Toward 2050: Reformatting the commercial landscape on U.S. 29

On November 25, 2019, the School of Architecture held a panel discussion called Bridging the Gap: A Roundtable Discussion on Urbanism – The American Strip Mall. I attended the event and wrote this summary.

The 20th Century commercial landscape as canvas for 21st Century

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, many of the highway commercial developments built in the second half of the 20th century are obsolete. Underutilized shopping centers with their vast parking lots provide an opportunity to help our community solve many of its problems.

“I think about what you could do with that space if we decided that the car and the single-use occupancy of vehicles was financially crazy and ecologically crazy,” said Barbara Brown Wilson, assistant professor of urban & environmental planning at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.

“What would we do? Would build habitat? Would we invest in a mass transit system?” she asked at a recent panel discussion on the future of the American strip mall. “There’s a lot of land there that could be repurposed for social values.”

Wilson and four of her colleagues approached the topic from the perspective of different disciplines at a forum called Bridging the Gap. Part of the hour dealt with the environmental legacies of developing the land without carefully considering the impacts on area ecosystems. 

“They are destroying a lot of ecosystems and are not sustainable,” said Mona El Khafif, an associate professor of architecture and urban/environmental planning. “Go down Emmet Street. It has enclaves after enclaves that are cutting through ecological systems that are not even allowing people who live right beside it to go shopping on foot because you can’t access it. It’s the biggest perversion you can imagine.”

A timely conversation

The discussion comes at a time when Albemarle County and Charlottesville are facing steep population increases, a need for new housing, and growing community demand for better ways to move around without the use of a private vehicle.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia projects Albemarle will have 138,485 people by 2040 and that 53,352 will live in Charlottesville by that year. That’s up from the center’s 2017 estimates of 108,639 and 49,281 respectively.

The first commercial strips in the Charlottesville area formed after World War II as development patterns began to shift. Across the United States, communities that were affluent enough to afford cars bought them, and suddenly a whole new market was opened up for real estate developers.

The panel discussion was moderated by Ila Berman, Dean of the School of Architecture. She set the stage by stating that many American communities have eschewed communal discussions about how to make a city work in favor of individual conversations about individual properties. That’s lead to support for sprawl development rather than investment in urban communities.

“The city is a cultural artifact that is certainly much more than the aggregation of its individual parts, yet the American ideological obsession with homeownership… has turned homesteading into a form of urban suburbanized sprawl, a historic trajectory that some might say is in direct opposition to the future evolution of its cities and public spaces,” Berman said.

The discussion offered a chance for representatives from various disciplines in the school to offer their take on the study and future of strip malls.

The view from urban design

Ali Fard, an assistant professor of urban design, said his students have been studying the commercial corridors that fan out from the University of Virginia. One of the largest is Barracks Road Shopping Center, which opened in 1957. While still relatively successful today, others such as Rio Road Shopping Center, Albemarle Square and Fashion Square Mall have uncertain futures.

“We’ve been trying to figure out what the main issues are, and how we can tackle them from the lens of design,” Fard said. “It’s been interesting to introduce design through the scope of the shopping mall, or the commercial mall.”

One question that has emerged from the research is whether if it is truly possible to transform parking lots associated with strip malls into urban spaces. In Albemarle, there are thousands of homes on either side of U.S. 29, but they may as well be across the county because there is no way to get around without a car.

“Are we forcing this idea of a public space on a space that is very much infrastructural and very much a logistic space for cars?” Fard asked. “It’s interesting to see the development in relationship to suburban forms of housing because for the most part, the connection between the commercial spaces and the housing is very minute.”

Views from architecture

In the United States, many American shopping malls built in the mid to late 20th century have the same architecture due to a series of formulas, contributing to a lack of identity.

“You see one mall after the other, in combination with suburban sprawl,” El Khafif said. “These two models nurture each other. What was really fascinating coming from Europe is that the vast colonization of land can be so tremendous and so big. America has a lot of land and it [went] ahead and colonized it and it’s based on individualism and automobiles.”

El Khafif would like to see housing built in the parking lots at Barracks Road, which could

transform the area. That outcome is not likely in the near future. On December 10, the Planning Commission will consider a special use permit for a Chick-Fil-A to replace the Burger King.

