Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Please Please Please No Strip Malls

A post over at Wormtown Taxi brought my attention to an article in the Telegram yesterday about the infamous Wyman Gordon property that straddles Madison Street just west of Kelley Square. If you aren't familiar with it do yourself a favor and go take a drive (or a walk) down there and take it all in. The property is large. The figure quoted in the article is 15 acres. That is a lot of space.

In the article what is talked about is that there is some interest in possible retail development of the parcel. Are we talking strip malls here?

The city needs to be very very very careful as to how this proceeds.

People always get all up in arms about these conversations. Who is a city to go and tell people what they can and can't do with their property, blah, blah, blah. This is nothing new, and believe it or not it's not even anything new in Central Mass. Sturbridge for instance has a signage regulation which I believe limits the height and size of your businesses free standing signage.

See Sturbridge has a plan and an idea of what Sturbridge is. It's clearly defined to them. Some things are Sturbridge and some things are not. You are welcome to do business in Sturbridge, but you are going to do it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to Sturbridge. In that way Sturbridge defines it's identity and holds on to it.

Now of course we are talking apples and oranges. Sturbridge is a small town, Worcester a much bigger city. This however is where strong neighborhood organizations and very specific neighborhood definititions come in.

If retail where to go in what kind of retail would compliment and add to the Canal District? What type of buildings? What type of parking? How does a development need to look and feel to exist harmoniously with the rest of the neighborhood?

In my opinion it is better to leave the whole thing barren then to rush into something just to have something there. As is stated in the comment section of the article, this parcel, and how it is developed could be a make or break for urban Worcester. We really do not need a strip mall with a dollar store, a nail salon, a storefront church, and a pizza place. I hope the property owners, business owners, and residents of the Canal District get this and are prepared to tell the city what they would like to see there.

What would I like to see? Well, you know me... always the dreamer.


Anonymous said...

Good post Mr. Haller!

jacob said...

ok, i'm not playing devil's advocate, but i actually like strip malls. a strip mall is multi-use, leaving lots of options open, and though i realize this is kind of fucked to say, if someone has a better idea, tearing them down and building something else (or even tearing up everything including the parking lot and making a big grassy field) is not that difficult. while those buildings you posted are lovely, if another big condo developement went up, it couldn't be too dissimilar from the rest of its kin in worcester-- unused and locked into an unmanageable price range. look at other strip malls downtown- the one that houses the social security office, the one where ping's garden and that weird little diner are (gabe, that diner may have styrofoam plates but is nonetheless worth a cursory glance, if only for a cuppa). this isn't downtown, but what about the strip mall near salvo's with the korean grocer (featuring black black chewing gum) and the african restaurant? these places are pretty awesome, and strip malls give them an inexpensive place to start up and exist, and a funny sort of community. strip malls look kind of stupid, and they're always set off from the street, which isn't great, but they also cater to businesses so small they only ever really require two rows of up front parking, so it's actually not that bad (not as bad as a cvs or walgreens anyway). anyway, that street's so crazy that it might make sense to set it back a bit.

when we decided to take the space we got for HBML (orders of magnitude cheaper than every other place we called), the landlord called the guy he was supposed to meet next to say sorry it's taken, and i heard the guy cry over the phone-- i bring this up just to point out (and maybe i'm wrong) that cheap commercial space is in short supply. if the city is indeed looking at retail development, i think a strip mall would be much better for the community/economy/quality of life than a standalone cvs, walgreens, or stupid chain family restaurant in the dead middle of a sea of parking. rethink the strip mall, gabe!

oh, my fantasies for that space: children's museum, high school, haunted forest.

Gabe said...

I hear you Jake and if I was someone who was happy with the city as it is, which I believe you are, I might not have a problem with it either.

As you know of course I am not happy with it as it is. I am not trying to hide the fact that I would like to see the urban core gentrify a bit. I have no problem saying it. People get displaced but the majority will land somewhere else and be fine.

I wouldn't even be upset if I myself got priced out of my own neighborhood. To me that is how the whole thing works. One neighborhood becomes gentrified and desireable, so much in fact that people can't afford to live there so they live on the outskirts of that neighborhood in turn making those neighborhoods on the edge almost as nice as the original neighborhood and the cycle keeps repeating until 40 or 50 years later the expensive neighborhood starts to decline and another neighborhood becomes the in demand neighborhood.

