Over the past extended weekend, I was fortunate enough to vacation down in sunny Palm Springs, CA. Home of the Kaufman and Frey houses, delicious sugary dates, the Cabazon outlet mall and blistering temperatures; it was a satisfying respite from the Bay Area. However, in many respects it felt like I hadn’t even left home.
In fact, almost anywhere I seem to travel, whether it was my recent trip to New Jersey, this past week’s vacation or practically any modest-sized American city, everything seems to look more and more the same. What bothers me is the continual infiltration of the generic strip mall. America’s main streets have been slowly disappearing in favor of easy-access superstores lined up on flattened, paved, cheap and accessible acreage.
These generic strip malls, populated with Best Buys, Walmarts, Targets, K-Marts, Home Depots, Office Depots, the requisite Starbucks, and huge parking lots, all follow a pretty typical design story: A developer finds cheap land and convinces the local community that jobs and tax revenues will increase if they get permission to build. Then they raze and level the site, pave the majority with asphalt and then erect generic, voluminous, and quickly assembled boxes. Next they slap on a few large backlit plastic signs and then move on to the next location. The community is then left with an eyesore and few long-term community benefits. Yes, you now have a convenient place to buy things. But what do they really contribute to our community and the character of our towns?
Aside from the obvious issues I see in these civic blemishes, I’d perhaps do better to suggest ways to improve the situation:
– Parking lots could be slightly sunken or hidden with berms and plantings or even living walls. Pavement should be made permeable to reduce waste water runoff. Where possible, parking structures should be built predominantly below ground with green spaces above to reduce heat absorption.
– Parking areas should also be further away from the retail stores – perhaps even separated by green spaces with public artwork, seating, meandering walkways and perhaps even local police or security presence. Small kiosks could be added for sale of local agricultural products, beverages and snacks or perhaps community organizations.
– The architecture should vary store front to store front and reflect more of the regional architectural styles. Building fronts and walkways should be staggered to provide more visual interest and to break the concrete monotony. Mature trees should be added to buffer the views of the large buildings.
– There’s no reason why the inside of the stores shouldn’t be kept the same. Outside signage, however, should be smaller and less obtrusive. Signage near the roadway for passersby should also be reduced, grouped and easily modified so it doesn’t look abandoned as retailers change.
There is a place for strip malls to serve communities both large and small. However, instead of communities trying to block big-box stores or give developers free reign, they should legislate that a portion of the budget be set aside for the features described above. Making the strip mall a more attractive space and more community oriented would potentially offset expenditures with increased revenues, as patrons would likely spend a bit more time there. Perhaps it’s time we all think about restoring some character to our communities?