Saturday, November 25, 2006

Privatization of the Commons

I was both appalled and delighted five years ago when "The Avenue" opened in White Marsh, Maryland. It is everything that was great about early 20th century small town America, packaged up by big box stores and dropped onto a sea of asphalt like a parked starship. But it also represents acknowledgment of what is needed in America.

It is not a smattering of box stores, it is not a strip mall, it is not even a mall, but instead an artificial public space built on a human scale with mixed uses. If you stand in the right spot and don't notice the acres of asphalt stretching into the distance you just might mistake your reality for a place of substance. But there is no five and dime, and certainly no one is going to know your name at the corner pub.

This is a good step forward and I want to embrace it. But then I start thinking more about what we are doing in packaging what was public space. Make no mistake; this is not Main Street America. This is no more Main Street than the 7/8th model Walt built. You can't picket, parade or protest in this space. This is private property.

The Avenue is no longer alone. This trip I discovered a richer "Town Centre" in what was once Hunt Valley Mall (and a vast improvement on the original). Yes, there is still a large parking lot, but it is no longer simply a redesigned shopping experience. The "street" aligning the shops sits at the end of a light rail line that runs to Baltimore and nearly respects the existing street pattern of the community. The development contains many retail stores, but also a bevy of restaurants, bars, a large supermarket, a department store, and a megaplex.

Harford Mall is currently receiving a similar, alas much smaller make-over.

Maybe there is hope for good design. At least for upper middle class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who are happy with the status quo to enjoy. Maybe with time we'll even start building our businesses on public street fronts again without the need for stadium-sized parking lots.

Heck, college students are now coming up from Baltimore to go to the bars in Bel Air. When I was young the biggest thing happening in Bel Air was the Rock Spring McDonald's.


Mike Boyd said...

We have something very similar here in PG County called Bowie Town Center. The walking aspect is very nice - my main objection is that it's essentially a mall without the outer walls, and despite ample housing walking distance there are no paths, bike racks, etc. There is only one non-chain store (Karibou, an African American focused bookstore which is pretty cool), and the only non-chain restaurant is DuClaw (which is a statewide chain of 5 locations). I was in Charlottesville VA in May, and that town has a very large, car-free downtown section and zoning laws that must keep the chains on the outside of the city proper (peripheral sprawl) - very similar to Burlington VT, though I think Charlottesville is a bit larger. I'd really like to see more urban areas adapt that type of format with focus on local business and a significant attempt to create community (and keep out the automobile).

Great to see you last week!