Friday, June 27, 2008

Downtown vs. the 'Burbs....Are We Getting the Cooler Stuff?

Longtime readers will know that I'm a fan of New Urbanism, especially since one of those "lifestyle centers" was built in my area a few years ago. I've long suspected that hard-core urbanites who prefer actual downtowns would thumb their noses at our faux ones, but something I read this morning came as a surprise: Trey Garrison of D Magazine, writing in a DMN op-ed, thinks that the suburbs are getting all the cool stuff these days:
When I built my first house out in the undeveloped hinterlands of Allen a decade ago, there wasn't much up there. Every time a new strip center would go vertical, we'd start wondering what it might contain. A groovy little European cheese and wine shop? A family-owned barbecue joint? An authentic taquería? When it did open, it was socks for Christmas: donut shop/nail salon/Supercuts/ cheap chain pizza place. Meanwhile, Dallas was getting all the cool places and funky spaces.

Now it's like everything is reversed. The big story out of Plano is Legacy Town Center, with its collection of locally owned upscale restaurants, boutiques and a ridiculously huge independent bookstore.

And there's historic downtown Plano, too, which is getting in the funk. Northwest, you have Southlake Town Square. Toward Garland, Firewheel.

Conversely, it seems like most of what's going up in Dallas is chain after chain. Or it's chain after chain filling in places where cool little bookstores, restaurants and antique shops died.
He actually called up a local real estate broker to inquire as to why this was happening, and the answer was complex: One, places like Firewheel can only be built where there's room to do so, and they're also following the money. But also, the developers build what customers want, and right now, in Dallas proper, the chains are winning out.

I have another thought as well: New Urbanist projects do well in the 'burbs because there are few, if any, Old Urbanist areas to compete with them. I'm sure that one of the reasons that Legacy Town Center is doing so well in Plano is that it's so different from everything else that Plano is known for (and subject to derisive comments by city-dwellers). There's nothing cookie-cutter about it; the mixture of high-end restaurants, an art-house theatre, residential in close proximity to retail, an abundance of green space (a cool modern buzzword), and the overall walkability (there's an even bigger buzzword) of the place can't be found in too many other places north of LBJ.

If someone tried to build a place like Legacy or Firewheel in Dallas proper, it wouldn't be nearly as special, as it would be competing with established venues that are often of the same period whose architecture the New Urbanist centers are emulating. And it would be silly in an urban setting to tear down old buildings in favor of replicas of the same (put "Fry Street" in the search box above to see how this is playing out--not so well--in Denton).

Also, as I've said before, if people can get the urban experience in their own suburb--without having to use a tank of $4 gas to get there (and possibly pay for parking once they did), or take a crowded train (which is not everyone's cup of tea, and might not work if you were going to buy, say, a big piece of furniture), they'll probably stay home. There's nothing wrong with a trip to Dallas every now and then, but it's great to keep the tax dollars at home most of the time. And if all these places are staying in business, it obviously means that the area has enough growth to support multiple locations of lots of different stores.

And besides, there's lots of cool stuff in Dallas already. We deserve our turn out here.

Incidentally, Garrison also has the best rebuttal I've seen in a long time for those who feat that developers are "paving over America" with new stuff:
An undeveloped parcel of land (and that's about 93 percent of the land in America, so let's not kid ourselves about paving paradise, Joni Mitchell) may provide an hour or two of communing with nature, but what it doesn't provide is food, shelter, jobs or a shopping center where you can buy/lease happiness. You know where they don't have an overdevelopment problem? Cuba. Zimbabwe. Appalachia. And much of southern Dallas.
Good point.

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