May 16, 2007

Copley Place vs. the Natick "Collection"

I was in Boston's Back Bay last weekend, and it struck me again how fortunate we are that the Copley Place mall was built to integrate into the neighboring community, not moat itself off. While "skywalks" often kill off the streetscape below, the walkways of Copley Place help pedestrians bridge rivers of traffic, and get to neighborhood shopping areas nearby. And if you live or work over Copley Place, you can go by foot to many different destinations in surrounding neighborhoods, including Newbury and Boylston Streets. The mall didn't kill off the nearby neighborhood retail center, one of the best urban pedestrian streetscapes in America. The Huntington Avenue streetscape could be better, but it still attracts pedestrians as well.

The revamped Natick Mall isn't finished yet, and I'm still waiting to see whether there will be any effort to integrate it into the surrounding neighborhoods. The most promising area is where the new Nordstrom's store comes close to Speen Street. Will there be an attractive pedestrian entrance from the Speen Street sidewalk into the store, and thus the mall? Or will it be like the rest of the mall, surrounding by asphalt parking with no attempt to create an appealing way to enter the area on foot? Will there be an effort to make an attractive, safe walking environment from the nearby hotels to the mall, or will it remain a hideous example of suburban sprawl, requiring a car to drive distances that you could walk in 5 minutes given a properly designed environment?

And what of the promises to connect the planned Cochituate Rail Trail to the mall, so people elsewhere in the area have a safe and attractive way to walk there -- not to mention giving people who move into the new mall condos a way to walk someplace besides the indoor stores?


  1. I have mixed feelings about Copley Place. I do like the way it connects several hotels and shopping malls via pedestrian bridges -- particularly with the addition of the bridge to the Prudential Center. Although I enjoy roaming through this maze of activity, I am still very much aware that I'm at a level above the real city. There are escalators down to the street, but I still feel removed.

    The Natick Mall (or "Natick Collection," as it likes to call itself) has some real potential to go beyond the typical self-contained Mall. One thing they proposed was a "main street style" front on the Route 9 side. I haven't seen the design, but this might provide a more interesting and inviting front than the normal blank wall. It reminds me of the Mashpee Commons concept, which I think at least partially succeeds in simulating a real town center.

    The largest shopping center near the Natick Mall is Sherwood Plaza, across Route 9, but any connection to there looks like a lost cause. It's just too far.

    The Speen Street side has more potential. East of Speen Street, there are a variety of stores and businesses, and two large 40B apartment buildings have been proposed. The Mall is building a multi-use path that will go along the northern border of its property, cross Speen Street, and connect to the Rail Trail, and this should promote pedestrian and bicycle access. But the Natick Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee is critical of the current path design and particuarly the way it crosses Speen Street. So it remains to be seen exactly how effective the connection will be.

  2. Copley Place is just fine as long as you stick to the human Habitrails that connect you to all the other malls and hotels.

    But from street level, Copley Place is so obviously a walled fortress designed to isolate SUV-driving suburbanites looking for a little "city" excitement from the actual city. Even at the entrance on Dartmouth, where they have those starving-horse statues, the message to pedestrians is "keep out!" It's far, far worse on the other sides: Huge blank walls and garage entrances that only make you want to walk away as fast as possible, totally out of character with the human scale of most Boston retail districts.

    And it really divides Back Bay and South End, rather than stitching them together (true, it replaced a giant grass bowl and turnpike offramp, which did little to connect the neighborhoods, either).

    It was built around the same time as Lafayette Place which, if anything was even worse (a brick fortress plopped in the middle of an existing retail area), but at least Lafayette Place had the grace to go out of business fairly quickly.

  3. I've taken the T and walked into Copley Place numerous times for business events. I've never walked into the Natick Mall from any surrounding areas, even though I work within walking distance daily. It's physically not possible without feeling unsafe trying to race across multiple lanes of traffic without crosswalks.

    I agree that it's a bit of a walled fortress. You're right about the blank walls and garage entrances, but my point is that it didn't kill off the surrounding neighborhood, and it IS possible to walk there.