Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Town Centers and Public Space

Dateline: 4:04 pm March 4, 2008 Filed under:

Two issues have been my mind recently, and both have to do with the proliferation of the creation of town centers and lifestyle centers. Most of these new town centers are in suburban locations that don’t previously contain a “place to gather;” or a downtown in the traditional sense. The issues are whether or not it is possible for a single-developer to create a downtown from scratch in a short period of time, and in doing so, if these “town centers” have truly public streets or if they are private. The jury is still out on the first issue, but I can tell you that our town centers are often private property rather than public space.

I was reminded of these issues on a recent trip to California. My family visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which I highly recommend. Afterwards we strolled down the adjacent historic Cannery Row district of Monterey and had a picnic in the plaza, which is located between several shops and restuarants and has a view of the bay.

It was a lovely sunny day and the plaza was a perfect place for a picnic. It dawned on me as we ate our lunch and listened to a musician play and watched people mingle about that this plaza was very likely on private property. The Cannery Row Company developed much of the real estate in the vicinity and I am willing to bet they own the plaza as well.

Let it be known that the Cannery Row Company did a great job of it all. The reuse of old buildings, the plaza – lovely! But back to the point: I didn’t see any signs saying “No Picnics,” and what property owner of a mixed-use tourism-based develoment is in their right mind going to kick out people for having a picnic just because they didn’t buy food at one of the associated establishments (I borrowed silverware, but that is another story)? Still, it raises an interesting issue as to what activities are allowed based on whether it is private or public property.

Across the country, lifestyle centers and suburban (and urban) town center developments are sprouting up, largely based on consumer preference over enclosed interior malls, which are falling out of style. This type of development typically touts its streets, squares and plazas as places to sit and watch the world go by, preferably after spending vast sums of money at the various businesses that line those streets, squares and plazas.

More often than not these streets are private. This is for a variety of reasons – some financial, some regulatory, some by chance. Perhaps the developer wanted it that way for control, just like indoor mall corridors are privately owned, which of course allows for easier to “control the environment.” Perhaps the city doesn’t have the funding to build or manage the streets. Often the city has never created a street with similar landscaping or pedestrian standards and it is simpler for the developer to control the process and therefore own the streets.

Regardless, the public may gather at these perceived public places, even for non-retail events like a parade or the 4th of July fireworks, unaware that they are actually on private property. I came across this issue while writing an article about the proposed City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City. The streets that will be created as part of that project will be private. You will likley be able to sit on a bench there without buying anything, but good luck trying to have a gathering or protest.

I don’t fault developers and property owners for this. Ever notice at a new town center that the security is private and not the local police? The owners want to keep the place nice for shoppers, and that means keeping the riff-raff out. With private security officers, owners can create their own rules, and that is certainly their prerogative. After all, they sunk a lot of money in to this operation.

Why is this important? Truly public places are critical to all cities and to democracy in general. I’m no expert on civil liberties, but it strikes me that if our primary or natural meeting places in our towns and cities are private property, then where can we truly gather and speak freely?

I commend cities like Burnsville, Minnesota for at least indirectly facing this issue. They chose nearly a decade ago to create their own downtown, something they never had. This story is like countless other suburbs, except that Burnsville created a plan for their Heart of the City that was not dependent on one developer to execute. There is no lifestyle center or silver-bullet solution, just a collection of projects built over time. The plan also keeps streets public. Most impressive, the first phase included a new public park – a public square – a true gathering place for all.

I don’t mean to criticize town center developments. Certainly most I have seen are well-designed; beautiful in fact. And they are in almost all cases better than the prior land uses. True, some suburban town centers feel a little contrived, but some pull it off really well. Countless suburbs now have a favorite place for residents to go that is pedestrian friendly and has ice cream. Who can argue with that?

Yes, Heart of the City is taking longer to develop than lifestyle centers. The people of Burnsville have to wait for market conditions to be right so each different property type can fill in its downtown, rather than the whole thing being done at once. But I challenge you to look ahead twenty or thirty years and imagine what these town centers will be like.

As single-owner town centers and lifestyle centers age, many will not not age well, if strip centers today are any indication. Conversely, Heart of the City will have individual property owners to reinvest piece by piece, which will allow it to better roll with market conditions and reinvent itself over time. That is the way a true downtown should be. I don’t think the highest priority for the citizens and elected officials of Burnsville was to have a place to hold a protest, but in the end, the citizens of Burnsville will have that public park in which to meet, recreate, hold events and possibly even demonstrate. Eventually they, too, will get their ice cream shop. You could say they will have their ice cream and eat it, too!

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