This doesn't happen here. Instead you have this kind of reverse gentrification where no one wants to live in certain neighborhoods not because of price, but because of crime, lack of amenities, and an overall perception of these neighborhoods being run down slums.

Jake, you go to some of the neighborhood leaders of some of your favorite urban neighborhoods in the country and ask them how keen they would be on a strip mall coming in. I would be anxious to hear their responses.

I am not even ruling it out, all I am saying with my entry is that city and neighborhood leaders need to be involved in every step of the process, and by doing that I don't mean hemming and hawing about it for 2 or 3 years. I mean going into it with a very clear definition of what a certain neighborhood's culture is and what the feel is of the neighborhood and what the aesthetic is of the neighborhood and making sure that these things are abided by whether it's a Korean market, a Walmart or an Arby's.

As far as I can tell by looking around the city no one has ever done this in Worcester and this is why we have this two community thing I always talk about which is Urban Worcester surrounded by the other community which is Suburban Worcester. It's liked someone put all the best and worst parts of a city in a mixing bowl mixed them up and just dumped them out between Park Ave and 290 and wherever things landed they landed.

Knowing you I am sure you enjoy the complete fucked upness of all of it and how none of it makes any tangible sense really, and that is cool, I undertand the appeal of that, I really do. But for the city to grow and for the urban core to become a place that is welcoming for all income levels and qualities of life many things need to change around here so we stop losing our best and brightest to Boston, Providence, NYC, and beyond.

Gabe said...

By the way, a good example of Urban strip malls that do work is at the corner of Harvard and Commonwealth in Allston.

I was standing in front of Great Scott last Saturday looking across Comm Ave and noticed that the building that Marty's Liquors is in is nothing but a strip mall that just happens to be integrated well into the landscape of the neighborhood. I don't know for certain but I am willing to guess that this was not something that just kind of happened and after the fact everyone involved looked and said, hey, wow, that looks pretty good there, imagine that, hi fives all around.

Sprout said...

Are you familiar with the book "A Patten Language - Towns, Buildings, Construction" by Christopher Alexander? My copy is over 30 years old, so it may be out of print, but it's a wonderful and timeless reference.

He presents concepts for patterns in our environment, from the macro - city, to the micro - home, which are necessary for creating a place that is "alive".

A quote "...when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole...".

Sripmalls always feel like they are in isolation to me and are only connected to what's around them by the traffic created by people turing left into or out of them. Even the modest adjustment of having all parking in the rear of them instead of out front, would at least potentially connect them with people on the sidewalk.

Gabe said...

This sounds like a book I would be pretty interested in. I will have to look it up.

Sprout said...

Sorry, my typing sucks - it's "A Pattern Language".

JR Moreau said...

Very good post Gabe. As far as I'm concerned, you're speaking for me and a lot of people when you don't want more strip malls and such things that kill aesthetics and character of spaces. I'm working on developing a co-working space(s) in Worcester right now. Some old colonials are just great for this. I'm very open to suggestions and would love to continue this conversation sometime. Feel free to drop by my blog sometime and leave a comment and let me know if you're interested in chatting. Thx!


jeepcj85 said...

People seem to be confused about what a strip mall is. The one Gabe is speaking of is the suburban model. Set 100 feet or so back from the street on 80000 acres with enough parking for the DCU Center. This, like the Pings Plaza leaves a huge hole in the urban landscape, and is detrimental to a pedestrian friendly landscape.

A strip mall can easily be urbanized by placing the building at the sidewalk, making sure there are front entrances, reducing overall parking, and putting parking in back. Obviously a building with housing or offices upstairs is more desireable, but use of less land and orientation to the street are most important.

Many cities have policies in effect that mandate this sort of construction. Worcester does not, but definitely should. Check out the Providence Downcity Design policy. Design has to be approvedon all new and renovated buildings, and there are even some streets where nothing under 3 stories can be built. Encouraging and mandating good urban design and high density is the best thing a city can do, and a suburban style plaza isnt a way to do that.

Anonymous said...

Here's my suggestion for the Wyman/Gordon property.

Or how about this, for a second choice ?....