Monday, February 10, 2003

What Mall Did You Hang Out At?

I wrote this a month ago, as a tangent to Dan's musings on Richmond's Sixth Street Market, From the Marble Bar.

An interesting question Dan raises: what do shoppers seek? The design of 1970s and 80s shopping centers assumed shoppers wanted, well, centers of shopping like they’d had in country village or downtown, only closer to where the lived now. While Willow Lawn (built in the 1950s) remained mostly open to the sky, developers decked later, roofed Cloverleaf Mall and Regency Square with fountains and outdoor statuary. The name Chesterfield Town Centre seemed overly optimistic for 10 years or so; it took a long time for that modest mall to become an actual center – of chain restaurants and center of big box stores. The women’s clothier LaVogue had a Cloverleaf Mall store constructed to be a romanticized village: a brick sidewalk (as I recall it), with plantings and fountains, flanked by Tudor and Georgian “store fronts,” one with accessories, one with sports wear, another for dresses. I’m not sure if it’s what we sought, but shopping center builders of the period gave us Town Centers.

A 1990s shopping center in western Henrico County called Downtown Short Pump (after the former, ironical name for a rural crossroads with a couple of car repair shops and a 1930s-ish gas station) makes me crazy. Two out of three times I went there last year, I spent a great deal of time circling, trying to find a place to park. Years ago, my cohorts on the staff of the local history museum and I had a thesis that “but there’s no place to park” coming out of the mouths of suburbanites (white or black) was code for “it’s dirty and there are poor (black) people there, that’s why we don’t want to go [to the Fan, downtown, to Shockoe Bottom].” When I went to a different suburban movie theater on Sunday with a friend (still working at the museum), she noted she had had the same frustrating lack-of-parking experiences. I’ve never circled in the city looking for parking as long as I did in Short Pump. You can always pay for a garage, or just park a block further away than you hoped. I remain puzzled about Downtown Short Pump, though: do the people who complain about finding parking on my block not notice how bad it is out there? Do they think that because it has the word “downtown” in it they aren’t entitled to find parking?

Yes, Dan is right, Richmond shoppers are not seeking unique boutiques nestled into the space that used to be 6th Street. At the beginning of this century, most people seek familiar chains, surrounded by parking lots they perceive to be ample, near to the far-flung suburbs in which they live. Though I am most certainly the type to be unbearably smug about preferring my locally-owned coffee shop to That Chain, I could see national chains having the drawing power and utility that a cross-section of people would frequent. Brave suburban punks, trendy people living in lofts in Tobacco Row, and denizens of Jackson Ward would all go to an Old Navy at Broad and 6th; and nearly all of those folks could use something from a K-Mart or Target (go ahead and put it in the old Woolworth’s and damn the symbolism!). But, alas, at last check of the RTD, what we’re getting is an art space in or on the location of Thalhimers and a hotel in Miller & Rhoades (which could be quite pretty). And meanwhile, mostly unplanned Carytown booms with shops (most of which I don’t need and can’t afford, but that’s a story for another day).

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