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Chapter 5 The Planned Shopping Center in Suburb and City Among the culprits most often singled out for the decline of America’s central cities, the suburban shopping center stands out. These ‘‘engines of commerce’’ not only undercut traditional economic patterns, they had, according to critics, detrimental effects on social relationships forged over generations.1 Such criticism would have surprised the pioneers of such efforts, who cast their goals in terms of a philosophy rooted in the earlier era of greatest suburban growth, when theorists had conceived planned shopping centers as the means not just to sell merchandise but to improve social and civic life. This chapter traces the evolution of the planned shopping center, placing that movement within a tradition of environmental reform in which physical designs are used to advance social goals.2 In revealing the origins of the movement, this essay links the contemporary urban mall closely to its suburban predecessor. In the process, however, it raises new questions about the appropriateness of transplanting into historic downtowns techniques that were pioneered in the outer city. The history of planned shopping facilities goes back as far as 1908 to Baltimore’s Roland Park.3 Their growth, however, was modest in the 1920s and 1930s, when only a few centers were opened—notably Upper Darby Center in Philadelphia (1927), Highland Park in Dallas (1931), and River Oaks Center in Houston (1937).4 These centers were created to serve existing communities. More ambitious, and ultimately more influential, was J. C. Nichols’s Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, which aimed to build a whole town around the Plaza shopping center. Believing that increased trade would help build up a town center, Nichols borrowed from the English Garden City ideal in designing the Plaza. In particular, he borrowed its effort to integrate residential development with environmental amenities by lavishing his center with features previously reserved for the PAGE 77 ................. 17669$ $CH5 02-23-10 13:53:24 PS 78 Chapter 5 biggest and most dominant of the downtown department stores. These included art objects, small parks, benches and fountains, and a variety of community activities, from an annual Spanish fiesta to free bridge lessons, dog shows, and an outdoor art fair. As his residential development grew from the original ten-acre tract to an area encompassing 5,000 acres, Nichols incorporated ten neighborhood shopping areas, more limited in scope than the central plaza, with the goal of providing easy access to everyday necessities such as grocery and drug stores.5 Following Nichols’s example, developers built a few other planned developments around central shopping facilities in the 1940s, including Park Forest, Illinois,6 and Levittown, New York. The latter took advantage of the postwar demand for housing by transforming 4,500 acres of farmland into the largest town on Long Island. Described by one source as a modern version of the town green, the central store group in Levittown included a playground and a nursery.7 Even as businessmen were using shopping facilities as strategic elements in their development strategies, urban theorists began to conceive of the shopping center as a vehicle for social and civic reform. Distressed by the formless outward spread of the city, they viewed the planned development of shopping centers as an antidote. Early experiments to concentrate shopping facilities were tried in Forest Hills Gardens in New York (see Chapter 4), and as part of government housing ventures during World War I. Shopping centers received growing attention in the building of new towns, starting with Radburn, New Jersey, in 1928 and continuing in the 1930s with the three greenbelt communities developed by the New Deal Resettlement Administration.8 The development of the neighborhood planning concept in the 1920s and 1930s as an attempt to instill civic pride through physical design encouraged planners to place the shopping center alongside the school and the playground. Clarence Arthur Perry, the chief figure behind the movement , claimed that a planned neighborhood district ‘‘with its physical demarcation , its planned recreational facilities, its accessible shopping centers, and its convenient circulatory system—all integrated and harmonized by artistic designing—would furnish the kind of environment where vigorous health, a rich social life, civic efficiency, and a progressive community consciousness would spontaneously develop and permanently flourish.’’9 As pivotal as theorists considered shopping centers to be to community design, such centers typically were limited in practice to their immediate vicinity, usually an area containing no more than several thousand peoPAGE 78 ................. 17669$ $CH5 02...


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