Felipe Correa, the chair of Architecture for the school, said for many years, strip malls were considered beneath academic study.  In 1972, a trio of architects wrote a book called Learning from Las Vegas were at first panned.

“[Architectural critic] Colin Rowe thought it was the most despicable topic architecture could actually engage with,” Correa said. “The American strip was beneath what architecture should be engaging with. Ten to fifteen years later the book in many ways becomes a classic and architecture understands the importance of understanding the landscape.”

In reality since then, Correa said suburbia grew because of economic models that allowed different types of suburbs and commercial corridors. All were in the support of promoting home ownership.

“What I think ties them all together is an aspiration to be able to achieve an American ideal which was the right for pretty much everyone to have access to land,” Correa said. “The only way this could have been achieved was through the development of the suburb.”

Correa said many shopping centers have closed, but the property owners have not gone bankrupt.

“They’ve already made significant amounts of money on those strips,” Correa said. “The question is, what is the land-banking strategy to then over time be able to transform them. That to me is the interesting question that architecture and all of the different disciplines associated with city-making can come together and begin to rethink.”

And for those of us in Albemarle and Charlottesville, Correa asks an important question that must be considered as we think about the housing needs we have in our community.

“What is that space ripe for now?” Correa said. “What should be the next model or iteration of the suburban strip mall?”

Views from planners

Ellen Bassett, chair of Urban and Environmental Planning at the school, said American society is premised on freedom, consumption and convenience.

“Freedom is inextricably linked to the automobile, and I actually don’t see that going away. Even though we say that we’re moving to more transit-oriented, it’s still a thing to own an automobile and still a marker of adulthood, stability and freedom,” Bassett said, adding that the needs of vehicles must still be factored in when considering new development. 

However, Bassett said the way Americans purchase products to consume is changing as it has become more convenient to order things online than drive to commercial centers.

“One in four malls is expected to close by 2022,” Bassett said. “There were 1,100 malls built between 1970 and 2008, and these things are just starting to sit empty.”

Bassett laments the loss of retail jobs that has and will take place because those are entry-level positions in the American workforce.

“The people who are being slammed by retail going away are females, minorities and youth, and they’re not finding access to jobs,” Bassett said.

Wilson sees a need to push for change.

“I think a lot about big cultural shifts,” Wilson said. “I study social movements. I think about when we decide something was morally reprehensible and we invested in it. At some point, all of our industries and textile mills were sized for the size for a child. At some point we decided child labor was morally reprehensible. Even though it was a huge investment from technological perspective, we made it because it was important.”

Wilson said she believes we are at a similar moment now in terms of climate change and social justice.  She said rethinking infrastructure can address both.

“When I think about the economic model that suburbia was based on, I think about racial exclusion,” Wilson said. “I think about driving away from cities we weren’t investing in.”

Wilson said white families who moved into suburbia were able to build wealth through homeownership, but many African American families were not because of discriminatory practices.

So how do we get to the future?

El Khafif said she grew up in a city whose bones were built a thousand years ago. She said there could be an effort now to create new alliances to work with owners of large shopping centers to persuade them there is a future in new urban centers.

“If we can convince Wal-Mart to come up with a different mall model that has benefit for them,” El Khafif said. “It has to be an economical benefit. Maybe an image factor that is added to their enterprise.”

El Khafif said parking lots could be reconfigured as public spaces with uses such as flea markets or temporary playing fields. These could be supported by other commercial spaces that convert from commercial to residential.

“I think there are great design opportunities,” El Khafif said. “Since master planning is probably not going to happen, because there’s no top-down and it’s all privately owned land, it’s about creating new alliances where the private development and owners of these malls see a benefit in creating a different kind of space that builds on top.”

Berman said there are alternatives to alliances, such as citizen pressure from ecological groups, regulation from the government, and tax strategies.

Fard said giant retailers are investing more in online platforms than bricks and mortar, which he said will have “devastating effects on the built environment.”

“Today as these stores are declining, there is the possibility to re-imagine this landscape with a new urban future,” Fard said. “But that’s where the distinction between the compact city and the suburb becomes critical. In most forms of compact city, the infrastructure such as streets and blocks are easily reusable into other programs and uses. The building stock of Manhattan has changed drastically over the last 200 years. The grid, not so much.”

However, Fard said the geographic footprint of large retailers are huge, and are hard to retrofit without tearing it all down.

