Converting a Shopping Center into a Walkable Village

By Dom Nozzi

When I was a senior planner in Gainesville FL, a friend in Boulder CO asked me about what I thought of Boulder’s plans to redevelop a shopping center (to transform it into a more walkable, mixed use village), and her concerns that densifying the shopping center would congest a federal highway that served the center.

I pointed out to her that it was a difficult issue. There are positives and negatives to a rejuvenated mall, I told her. On the one hand, it would be a problem if the new village attracted so many cars that the vicinity would become unlivable, thereby hurting the laudable objective of adding residential in the area.

But on the other hand, I can think of several positives:

First, making Highway 36 more congested would be a form of “planned congestion” that I support. Unless we make it more painful for people to drive a car, we’ll never be able to encourage a meaningful number of people to use transit. After all, is the reason that more people use transit in big cities because they happen to be more enlightened, or is it because they have gotten sick of the congestion and costs?

Because congestion is an effective way for people to opt to travel by transit, congestion actually reduces air pollution and energy consumption. While it is true that there are more direct and effective ways than congestion to get people to use the bus, such as increased parking fees, toll roads, reduced parking supply, etc., these strategies are politically suicidal.

Second, an enormous problem that a number of cities face is how to compete with the outlying big boxes and mega-malls. Unfortunately, this often means that you must compromise on getting retail that is scaled for livability and nearby neighborhoods – that is, you almost surely must opt for retail that is rather large in scale and just too big to be a good neighbor for a residential neighborhood. A big contributor to this problem is that investors are usually not willing to take a chance on a new project unless it is scaled for profitability — which generally means scaled for regional car trips. So until we can figure out a way to reduce the size of our overly wide roads and excessively cheap car travel and free parking – which induces a mega-retailer economy — we may need to continue to strive to make “core area” mega-retail livable.

As I was conveying these thoughts to my friend, my city of Gainesville was about to approve the construction of an expensive downtown parking garage as a way to attract a 20-screen movie-plex downtown. While such a garage and movie-plex would have been a problem with regard to the number of cars attracted, the downtown desperately needs to attract more 24-hour activity — especially by families.

Another compromise Gainesville opted to accept at the time (something that is not conducive to a walkable downtown, yet had other, compensatory benefits for downtown) was the decision to approve a mixed use, five-story retail/office/residential project downtown (to replace a deadening surface parking lot). The compromise there was a drive-thru.

Neither the five-story project or the movie-plex is perfect, but town centers in cities such as Gainesville need them both, and in my mind, they are net positives for pedestrians and livability.

Thirdly, for transit to work well, it needs concentrations of retail and residential and cultural and recreation and office — which the proposed transformation of a shopping center into a village will provide. Places like Boulder and Gainesville have nowhere near the concentrations of housing and retail needed to make transit work. A new, walkable, dense village can help.

Finally, I told my concerned friend, people in the vicinity of the proposed new village will need a good range of facilities in close proximity if we expect them to reduce the number of vehicles owned, and the number and length of trips made.

A concentrated village with a broad mix of uses is an important way to do this.


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1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

One response to “Converting a Shopping Center into a Walkable Village

  1. I think converting a shopping mall into a walkable village has more benefits than disadvantages. After going through your article I understood all the pros and cons completely. Nice one. Thanks a lot for sharing!

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