meant you got in your car and drove miles to get anything.

    But old urban neighborhood centers are rebounding and new ones are being created with Jacob’s spirit in mind.

    Competing with the malls

    Yet it is still not easy to entice people to stay in their neighborhoods and be someone for someone else to watch and give businesses a market for window shoppers. It is still too easy to drive to the malls.

    Urban neighborhood centers must do everything possible to compete with the climate controlled, well lit, safety conscious, beautifully maintained, regional malls that have sucked all the best people watchers and window shoppers out of their homes, into their cars and down their fat highways to find a place to spend their money.

    To create a successful new neighborhood center, or reinforce an existing one, a developer must provide:

    • Wide weather protection over all storefronts, preferably transparent for sunlight.

    • Lots of window display lighting of the right kind and in the right places.

    • Well thought out graphics and signage at the pedestrian level.

    • Well detailed, easily maintained and visually engaging storefronts.

    Most Seattle developers know this and are providing these things, but their efforts have often been limited by regulations.

    Seattle’s zoning codes have recognized the need for diverse smaller scale shops and restaurants in our neighborhood centers rather than bland big boxes. But these small neighborhood enterprises are often family owned and unable to pay the rent for retail space in high-quality, mixed-use buildings with all the public amenities correctly required of new structures by these same codes. Denied by code or cost, tenants are hard to find and the storefronts remain empty.

    Federal, state, regional and local funds must be made available to correct the past highway subsidies provided to the malls and start funding street improvements in neighborhood urban centers, such as:

    • Wide sidewalks.

    • Pedestrian scale streetlights.

    • Utility infrastructure improvements.

    • Public restrooms that are clean, safe and well maintained.

    • Public drinking fountains.

    • Public benches and other places to sit.

    • Attractive trash receptacles that are frequently emptied.

    • Pedestrian-scaled outdoor public spaces adjacent to private business where eating, reading and people watching is encouraged.

    This public funding is easier to justify when we realize that every unit of housing built in an urban neighborhood center is of public benefit. By not building that unit of housing in a suburb, the developer has reduced traffic and pollution, preserved open space and reduced public infrastructure maintenance costs.

    Congestion and the pedestrian

    The “modern 60’s” approach which cures congestion by adding through and turn lanes to streets in and around these neighborhood centers threatens to turn these communities into islands no different than malls. Cut off from the neighborhoods to which they once belonged by streets so wide and so unsafe to cross, none will dare walk to them, but instead, get in their car and drive, making the problem worse.

    Fremont Block 40
    Rendering by Bumgardner
    Bumgardner designed the south portal to the “Center of the Universe” in Fremont Block 40 as two highly visible places for people to sit and be seen.

    Further, we must also stop penalizing developers with “traffic mitigation fees” when they try to build pedestrian-oriented projects in these urban areas.

    There is nothing wrong with congestion around urban neighborhood centers. Congestion slows traffic to a speed safe for pedestrians. If congestion around these hives of pedestrian activity adds five minutes to the drive to a big box retailer, it might help convince that driver to skip the car and take a five minute walk to a neighborhood store instead, especially if it is along a wide, well lit, covered sidewalk blessed with other people to watch and attractive windows to shop.

    And maybe they would find a cozy plaza to sit and read Jane Jacob’s fine book.

    Mark Simpson, AIA, is a principal at Bumgardner.

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