Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Posts Tagged ‘Springfield Mall’

Retrofitting suburbs

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 5, 2009

A great new book provides hope as well as urgency that our suburbs can and must be redesigned for a sustainable future. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by architecture scholars Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, looks at dozens of large-scale retrofit projects of malls and other suburban spaces. These include:

  • Cathedral City, California, where the land uses along the arterial highway have been rezoned and the street has begun to be tamed to allow for safer crossings
  • Mizner Park, Florida, a highly successful pedestrian- and public-space oriented redevelopment of a failed mall in Boca Raton
  • Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, another failed mall redevelopment with quirky small lots — also very economically successful

These are first-hand case studies loosely informed by a somewhat vague thesis that “incremental urbanism,” an organic view of how cities should evolve bit by bit — based on how successful cities have evolved in the past — must give way to a more fundamental centralized mode of change characterized by large-scale suburban face-lifts spearheaded by private-public partnerships. That is, Jane Jacobs gives way to Robert Moses-style suburban renewal. Almost all of the case studies are characterized by development partnerships where the redesigned spaces are turned over to either a private property manager or a private-public partnership such as a Business Improvement District. The serendipitous accretion of densely mixed, diverse uses and assets that Jane Jacobs saw in great cities was, as she pointed out, inapplicable to other kinds of settlements such as suburbs. And the authors seem to be arguing in their introduction that suburbs can’t and shouldn’t develop this way — for all our well justified fear of centrally planned monolithic settlements, suburban retrofits need to be large-scale with a “man behind the curtain” to work.

The main virtue of the book, though, is not the thesis but the richly detailed first-hand looks at these redesigned places and intelligent analyses. The case studies have a healthy dose of skepticism about, for example, the trend toward detached “lifestyle centers.” At the same time, the authors recognize that places like lifestyle centers, i.e. faux town centers, have become established real estate products and can, with some adaptation, become functional communities where people can live, do errands and enjoy themselves.


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Malls in transition

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 4, 2009

Springfield Mall. Courtesy labelscar.com, "Caldor"

Springfield Mall. Courtesy labelscar.com, "Caldor"

Just a five-minute drive from our Fairfax City neighborhood are two shopping centers whose anchor tenants have either closed up shop or are distinctly underperforming. You can find places like this throughout Fairfax County.  Some shopping centers, such as in Bailey’s Crossroads, have reinvented themselves as new residents have moved in and established new businesses serving changing clienteles. But many others are in decay. Their anchor tenants have either left or are distinctly on the ropes, and their vast parking lots are half empty on the busiest days.

Yesterday I visited Fairfax’s poster child for mall-gone-bad, the Springfield Mall. Vornado, the mall’s owner, has been working with the county to rezone the mall so they can build more stores and a hotel. The plan, which is near approval, calls for filling most of the surface parking inside the mall area with a street grid and green space, and placing new buildings close to the street for better pedestrian access.

The mall is within walking distance of the Springfield-Franconia Metro station, but it is a very unpleasant walk along Frontier Drive, across two wide streets and along the auto-oriented station access road. Just across the street from the mall are attractive apartments built by Archstone, but I doubt many residents walk to the mall when they visit. Less attractive are the gated townhomes right behind the apartments, adding to the fortress feeling of the area. The first thing the motoring visitor to the Mall sees, the large Macy’s sign, has faded lettering that Macy’s is evidently in no hurry to refurbish and Vornado is evidently in no hurry to press them to do so.  Granted that Wednesday lunch hour, when I was there, is not the busiest time for any mall,  but I counted fewer than a dozen shoppers on my way from the second floor of Macy’s down to the ground floor food court. I would have probably seen three or four times that many patrons at Tysons Galleria during the same time of day. Commercial tenants include a Gymboree and Oriental Rugs.  At the entrance to the  food court a polo-shirted visor-capped worker tried to get me to try some chicken Teriyaki, and another toothpick sized sample was thrust toward me when I walked past the booth. Give them credit for trying to make it work.

I hope the rezoning increases patronage and foot traffic outside as well as inside the mall area, but this looks like another case of “lifestyle center” development with little organic relation to the assets around the mall — particularly the Metro station. We’ll see.

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