Monday, January 03, 2005

Guess that Pitzer Class on Malls Wasn't Such a Dumb Idea

A few days ago, I took my first trip up to The Grove at Fairfax and 3d in LA. I'd heard a lot of good stuff about it: it was pretty, novel, full of the kinds of stores in which I most frequently shop. And despite developer Rick Caruso's Republican campaign contributions, I liked the idea of new retail development that was cutting edge or sought to imbue a sense of place.

I was an idiot.

The LAT's Steve Lopez agrees and for most of my reasons.

What I never considered in the months of thinking about Caruso's struggles to develop other Groves (like the Americana at Brand in Glendale), is the practical reality of what those places are. They're fakes.

Think about - these open air malls are all the rage. Developers are literally taking the roof off of existing malls, declining in popularity, hoping to give them the edgey newness of Caruso-type developments (The Avenue up in PV, plans for Del Amo's conversion are in the works). But as I was walking down the "street" at the Grove, I was struck with the most obvious realization ever. Caruso has created . . . . a downtown.

WOW! Golly Gee Whiz Bang. There's fancy architecture, facades, restaurants with patio seating, a one-block trolley (populated by, as Lopez aptly puts it, people who'd never be caught dead on actual public transit), and storefronts on sidewalks, rather than on annexed-from-parking-lots mall concourses. Hello, people. It's about as retro as you can get.

Did you know this is how most cities operated until the introduction of modern malls in the 50s? Lakewood Center - arguably the nation's first "mall" - was thought doomed because the stores didn't front on the street, but where encased in walls and separated from thoroughfares by vast parking lots. Welcome car culture, good-bye community.

The Grove really is beautifully constructed. It's vibrant. But it's imaginary. It's visiting a downtown that never was and never will be. Caruso will keep building more downtowns - leading to a more segmented Los Angeles - if that's possible. I heard one argument that people shopping at home isn't all bad. It's not - except that I'm not from the Fairfax area and I was shopping there. Caruso isn't coming down and putting a Gap into the lovely, camera-ready downtown San Pedro storefronts. I wouldn't want him to, either, if he bulldozed them to recreate them in Toonville proportions. West LA, the Foothills, and Valley have plenty of traffic and attractions. Sticking more fakes there is redundant.

It's personally difficult for me to make these arguments because I also firmly believe that each new Banana Republic is a small gift from heaven. If you can incorporate that new Banana into an area that needs it, however, rather than just fabricating its new home out of an idea-of-place that separates the public from, well, reality, then shouldn't that be the way to go? Stop bringing the mountains to mohommad-masses and try to encorage smart commuting and shoppping.

The Grove is nice as a shopping center. But as the wave of the future, it's a sad, history-killing, ignorance-dependent throwback that undermines redevelopment, preservation, and smart growth. There's a lot of potential in the underlying concept - creating public spaces that encorage gathering, etc. But let's take it a step further and really recreate communities - not simulacra.

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