Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New Urbanism: A Tale of Two Cities

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of New Urbanism and one of its best-known elements, the "lifestyle center" shopping area that is quickly replacing the conventional enclosed mall (most notably represented in my neck of the woods by Southlake Town Square, which I've written about before, and of course my friendly neighborhood Firewheel Town Center, which has been covered here so often that it has its own post tag). It's interesting, then, to note my varying reactions to the triumph of New Urbanism over an old-school mall in two different parts of the country...

Part 1: Richardson, TX (RIchardson Square Mall). Richardson Square, built in 1977, was never really anything to write home about; it served its purpose for the people of the area (which included myself until Firewheel's opening), but it was never considered a destination of any sort. It was anchored by Sears, Montgomery Ward, Joske's and Dillard's, and when Dillard's bought Joske's, they operated both stores for a while, with the old Joske's holding most of the men's clothing, while women's wear stayed at the original store. (I used to refer to the two stores as "Mr. Dillard's" and "Ms. Dillard's," although the electronics department, contrary to what one might expect, remained in the "Ms." part.) Besides the usual clothes shopping, I saw my share of movies there back in the day, but the theatre closed when its parent company (General Cinema, if I recall correctly) fell on hard times. And the mall itself started to decline in the early '90s as nearby Collin Creek became more popular; Richardson Square was at a disadvantage by not being located adjacent to a freeway, and the surrounding area changed demographically as kids grew up and left while their parents remained in their nearby homes.

A 1998 renovation helped reverse the mall's fortunes for a while, adding a Barnes and Noble (the first one in the chain to open in a mall), an Old Navy, and a new food court built on the site of the former Joske's (as Dillard's consolidated its efforts into a single store again). When Montgomery Ward closed its doors, that building was razed and replaced with a Super Target, which brought in plenty of business but was not physically accessible from the mall proper.

When Firewheel opened in October 2005, three of the major tenants--Dillard's, Barnes and Noble, and Old Navy--relocated there (both malls were owned by Simon, which understandably didn't want to duplicate its efforts only a few miles apart, and it also makes sense that the stores wanted to be a part of the new retail trend). The mall was mostly vacant by 2006, and the inner portion of the mall (pretty much everything in between Sears and Super Target, though I'm not sure if the Ross store, which remains, got a new building out of it or not) was demolished in 2007, to be replaced by a Lowe's home improvement center, which opened this June and signified the rebirth of Richardson Square in a new form.

Writer Andrew Laska of the Richardson Echo comments on the new Richardson Square and calls its history a metaphor for the entire American shopping mall experience. He's not as bullish on Firewheel as I am, but he makes some good observations. (Granted, the loss of Richardson Square was a blow to his neighborhood, while the opening of Firewheel greatly enhanced mine, so our viewpoints are understandable in context.)

Some pictures of the near-vacant mall, taken before and during demoltion, can be found here. (The siteowner erroneously labels Dillard's as JCPenney, but the latter was never at Richardson Square.)

Part 2: Mt. Prospect, IL (Randhurst Mall). Almost a year ago, I came across an interesting site called, which I discussed here. Even though I've never been a big shopping guy, the proverbial trip to the mall was always a fun thing for me, dating back to when I was really little. I was surprised, as I browsed that site, to find out that many of the places I visited as a kid had been turned into town centers (such as Westgate Mall in the Cleveland suburb, near my grandparents' house) or simply closed outright (such as Salem Mall in Dayton, Ohio, near where the other grandmother lived).

Further searches at that site led me to, a similar site that's done in blog form and is updated more regularly. (A labelscar is what's left when a store vacates a building and removes its signage; a good example thereof can be found on the Barnes and Noble picture from the Richardson Square slideshow linked above.) On that site, I learned of the fate of two other places I used to go when we lived in St. Louis (the longest place we stayed before moving to Houston): River Roads Mall in Jennings (home of an awesome monorail in the toy department of its main anchor, Stix, Baer & Fuller, which was sold to Dillard's in the '80s), and Northwest Plaza in St. Ann near the airport. The former was demolished in 2006 (after lying vacant for more than a decade) and its proposed successor project has yet to come to fruition, while the latter is still around but has fallen on hard times.

But the one thing that really stood out in my search was the discovery that Randhurst Mall in Mt. Prospect, Illinois--where I went to kindergarten--is about to be turned into a town center.

It may have been a few years since I was in kindergarten, but I remember Randhurst well. Its unusual design, by famed architect Victor Gruen, featured an equilateral triangle with the anchor stores at the "points," but it also had other levels--including an eventual food court--that were artfully placed in the center, but halfway in between the other floors (check out a picture here to get an idea of the design). I visited there again on a trip about 15 years ago, but I didn't have the foresight to take pictures of it back then.

The mall thrived for a while, but, like many older venues, it lost customers to the newer, bigger centers in farther-flung suburbia, and it suffered with the loss of some anchors, either to relocation or because the parent company shut down. (Also, like Richardson Square, it suffered by not being close to a freeway.) Last year, it was announced that the mall proper (the "triangle" portion) will be torn down (this is probably in progress as we speak) and made into a lifestyle center. The anchors will remain intact and open during this process.

A profile of the replacement project, to be called Randhurst Village, may be found here (it includes a cool animated video "walk-through" of the development, with the unusual juxtaposition of moving cars and stationary people). Also check out this information brochure from the developer, which includes an aerial picture of the soon-to-be-demolished original site, showing the triangle shape.

Seeing as how I just visited Mt. Prospect in March during my Chicago/Milwaukee trip, I'm kicking myself for not stopping in Randhurst. I drove right by it on my way in, but it was just a bit before noon on Easter Sunday, and I wasn't sure what would be open. Now, I sure wish that I could have gone in there one more time.

So why the mixed feelings about these two places? As I said, I'm an unabashed New Urbanism fan, and it makes sense why I celebrate the arrival of one in my neighborhood, even at the expense of an older mall. But why do I feel a glint of sadness about the new replacing the old in a place where I haven't lived since a few weeks before my sixth birthday? After all, as I wrote in an earlier post,
[T]he town center seems to be the wave of the future; people want to have nicely-built, walkable shopping areas with greenspace instead of huge air-conditioned boxes, and they want to be able to drive right up to their favorite store if need be instead of parking out in the hinterlands somewhere. I won't be surprised if more boxy malls remake themselves as town centers in the future.
The answer lies in that last sentence: It's all about the architecture.

Richardson Square was a generic, boxy mall (and it was six miles away, whereas its replacement, Firewheel, is a healthy walk from home). Randhurst was a really unique design--confusing to some, I'm sure, but one of a kind. However, I'm sure there aren't enough "architecture freaks" in Chicagoland for that to be a drawing card in and of itself. The New Urbanist model will do a better job of that, and it's likely to attract more of the high-end businesses that will make the area thrive again. As I noted on my Chicago trip in March, Mt. Prospect--or at least my old neighborhood--has held up very well, but there hasn't been a lot of new construction in a while; this development can only help.

And while I'm sorry that I missed a possible last visit to the old place a few months ago, you had best believe that any Chicago trip from 2010 onward will include a stop at the intersection of Rand Rd. and Elmhurst Ave. (yes, the source of the name). But I won't forget what was marked that location for over four-and-a-half decades.

(Apologies for the lengthy essay; I was just on a roll and kept on going. Feel free to state your opinion about New Urbanism, or the decline of the traditional shopping mall, in the comments.)

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