Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Slate mag has a new article titled "The Mall Goes Undercover: It now looks like a city street."

Like insecure teenagers, malls keep changing their style. They are ripping away their roofs and drywalled corridors; adding open-air plazas, sidewalks, and street-side parking; and rechristening themselves "lifestyle centers." ... They're also enormously successful—by the most recent count, there are about 130 lifestyle centers scattered around the country.

Including one near my house. I can never get used to the impermanence of cityscapes. When I moved here to Raleigh 16 years ago, North Hills was your standard issue indoor mall, and it seemed to be thriving. But it slid to the status of "the crappy mall" in town, to quote the movie Mallrats (at least I think that's the quote; you get an astonishing number of hits when you Google "Mallrats+crappy") then slid further, to 75%-vacant embarrassment. Then it cycled through a stage as pile of rubble, then mound of dirt, then place to watch giant cranes operating. Just before Christmas '04 it was reborn as North Hills Mall, the lifestyle center, with the external trappings of a comfortably lived-in but still vital urban neighborhood: awnings and wooden benches and cobblestone streets.

As the Slate piece points out, "The irony is almost too perfect: Malls are now being redesigned to resemble the downtown commercial districts they replaced." A true statement, as far as it goes. In the case of North Hills, the mall is the nucleus of a welter of new development, including a hotel and condos and office buildings. The goal is to supplement a residential area with a dense mixed-use area, with people working and living and playing in the same space. Locals have long divided Raleigh into two zones, inside the Beltline (the older neighborhoods and the downtown business district, including state government and NC State University) and outside the Beltline (the outlying residential areas--the 'burbs). Now the developer of North Hills is referring to it as "mid-town:" it is right smack on the Beltline (a.k.a. I-440, the loop expressway) and could develop into a hip happenin' downtown unto itself.

My initial response is to feel good about the change. A somewhat decrepit area has been transformed into a bustling one, with a cinema and restaurants and shopping, all within walking or biking distance from my home. Our property value is going to rise. Then I notice that the grimy auto mechanics' shop that I used regularly is gone--it struck the wrong aesthetic note. And I notice the rent-a-cops. It doesn't take long on the cobblestone streets of North Hills to feel the fakeness.

There's something a bit unhealthy about faux public places designed to attract rich people and make them feel comfortable. (At least the traditional mall didn't try to hide the fact that it was a shopping center.) The lifestyle center is a bizarre outgrowth of the suburban mentality: People want public space, even if making that space private is the only way to get it.

Our tagline says, Art is not a lifestyle. Addendum: A real community is not a lifestyle center.


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