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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 3, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Destination Downtowns, Girls

It's a shame when people spend a lot of money and almost get it right. And what's even worse is that when it doesn't work out as hoped for, they probably won't even understand what they did wrong.

I'm in Salt Lake City right now, staying in a hotel adjacent to the beautiful new City Creek downtown development. In all the announcements and descriptions, it sounded like they were doing everything right to revive a dying downtown.

When my wife and I got married, we both worked in an office building only a block from the new City Creek. We lived only a mile or two away. So we knew what the downtown was like then -- during its last round of renovations in the 1970s.

But my history with Salt Lake City goes back even farther. When I was four, we lived in an apartment carved out of a lovely old Victorian house only a short walk from downtown. This was in pre-freeway days -- 1955 -- and the old-fashioned downtown shopping district was still very much alive.

My grandmother used to take me and my baby brother on walks to Temple Square; my mother and grandma would sometimes take all four of us kids for lunch at a cafeteria or, even more exciting, at a drugstore lunch counter. Or for ice cream. And at Christmastime, all the stores and decorations!

But between those childhood memories and the 1970s, freeways happened. Suburbia happened. And downtown Salt Lake was being killed by competition with the indoor malls.

So developers came up with the brilliant idea (and I'm not being sarcastic) of creating not one but two downtown malls: ZCMI Center and Crossroads Mall, right across the street from each other and just a block away from Temple Square and the LDS Church Office Building -- which represent the biggest tourist draw and the largest employer. Couldn't have been better locations.

And they worked. It helps that Salt Lake City has huge city blocks -- six to the mile. This is actually terrible for pedestrian traffic -- walking "a couple of blocks" is a hike -- but it was designed to accommodate houses with serious gardens, not shopping districts.

So indoor malls were a great choice, since you could have quite a large mall using the middle of a block, while keeping several office buildings or banks or hotels on the same block.

They did a good job of creating interesting commercial space in these malls -- lots of little stores along with the anchors. You could find fun little one-of-a-kind shops tucked into corners -- a couple of art galleries, a clock store, See's Candies, a frozen custard place, and ...

And time passed. The same forces that have been killing marginal indoor malls began to kill these two city-center malls, along with what remained of the on-the-street stores. Salt Lake City, as a downtown, was dying yet again.

Does this all sound like Greensboro? No, it doesn't! Because during the era when Salt Lake was saving itself with downtown malls, Greensboro was killing itself with huge banks and office buildings.

Because shopping districts require some key things:

1. Lots and lots of different storefronts in a relatively short walking distance, so that passersby and window shoppers are rewarded with constant change. Walking from one place to another doesn't feel so daunting if there are many things to see along the way.

2. Shops and eateries that are unique, so that people can find things that aren't just like every other shopping area. Without a lot of one-of-a-kind stores, you cannot make a shopping area a destination.

3. Plenty of places to sit and rest, to visit with people or eat your lunch, both out in the open and sheltered from weather.

4. Lots of people so you feel the safety and comfort of numbers.

5. If you want it to be a living downtown, rather than just a tourist destination, you need a lot of residences within walking distance. That requires an array of practical daily-visit stores -- grocery, hardware, cleaners, pharmacy, newstand.

6. It helps to have really good urban transit so that you can keep parking to a minimum. That allows non-residents to come -- if you've made it a good destination.

The model of living downtowns is New York City, but Washington, DC, Boston, and some neighborhoods in Los Angeles are also thriving downtowns. They exist, and they all follow these rules.

Destination Downtowns also exist -- or used to: Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, Georgetown in DC, Alexandria's Old Town. But the ones that are still worth going to -- that are still a destination -- are the ones that did not allow the high-rent chain stores to come in and turn them into exactly the same selection of stores as every mall in America.

Here's what you don't need:

1. Street-killing big-box stores that try to be forty kinds of store under one roof. It takes forever to walk past them. All that "great selection" means that you have to walk forever even inside the store. It makes you tired just thinking of going there.

2. Big national chains that have exactly the same thing as every other store in the chain.

3. Parking garages that take up street front.

4. Banks that try to impress us with huge entrances and lobbies -- they kill streets because it takes forever to walk past them to get to something interesting.

5. Unfriendly environments that have nowhere to sit.

6. The same chain stores you see everywhere else. The relentless array of clothing clothing clothing clothing clothing stores. The utter lack of variety and surprise.

Greensboro's "renovation" during the 1980s was actually destruction of what remained of the downtown. Those big office buildings made it -- and continue to make it -- nearly impossible to make a working downtown.

And the ballpark? As predicted, it's a gaping dead spot in our "downtown." It does nothing for commerce. If it did, we'd see all kinds of shops popping up and thriving in its neighborhood. Instead, we have a huge stretch of lonely nothingness, a vast obstacle that you would have to walk around.

But you're not walking. Because there's no reason to be on foot in that area unless you're actually going to a game. The rest of the time, it feels dangerously unpopulated. The last thing you'd do is get out of your car anywhere near there.

