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New Main Streets

However calculated, malls create a sense of place in the suburbs.

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By the mid-20th century, stores and malls were popping up along every available stretch of suburbia to lure the fleeting and fickle motorist and consumer. But these places—Willow Lawn, Azalea Mall, Cloverleaf— were all adjuncts to downtown.

Short Pump and Stony Point are our first malls to be built since the demise of the downtown retail core. And that’s why we need them— they bring a much-needed focus to the suburban scene. Rather than jumping from strip center to big-box cluster, shoppers now have central places to land: The malls are our new main streets, at least for now.

Physically, Short Pump Town Center reigns supreme on West Broad Street among the considerable, almost overwhelming, architectural cacophony. It roosts like a cruise ship moored in a busy port. Cars and trucks zip around it like pleasure craft. Nearby, smaller commercial vessels—strip malls, chain eateries and a cinema — are moored in acres of asphalt.

Across the Willey Bridge in South Richmond, the more diminutive Stony Point Fashion Park sits in isolation, like a hillside village surrounded by woods. To drive here is to visit a gentler and more genteel place—at least as shopping malls go. If Short Pump is oversized, there is something calming, even cute about Stony Point. The experience is like a getaway jaunt to say, Williamsburg, another artificially attractive place to shop, dine and escape – if only for a moment — the realities of the here-and-now.

Architecturally, there’s little original at Richmond’s new outdoor malls. Each has a stage-set quality. That’s OK. They are stages, places where we can satisfy our perhaps artificial needs or cravings. There are no grocery stores, druggists, traditional hardware operators or even booksellers. Instead, the malls are populated with stores carrying stuff we have been pre-sold — we know what Brooks Bros. and Ann Taylor are pushing before we arrive. We shop at these places to reassure ourselves that we’re part of the system, part of the mainstream culture.

Some bemoan the fate of older malls, such as Cloverleaf Mall or Fairfield Commons. But many people don’t care because these places no longer hold the magic. They ain’t where the fashion action’s happening.

Environmentally, Short Pump and Stony Point make no sense. We ignore vacant lots and many existing sturdy and empty buildings and move ever outward from the central core. But eventually things will flip. Some future generation will cry enough is enough. Or land will become too expensive. Maybe we’ll find we like the possibility of recycling buildings for new retail uses: This is already happening on one scale or another in Carytown and in downtown’s River District.

“What will happen to recently opened Short Pump Town Center 30 years from now?” rhetorically asked John V. Moeser, a professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a recent Times-Dispatch commentary addressing regional sprawl.

The answer? They will be replaced. So there’s an absurdity to these new malls. We know they’re a mirage, and that they won’t last. But for now they play an important part in our community.

If a frequent complaint about suburbia is that there is little sense of place — no focal points like town squares, main streets, parks or places where people can gather — these new malls are a partial response. Symbolically, while the architects attempted to localize the new malls with displays of such historical figures as Virginia-born presidents, Chief Powhatan and Ella Fitzgerald, they needn’t have bothered. West End and South Richmond have become so sprawling and so lacking in architectural focus, Short Pump and Stony Point would have worked without attempts at localization. As suburban roads and cul-de-sacs sprawled out, it was inevitable that our malls got grander.

From time to time, we all need a place to land. S

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