"Lifestyle Centers" Hit Canada

The Toronto Star is reporting on the emergence of “Lifestyle Centers” in Canada as Toronto hosted a meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centres this week.

“Lifestyle Centers” are the big trend in suburban mall development. Unlike the traditional shopping mall, with its closed interior, anchored by large department stores and surrounded by a sea of parking lots, the lifestyle center tries to mimic a “Main Street” feel by putting streets through the middle of the development in an attempt to create a “street culture” redolent of what one would find in a city. Conceptually, they attempt to minimize the sterile quality of the mall through the provision of public space. Below is a rendering of a planned lifestyle center in Pittsburgh:

They generally look interesting on paper, but once built, they are often awkward since the spaces are basically undercover malls. Perhaps developers are using these models because consumers and suburbanites are sick of the homogeniety of the mall. But oftentimes these clandestine attempts to hide the mall without fundamentally transforming it seem to come up short.

New Urbanism Rejected in Indiana

The developers of a major New Urbanist planned community in Chesterton, Indiana–about 45 miles east of Chicago–have changed course. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the Coffee Creek Center is no longer going to try and be “a neo-traditional community setting standards in land use sustainability, ecology & quality of life.”

Instead, the new developer is seeking to build a large shopping mall or perhaps a big box retail development along with a standard single-family home residential district.

This represents an interesting phenomenon. Over the past decade, “new urbanist” developments with integrated housing and commercial districts, pedestrian-friendly environments, and ample public spaces have attracted the attention of large-scale real estate developers. Modeled after successful projects like Celebration, Florida, developers found a new market niche that could be pitched as an alternative to the typical “cookie cutter” sprawl developments.

According to the article, sales for Coffee Creek were anemic.  It is unclear whether the recent downturn in the housing market is to blame for this, or rather changing consumer preferences.  Nevertheless it will be interesting to see if this is a harbinger for a general retreat from New Urbanism.

Planned Communities and Housing Discrimination

The New York Times has a short article in today’s Magazine on the proliferation of “active adult communities” in the United States.

As baby boomers reach retirement there has been an ensuing proliferation of planned communities that forbid people younger than 18 from being residents. This emergent demographic, being relatively affluent, has been vigorously courted by real estate developers and municipalities.

In keeping with the increasing spatial segmentation of people and residence based on particular demographic factors, developers have responded to the market demands by offering spaces free from the perceived nuisances that accompany children and adolescents. These developments–like the Sun City and Villages franchises–are replete with swimming pools, golf courses, and other recreational facilities whose peacefulness is ensured by restricting the types of residents.

The article explores some of the problems with this precedent. Particularly troubling is how age-restrictive communities violate the spirit of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Prior to 1968, discrimination on the basis of age, race, familial status, religion, and ethnicity was widespread and had particularly nefarious effects for minority groups.

Municipalities generally like having age-restrictive communities since seniors utilize fewer expensive public services such as education. However, once baby boomers begin to die off, the next demographic wave will not have as many retired persons to fill these age-restrictive communities. The result could be declining property values as supply exceeds demand.

From the standpoint of urbanism, the trend of segmentation evidenced by these age-restrictive communities continues a trend criticized by the late Jane Jacobs whereby our new suburban spaces lose their vitality as they tend to be ever-more homogenous.