We've fallen out of love with the mall. We're sick of parking a mile from the store we actually want to go to. That's why Friendly Center is doing so much better than any of the urban malls in the area. We want downtowns again, and Friendly Center is the closest thing we have to a downtown.

Back to Salt Lake City: The City Creek project was supposed to follow all the good rules and avoid the bad stuff.

They designed the place beautifully. The actual City Creek -- a natural stream that had long been piped underground -- was brought back to the surface in a controlled urban way, and as I walked along its fountains and falls yesterday, I loved it as the heart of a new urban design.

When you're on the street, there are wide, inviting entrances into street-like shopping avenues. There are plenty of places to sit. Architecturally, they did pretty much everything right (except that they didn't create a flow-through from my hotel).

There are residences there. A really lovely grocery store, Harmons, within walking distance. Restaurants here and there in the vicinity.

But they forgot a few things.

They were thinking like a bank -- all the stores in the development are too big and take up too much frontage. Lots and lots of monumental display -- but it means you have to walk a long, long way to get from one storefront to the next.

You walk into City Creek and yes, it's impressive. But you can see all the stores at a glance. There are only about six. And if they don't interest you, there's no reason to go further.

In that space there should have been forty stores. There should have been lots of stores with no more frontage than twenty feet. As you walk along there should have been a sense of constant discovery, variety, change.

And what are the stores? In leasing the space, they decided to pre-kill City Creek. How did they do it?

Not only is every single store a completely familiar national chain, they're all upscale.

Hasn't anybody checked the demographics of Salt Lake City? Don't they know who lives there? A Destination Downtown isn't upscale. A vibrant downtown is, if anything, a wonderful muddle: a few really high-class but small boutiques, but also lots of quirky low-rent places with wonderful discoveries for the browsing shopper.

Instead, they give up vast swathes of territory to stores that say "Don't come in here unless you intend to drop some serious bucks."

So who's going to bother coming here? It's not a Destination Downtown. There are no surprises. None. There's not a single store that I'd drive to or ride Salt Lakes terrific urban train to go see.

The old ZCMI Center and Crossroads Mall weren't as pretty as this. But at least they had surprises and variety.

You don't revive a downtown by creating a really boring retail environment that only rich people can afford to shop in.

You see, the model of retail leasing has it all wrong. They charge the big anchor stores a tiny per-square-foot rent, and charge the little stores a lot of money per square foot.

The theory is that the big anchor stores bring in the customers, and the little shops piggyback on them.

But it isn't actually true. When you're trying to create a Destination Downtown, what you really need is lots and lots of little stores, marginal stores, quirky-taste stores, with low rents so they can stay in business.

They have tiny storefronts but there are dozens of them on every block, so as you walk along the environment keeps changing, there are new things to look at.

There isn't a food court, there are tiny restaurants and ice cream shops and bakeries and candy stores scattered among the bookstores and boutiques and specialty stores.

It's fine to have a Tumi store -- as long as it only takes up sixteen feet of frontage. Instead, the one in City Creek stands in splendid isolation. You have to want to buy a piece of Tumi luggage to hike over to where it stands alone. There's nothing interesting close beside it.

The Disney Store is the only reason to go up to the second level because it takes up a huge amount of storefront. There's nothing near it.

You can't go window-shopping in City Creek, because it takes too long for the landscape to change.

It's like driving from Clovis, New Mexico, to Amarillo, Texas. Or from Yuma to Phoenix. It doesn't feel like you're actually moving because each piece of scenery lasts forever.

They sure spent a lot of money to create a beautiful nothing.

Here's my hope: They realize their stupid mistake very quickly and declare bankruptcy. Without the burden of debt, they can lower the rents radically.

They get rid of the high-rent stores (they're going to fail in that location, anyway). They break them up into lots of storefronts, so they make their money from many different merchants.

They make sure they have a mix of stores that real people need. And a lot of stores that only a few niche audiences need but which are really fun to look at or go into and browse.

They recognize that Salt Lake City is the center of Mormon society, and put in the shops that Mormons want.

Hint: Mormons collectively have a lot of money, but family by family, they're nearly broke most of the time. You know, just like every other normal American family.

Mormons need stores full of stuff they can afford. Stuff they want. Stuff their children want.

City Creek could have worked -- could still work -- if somebody involved with managing it spent a few days hanging out with actual middle-class families, seeing what they buy, where they take their kids, how they enjoy spending their time on an outing.

Hint: They're having fun when every minute or so, somebody in the group says, "Look at this!" and they all turn their attention to something new.

Or somebody says, "Let's go in here!" and in they go.

That isn't going to happen at City Creek -- or at least not often enough to be worth the trip.

But it happens all the time in Friendly Center in Greensboro. The only thing missing at Friendly Center is the second and third stories of all the buildings, where people could rent apartments or professionals could put in offices, so that people actually lived there.

What's missing is the surrounding neighborhood, full of people who can actually walk to the store and home again.

Friendly Center could use a few more quirky stores, too -- it still seems a shame to me that in order to get Barnes and Noble, they had to get rid of Atticus Books. I miss having a great, quirky store like Fleet-Plummer there in Friendly Center.

