David Scharfenberg seems to cite Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza as the basis for the creation of modern-day “Lifestyle Centers” in an article in this week’s Providence Phoenix about Rhode Island’s lifestyle centers. Except comparing the 1920s-era Country Club Plaza to Rhode Island’s five-year old South County Commons is like comparing Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to a suburban mega-mall.
To imagine that these new suburban lifestyle centers will at some point be swallowed up by dense urban development around them is a pipe dream. While many visitors to Country Club Plaza still arrive by automobile (and have since its inception), its high-rise apartment buildings have led to even more dense development beyond the Plaza’s bounds. The angle-in parking and low-rise buildings in suburban don’t exactly elicit the urban feel that the oft-cited first lifestyle center in America does. And until developers are willing to invest in creating a true sense of place in these centers, there’s not much of a chance that the new lifestyle centers are going to win any accolades from the Project for Public Spaces anytime soon.
Another benefit of the density of Country Club Plaza is its location in a corridor ripe for mass transit. While also being a destination, its surroundings could expand to become an ideal place to live and commute to other employment centers in Kansas City without stepping into a car. It’s highly unlikely that most of The Plaza’s suburban counterparts will ever act as anything more than a magnet for motorists. If care was taken to place these new developments in places ripe for density rather than in the middle of an open field in an exurb, lifestyle centers may not get such a bad rap. Otherwise, “lifestyle centers” are little more than open-air versions of the shopping malls with seas of parking that Scharfenberg vilifies.
Regardless, these spaces are at least getting Americans out of their cars and pounding the pavement to shop for the first time in a generation. If it leads to a call for better public spaces and stronger communities, it’s a step in the right direction.
(Photo of Garden City Center and Chapel View in Cranston, RI via thisisbossi on Flickr)