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ARCHITECTURE: Designing the New Downtown


Unlike older, enclosed malls, which might have inspired Gertrude Stein to remark, “A mall is a mall is a mall,” these two new centers really are different from the veterans, Cloverleaf Mall, Chesterfield Towne Center and Regency Square.

The stores and restaurants of Short Pump and Stony Point are all oriented aggressively to outdoor, pedestrian streets. So after decades of being told we wanted to shop in highly contained, air-conditioned comfort, we learn that someone told us wrong. Now we’re told that’s not so important after all.

Evidently, intimately configured public spaces and great variety in storefront scale, ornamentation and embellishment are the important elements now. Lively sidewalk activity, elaborate fountains, fanciful kiosks, outdoor furnishings, al fresco dining and colorful plantings are also de rigueur. Funny, isn’t it? Those were exactly the qualities that held such charm for the American downtowns and Main Streets before shopping centers began luring customers away sometime after World War II.

What has not changed with the new shopping centers, however, is surface parking. Both Stony Point and Short Pump deliver on that score.

Stony Point Fashion Park

Patrons approach Stony Point via an attractive, well-manicured — almost soothing — parkway off Chippenham Parkway. The center is as equally accessible to the West End as to the South Side. It is set in a shallow valley at the foot of a prominent and steep hill that has been planted in grass, decorative scrubs and shade trees. This embankment lends an important topographical feature that partially negates the effect of surface parking.

But the designers here have definitely lived up to their promise of park in Stony Point Fashion Park. Full-sized trees — maples, willow oaks, elms, crepe myrtles and magnolias — have been sacked in liberally on the surrounding grounds. There are possibly acres of rose gardens if all the borders are combined. Feathery, tall grasses and day lilies are abundant. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, eat your heart out. And this is late summer.

From the generously landscaped parking lots, patrons can approach five main entrances to the mall itself. These gateways are designated by brick piers topped with large classical planter urns.

Once inside, there are two main “neighborhoods,” the Park District and the Promenade. The former is highlighted by a large ground-level fountain or water feature: Its spray on hot days should delight children as well as the young at heart. At the Dillard’s department store end of the Promenade, there is a multi-tiered fountain adorned with cast, female figures.

Like the approaching roadways and encompassing parking lots, landscaping inside the center is generous. And there are real brick pathways, not concrete scored to look like bricks.

The scale of Stony Point is pleasantly intimate, there aren’t great distances between retail destinations, and it is apparent that tremendous thought has gone into making the experience a pleasant one.

Most of the stores are one story and all open onto the same level (there is a false-front, second-floor fa‡ade). Some stores have covered walkways sheltering their entrances and display windows, others have awnings.

Stony Point has the feel, if one doesn’t look too closely, of such self-conscious and upscale Main Streets as in Aspen or Water Mill in the Hamptons, which appear to have been built as a piece and not to have grown over time. There’s neither positive nor negative value in this except, as one departs Stony Point and looks back down upon the fashion park in the valley, one overlooks the center’s roof and sees the rear of the architectural fake shop fronts. My lasting impression was that of a Hollywood movie set — a lot of atmosphere for effect that quickly vanishes from the rear.

But the experience is pleasant and the lush landscaping is for real. A rose is a rose is a rose.

Short Pump Town Center

The vehicular approach to Short Pump could not be more different from that of Stony Point. The unrelenting traffic of West Broad Street whizzes past the center’s sprawling parking lot. Having negotiated the parking lot, one reaches the central pedestrian entrance. A huge, huge canopy, with a big, scripted “S” embedded in the pediment, announces that you have arrived.

Entering the domain of Short Pump is like passing through the walls of an ancient Roman or medieval town. The fears and openness of outside are relinquished for the promise of a comforting enclosure. But then, isn’t almost anything comforting after cruising West Broad?

Architecturally, Short Pump Town Center has a solid, well-built feel. This is good because there is a lot of it to experience. It is situated on two stories, and shopper access to most stores (both up and down) is protected by continuous arcades.

The developers made a conscious and successful effort to break up the massing, scale and detailing of the various retail units (this is also the case at Stony Point). So where enclosed malls often achieved unrelenting, architectural unity (if not boredom), these new centers strive for visual variety.

From the Short Pump parking lot near Broad Street, one looks eastward toward Pouncey Tract Road, the Short Pump Cinemas, Barnes & Noble and other businesses clustered there. Unfortunately, there is no pedestrian linkage to these nearby destinations. So rather than achieving a Short Pump Town Center, the new shopping destination might be called Short Pump Town Isolated.

But like Italy’s Sienna and Assisi, or other ancient walled cities (also leisure-time destinations), that are laid out along a few, special streets, there is a sense of security and maybe vitality inside Short Pump’s walls. Only here, temples to consumption — Hecht’s, Nordstrom and Dillard’s — not cathedrals and churches, mark the terminating points of the pedestrian experience. S,/b>

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