But there's still a great bakery. Some good restaurants that you won't find anywhere else (and no food court!). A grocery store (though it's too big, and shouldn't have been given so much bare frontage -- that could all have been small shops with the big grocery store filling in behind them).

You've got to give Salt Lake City credit. They really tried, and they got so many things right.

But to create vibrant urban spaces, you have to understand how people actually behave. What they really enjoy doing. What brings them out of their houses and into a particular space for a collective activity.

All the money that was put into City Creek could have been well-spent. The architects got it right. But the leasing people had no clue.

Until they understand what kind of retail mix brings people from far and wide to shop together, they will fail and fail and fail.

Destination Downtowns are driven by the little shops, by variety, by surprise and novelty. Salt Lake City, unlike Greensboro, has a natural tourist draw -- Temple Square -- that brings people from all around the world. Salt Lake is surrounded by high mountains -- it has magnificent scenery. It's a natural destination.

There is simply no excuse for the designers of City Creek having failed so utterly. Because their mix of stores offers nothing to the locals, and nothing to the tourists.

In the real world, if we're going to buy a particular thing, we'll go to that particular store. We want the Friendly Center model, the old downtown model, where we can park fairly near the store we want, and we don't have to walk forever even when we're in the store.

But if we're "going shopping" rather than buying a specific item, if we just want to have an outing, then we need a Destination Downtown. Not a dozen big overfamiliar chain stores each taking up a huge amount of storefront, but a hundred or more little shops, changing storefronts every few steps, so there's something to look at, to point out, to talk about.

Then, when the crowds are coming for the variety and the view, you make sure you have spaces for street musicians and kiosk merchants and vendors' carts and you make it cheap or free for them to take up a tiny niche and add to the sense of energy and excitement and variety.

You turn it into the most wonderful bazaar in the world.

People come to those places. They come by the hundreds, by the thousands. They look forward to visiting a certain city because they know they can go and spend a few hours in that wonderful Destination Downtown.

And when you've got such a place (and usually they grow by accident, in rundown areas where the rents are low), you protect it. You don't allow the chains to come in and swallow up eight shops to replace them with one big boring glitzy store.

Instead, you give them keyhole spaces -- small frontage leading to bigger space farther inside -- and you don't allow the chains to come more frequently than one in four stores. If they won't play by your rules, cool -- you don't need them.

Because if you let the big chains have their way, they'll kill your shopping district. They think like banks and they'll try to grab a huge chunk of turf and impress us with their size. That's death to a downtown. You have to think small.

Small shops. Pocket parks, not whole city blocks. Wide sidewalks where restaurants can set up tables and vendors can spread out rugs or set up carts.

Lots of places where street performers can put on their shows and draw a small crowd.

That's what they forgot in designing City Creek in Salt Lake. That's what Greensboro's "management" keeps blowing. Even Friendly Center doesn't have it quite right -- the stores are too big, there are too many boring chain stores, and the place really isn't designed for walking.

Just try hoofing it from Great Harvest to Red Mango and you'll see what I mean. Friendly Center hates pedestrians.

But, to be fair, they also hate drivers -- that's why they still don't have four-way stops at each of those speedbump crosswalks on Northline, so it takes forever to get out of the parking area and onto the street.

Still, Friendly Center is as close to a viable urban retail space as Greensboro has.

And, sad to say, after all the millions of dollars poured into the beautiful City Creek development in downtown Salt Lake City, little old simple-minded Friendly Center is a lot closer to being a viable downtown.

It's not a Destination Downtown. Nobody's going to come from faraway cities in order to shop there.

But it's the most pleasant place to go shopping if you live in Greensboro.

*

The worst television show I've ever seen is now on HBO.

Girls is being touted as the successor to Sex and the City. I suppose you could see it that way, if you replaced the quirky, clever women of SATC with really stupid, self-centered, unpleasant women, and you replaced all the smart dialogue with mindlessly dull conversations that are clearly controlled by the agenda of the writers, and you had them take off their clothes and perform sex acts that are exactly as attractive as watching someone go to the bathroom.

Here's the one good thing about Girls. Where Sex and the City made the promiscuous lifestyle seem glamorous, drawing lots of young women into a life of empty sex and loveless relationships because the show made it seem so cool, Girls makes it all look so very ugly and unpleasant, and the people doing it so repulsive and unlikable, that any intelligent woman watching the show will immediately do the opposite of whatever the "girls" on the show are doing.

Because Girls has achieved near perfection in its purity: There is not one moment of decency, kindness, or genuine intelligence in this show, so that it is a perfect guide to misery.

We ought to use Girls the way we use Scared Straight: We should show it to teenage girls and say, This is how ugly it makes you when you live empty lives of meaningless sex and treat everybody around you like dirt.

Girls would make even an atheist want to go to church. Like taking a shower after a bird poops on your head.

But wait. This is a world in which people pierce their lips and tongues, dress like whores and clowns, or buy overpriced Apple products just because other people tell them that it's cool.


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