Continuing my occasional series on urban planning, I’d like to turn my attention to the topic shopping center planning.
Charlottesville is currently ramping up an enormous glut of shopping centers. We’re soon to have just over fifty square feet of retail space for every Charlottesville/Albemarle resident, if memory serves. This will inevitably result in the inner sections of our suburban ring being abandoned. Albemarle Shopping Center will be the first to go. Barracks Road Shopping Center may well last, thanks to UVa students, but they’re bound to decline. The really ridiculous part of adding these things is the argument made by the developers, who say that the shopping center will contribute
X million dollars to the public coffers each year. That’s foolish, of course — adding new stores doesn’t increase spending. We’ll just spend our money there rather than elsewhere. For the county it’s a wash.
Our latest shopping center is Hollymead Town Center, named despite the lack of any town named Hollymead and that it’s not in the center of anything. (This is only slightly preferable to the habit of naming shopping centers after the natural feature that has been eliminated to create it. Shady Pines. Lakeview. River’s Bluff.) Constructing it involved leveling dozens of acres next to Route 29, just north of town, turning an enormous area immediately next to the airport into a muddy pit. Plans call for a commercial area up front, with housing farther back from the road. I eagerly await the new residents’ complaints to the county about the jet noise, which rank right up there with developments adjacent to farmland that yield complaints about the odor of animal feces.
The purpose of all of that dirt-moving was to create an enormous bluff, on which the shopping center perches. Not willing to settle for merely raising the whole affair ten feet into the air, they put an oversized parking lot between the highway and the buildings. From the road, it looks a little like this.
Can you tell what’s in that shopping center? If you have good eyes, and you’re familiar with the logo, you’ll see a Petsmart. On the left, just cut off, is a bank. That’s it — only two shops.
In fact, there are dozens of stores up there. An entire Harris Teeter. A Starbucks. A couple of restaurants. A video store. Even a ginormous Target. You’d never know it. Apparently this is problematic enough that Target decided to pony up some money to let people know they’re there.
Hollymead Town Center has done two things wrong here.
- In an effort to make their shopping center more visible and seem more important (anticipating their nearby planned competitors), they’ve physically elevated it. The road runs immediately next to the hill, though, so its elevation serves to hide it, the precise opposite of their presumed intention.
- Presumably out of sheer habit, the developers placed the parking lot in front of the stores, rather than behind them. This places so much distance between the road and the storefronts that it is simply impossible to see the buildings, to say nothing of the signs or the contents of the store’s windows.
Elevating the shopping center is bizarre, but the parking lot setback is standard. And it’s a standard that should have been ditched years ago.
Remember window displays? Those are gone. There’s no point. With acres of parking lot separating roads from shops, people have no opportunity to be enticed by products.
A central tenet of proper urban planning is the concept of enclosure. There’s a proper ratio of building height to road width to make people feel as if they are securely part of a streetscape. That’s part of why people love Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. When buildings are set back so far on either side of the road, there’s no streetscape of speak of. There’s no enclosure. And so we feel no sense of belonging or connection to our environment when we occupy it. That’s anomie in action.
The solution? Municipal planning guidelines should be modified to encourage — or better yet, require — such developments to conform with some basic streetscape standards. Move parking lots around back, or distribute them around all sides. Set buildings close to the road. And keep such shopping centers close together, rather than set apart. When they try to stand alone they opt out of the community, which impacts our transportation infrastructure, our collective concept of place, and our sense of community.
These simple changes would be good for customers, good for citizens, and good for business.