April 28, 2005

The Myth of Convenience

Nobody sets out on purpose to design a pedestrian-hostile community. Too often, though, that's what we end up with.

Has anyone stopped to ask why?

Sometimes, it's because local officials don't consider the impact of designs on walkers and cyclists. Other times, they simply don't think it's important.

But in many cases, the concern is commercial. A lot of developers and local officials still believe that anywhere outside a city, people most value "easy-in, easy-out" design. And that's why so many of our malls and housing developments have all the appeal of a drive-through window: We design whatever gets the most cars flowing at maximum efficiency.

It's the myth of convenience.

Why else would anyone design something like Shoppers World in Framingham, where the heart of the development isn't the stores or a pedestrian promenade for window shopping, but a parking lot? It's to make people feel like it's easy to drive in, park quickly, and get to a store.

However, are people truly unwilling to drive round to the back of a building and park? Certainly they'll balk if, say, there's a narrow, dangerous, poorly maintained or unappealing driveway to rear parking. Or if there's an unpleasant feeling once you get out of your car -- Dumpsters in the back, unwelcoming back entrances, a feeling of insecurity, and so on.

But it's possible to create 'round-the-back parking that works.

The movie theater in Waltham has it. So does downtown Concord. While Trader Joe's in Framingham has parking in front, the store in Brookline has parking in the rear -- and the Brookline lot seems just as crowded as Framingham's. And clearly, Christmas shoppers who drove into the Natick Mall from Rte. 9 were more than willing to continue driving around to park in the back (if they could).

So why are suburban planners so wedded to "setbacks" and buildings surrounded by parking moats? I suspect remnants from a decades-old trauma, when spanking-new shopping malls first started "killing off" downtown commercial centers across America.

There are a lot of reasons why traditional downtowns lost out to suburban malls during the '60s and '70s, ranging from general population shifts to economics to trends of the times. But I believe some officials can't shake the notion that "lack of convenient parking visible from the roadway" helped doom local downtowns in their battle with the malls.

It's true some older downtowns weren't designed for the volume of vehicles that flooded America's streets as people migrated to the suburbs. But that's a problem with traffic exceeding design, not the basic Main Street concept itself (which can be altered to handle more parking). NO design works well when traffic exceeds capacity. How "easy-in, easy-out" was the average mall parking lot during peak stress load of Christmas shopping season?

In any case, hot concepts cool off; trends shift. And local officials who think they can safeguard our local economy by continuing to follow a formula from a generation ago may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Urban centers are on the rise again, while some cities' inner suburbs are threatened. Meanwhile, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates up to 140 malls in the U.S. are "greyfields" -- in serious economic decline -- with hundreds more in danger.

"Enclosed malls are not doing particularly well," Michelle Panovich, principal at Illinois-based Mid-America Asset Management Inc., told McGraw-Hill's Construction magazine earlier this year.

Of course there are still plenty of successful, conventional malls around; just as there were plenty of thriving downtowns during the heyday of the mall. However, there's ample evidence that today, creating a pedestrian-friendly shopping environment can be an economic as well as aesthetic winner.

"Americans' changing shopping habits have unraveled the regional mall formula that worked to cookie-cutter perfection for four decades," notes a piece in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, discussing changes in retailing that include so-called "lifestyle centers" -- open-air commercial areas that try to recreate the feel of a Main Street, with pedestrian friendly walkways and outdoor restaurants.

The good news is that a Framingham developer plans just such a center, within a short walk from thousands of office workers. The bad news is that it's not in MetroWest, but in Burlington.

Instead, here in the Golden Triangle, we've got the Natick Mall expansion proposal, offering the same tired approach of building for cars first and everything else a distant second. Yes, there's supposed to be a branch of the Cochituate Rail Trail heading to the mall, but no agreement yet on how it will cross Speen Street to get there. Also, it appears the trail will dump out on the edge of a parking lot, not exactly an ideal pedestrian ambiance. I didn't see any decent screening between walkway areas and whizzing traffic in the plans. Perhaps I missed something, but the current expansion plans looked just like everything else along Rte 9 -- all about moving vehicles around, with walkability a tiny afterthought.

That may have been economically rewarding 40 years ago. But in 2005, the negative impact of such pedestrian-hostile planning may reverberate far wider than poor aesthetics and quality of life.

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