Like insecure teenagers, malls keep changing their style. They are ripping away their roofs and drywalled corridors; adding open-air plazas, sidewalks, and street-side parking; and rechristening themselves "lifestyle centers." This new look may remind you of something: a vibrant urban street. Yet, while these new malls may appear to be public space, they're not public at all—at least if you want to do anything but shop. They represent a bait-and-switch routine on the part of developers, one that exchanges the public realm for the commercial one. They're also enormously successful—by the most recent count, there are about 130 lifestyle centers scattered around the country. In 2006, New York City will get its very first.
On a recent Saturday, in search of the future, I visited a lifestyle center on the edge of Phoenix called the Desert Ridge Marketplace. Parking my rented Chevy in front of a big-box emporium called Barbeques Galore, I walked through the arched portals that decorate the marketplace entrance. Inside, there were restaurants and stores lining a winding and narrow outdoor pedestrian street that opened up onto a series of little plazas. Padded wicker chairs were strewn about in a studied, casual way, and a huge fieldstone fireplace had benches built into it for those cool desert nights. This was a delightful place for a Frappuccino.
Next, I drove only a dozen miles down the road to another lifestyle center, Kierland Commons, that has a more residential feel. It immediately felt like a real, bustling neighborhood. The sidewalks were shaded from the sun by flowered trellises, and the streets narrowed at the corners to give pedestrians an implied right of way. An urban plaza with a good café and a band shell provided a central gathering place. The promotional material for Kierland Commons boasts of a "unique urban village," and a "pleasing, vibrant place where community takes shape and public life happens." Indeed, as I stand around watching, a jazz singer draws an audience, stooping to serenade a passing bichon frisé. The crowd coos. And, wait, the Phoenix Suns girls are here!
This is civic life in America, circa 2005, and it's spreading. The International Council of Shopping Centers estimates that 17 more lifestyle centers are set to open this year. The Memphis-based developer Poag & McEwen coined the term in the late 1980s, but most centers have been built in the last two years, typically near affluent suburbs. They are upscale outdoor shopping areas designed to look like city streets, with an emphasis on restaurants and spaces for people-watching. They also have what planners call "a mix of uses"—a bit of housing, some offices, and, occasionally, actual people living in apartments above the stores. Some—like Santana Row in San Jose, Calif.—are so well-detailed, thoroughly conceived, and populated on a weekend evening that you'd swear you were in Barcelona, Florence, or even upper Broadway.
Shopping-mall developers believe that lifestyle centers will improve the fortunes of medium-sized malls, which have been losing customers to the megamalls. Ever since Victor Gruen constructed the first indoor shopping center in a Minneapolis suburb in 1956, the mall has been supersizing itself. Over the years, they have become behemoths that serve entire regions, such as the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania and the Mall of America in Minnesota. All of these malls turn their backs to their surroundings and concentrate activity in and on themselves. By contrast, lifestyle centers gesture toward their environments. With their street grids and sidewalks, they convey a sense of being out and about in the world. Developers hope that, by emphasizing convenience and entertainment, people will visit lifestyle centers more often and stay there longer.
Unlike the previous reinvention of the mall as a "festival marketplace," lifestyle centers do not attempt to evoke some idyllic past. Faneuil Hall in Boston, which opened in 1976, and the South Street Seaport in New York, which opened in 1983, grafted a mall onto a historic market, hoping to make shopping feel like tourism. At lifestyle centers, the most discernible theme is urbanism itself. Their developers recognize that "shopping" is only one urban entertainment among many, like eating at restaurants, people-watching, open-air concerts, or looking at art. More incredibly, lifestyle centers do all the things that urban planners have promoted for years as ways of counteracting sprawl: squeeze more into less space, combine a mix of activities, and employ a fine-grained street grid to create a public realm—a "sidewalk ballet," in Jane Jacobs' alluring phrase. The irony is almost too perfect: Malls are now being designed to resemble the downtown commercial districts they replaced. What sweet vindication for urban sophisticates!
Not quite. Lifestyle centers are privately owned space, carefully insulated from the messiness of public life. Desert Ridge, for example, has a rigorous code of conduct, posted beneath its store directory. The list of forbidden activities includes "non-commercial expressive activity"—not to mention "excessive staring" and "taking photos, video or audio recording of any store, product, employee, customer or officer." "Photos of shopping party with shopping center décor, as a backdrop," however, are permitted.
This is our public realm? Lifestyle centers aren't any worse than malls as gathering places; in fact, they're a lot better-designed, successfully capturing most of the pleasures of walking down a city street. And yet, if it's crossed your mind that, as a society, we're getting a little confused about our right to freedom of expression, then lifestyle centers are a fair target. There's something a bit unhealthy about faux public places designed to attract rich people and make them feel comfortable. (At least the traditional mall didn't try to hide the fact that it was a shopping center.) The lifestyle center is a bizarre outgrowth of the suburban mentality: People want public space, even if making that space private is the only way to get it.
In 2006, the Ridge Hill Village Center, an "enhanced lifestyle center" designed by the esteemed architect Hugh Hardy, will open in Yonkers, N.Y. In addition to retail stores and a movie theater, there will be office space, a hotel and conference center, and 800 units of rental housing—10 percent of which will even comply with Yonkers' affordable housing ordinance. At the center will be Town Square, a "public" space modeled after Gramercy Park. It should be beautiful—just don't try to say otherwise.