“The opportunity is ripe not just to find new uses but to actually develop a new model of infrastructure that can actually guarantee urban longevity beyond the specific uses for which it’s created,” Fard said.

Albemarle County is depending on redevelopment of commercial areas to satisfy a need for more housing units, public spaces, and places for people to work and shop. The commercial strip along U.S. 29 is governed by a master plan known as Places 29. In December 2018, the Board of Supervisors adopted a small area plan for the area around U.S. 29 and Rio Road. This plan was put together in-house by the Department of Community Development, which is staffed by many former and current students from the School of Architecture. This process is one that could use more attention from faculty, staff and students, as well as the general public at large.

Wilson said organization has worked in other places to keep rents low and to preserve affordable housing stock in the way of redevelopment. One example is The Preservation Compact in Chicago which has tried help landlords maintain affordable rents through tax benefits and other strategies. In Denver, there’s an organization called Mile High Connects.

“As they instituted a new transit system, they knew that a lot of housing along the corridor was going to get lost,” Wilson said. “Without ridership, you have a non-functioning transit system. So they actually instituted a community land-trust model to try to recoup brownfields that didn’t have [housing] at the time.”

In Washington, D.C.,  there is a tool called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) which is intended to give renters more protections.

Bassett said transportation policy needs to change if commercial corridors are to be repurposed. She said Albemarle has been creating a grid with the recent extensions of Berkmar Drive and Hillsdale Drive. 

“The idea as you think of future U.S. 29 is to try to bring back a grid,” Bassett said. “Of course, the scale of it is way bigger than really any medieval city. But it’s a starting point that is taking place. As these malls go down, and they will be demolished, we have great opportunities to bring in tighter street grids, green amenities, urban infrastructure and a design that we can think about will be a public space.”

Bassett said another thing that blocks potential change is the attitude from the financial industry, which tends to like formulas that produce the same kinds of spaces. She pointed out the recent construction of a stand-alone CVS at the corner of Barracks and Emmet Street.

“We had a great opportunity,” Bassett said.

El Khafif said Barracks Road Shopping Center or the Shops at Stonefield will survive for some time because they are programming to be places that are experiences in themselves.

“They have a diversity of different shops,” El Khafif said. “They even have public outdoor furniture and little niches where you can grab your coffee so they are trying a New Urbanism style.”

“It’s private land, so you cannot just take it over,” El Khafif said. “So you need to work with the fact that someone sells or doesn’t sell.”

El Khafif said communities should consider purchasing the land and putting it into a land bank for future public use.

“Only then can you have top-down power on the land,” El Khafif said.

Final thoughts

In the final question, Berman asked if UVA should be “at the forefront of thinking about new systems that reflect our values.” She asked what the School of Architecture should be doing to train the practitioners of tomorrow.

Fard said it is not enough that Albemarle and Charlottesville is trying to rebuild a grid.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s about more technical connectivity,” Fard said. “It is really about coming together and rethinking the way we live together. That is what is very powerful about architecture. In many ways, architecture has a very strong history of imagining and visualizing alternative futures.”

Fard said architecture can develop pilot projects to demonstrate how different thinking can be implemented.

El Khafif said urban design is needed to help think through what happens if land uses changes from all-commercial to mixed-use.

“There are all different possibilities of how this will develop over time,” El Khafif said. “We really need to think about what are the forces that make this place and what is happening when some of these forces are being manipulated?”

Wilson said it is also crucial for tomorrow’s planners to think about the daily lives of the people who will use each space into the future.  How will they get there, for instance?

Correa said he would like to see design take into account potential longevity.

“What you are designing for now shouldn’t be for now,” Correa said. “It should be for 50, 100 years down the road. A lot of these spaces are designed for the now. It’s that thinking that needs to change and it can’t come from a single discipline.”

Bassett said the role of the planner is to introduce “a strong dose of reality.”

“Planning and building our communities is a highly political act,” Bassett said. “We need to learn how to navigate the political spaces as design professionals and public planner, and learn how to pitch arguments and be persuasive.”

“If we’re not savvy in terms of working the politics, we’re not going to get certain things done,” Bassett said. “We are in a market economy. That’s not going to change. I’d love to put a forest where these malls are but we’re going to have to come up with the money to pay people for it.”

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