Riverside Malls Wants To Become A Street
Landscapes, like human bodies, have histories, and sometimes those histories can leave scars. The difference between a human body and a city is that a city has a longer life.
Some scars in the landscape last for centuries, such as certain roads in present-day Atlanta that zig and zag for no obvious reason. When we look at the map, we realize those roads marked the boundaries between ancient, long-forgotten farms. In other cities we see the traces of rail tracks, and the warehouses and factories built along those tracks, even though the train has long stopped running. In lower Manhattan, we have a proposal for water-filled footprints of two high-rise buildings that no longer exist. Maybe scar is too harsh a name for a mark in the landscape.
Scars on a human body are rarely attractive, except, perhaps, to a doctor examining a patient and looking for clues to the patient’s health history. For cities, scars can be interesting, even beautiful. They interrupt the monotony of the street grid and give us a clue into urban history. They are indications that the city is strong enough to heal.
The demise of the regional mall, at least the old malls from the 1950s and ’60s, will leave behind scars. These injuries will be hard to heal because they are enormous. Like sports stadiums, hospitals and convention centers, malls are over-sized objects that fit awkwardly at best into cities. Defunct malls become large white elephants.
The trend of "de-malling" — reconfiguring malls for new uses — is a welcome one. In fact, changing the use and the tenants of a building is not all that difficult. A regional mall, after all, is just a large, dumb extrusion. Remove the central hallway and the demising walls, put some front doors on the outside of the buildings and presto! We have a big box, or a long line of big-box outlets. That’s the easy part. The hard part, devilishly hard, is to integrate the mall back into the surrounding city.
The willingness to attempt the difficult task of reuniting the mall with the city is what makes Riverside Plaza, a current project in the city of Riverside, an interesting and maybe even an important project. It is not a masterpiece, at least not yet. At first glance, the site plan suggests a creature in transition, like a fish growing legs and becoming an amphibian. On the left hand side of the site plan, we see something resembling a traditional mall or neighborhood shopping center: A row of stores with a big field of parking in front. In the middle of the plan, however, the fish begins to grow legs and become urban. It sprouts a street with wide, tree-lined sidewalks and diagonal parking. This design is meant to be recall some of the oldest tree-lined streets in Riverside, which were among the earliest of Southern California’s grand tree-lined boulevards.
The big square at the start of the street is an outdoor food court, which serves as a kind of foyer for the 16-screen multiplex to the immediate north. The new "main street" mirrors other parts of the Magnolia neighborhood of Riverside, where diagonal parking is the norm. Bill Kelley, the developer who reconfigured the old mall on behalf of the owner, Litchfield Advisors of Lake Forest, Ill., acknowledged the amphibious nature of the new Riverside Plaza.
"It is not a traditional mall, or Main Street or a lifestyle center, but a sort of combination of all three," Kelley said.
A glance at the "before" site plan shows how big a change the new mall, er, amphibian, represents from the old. Built in 1950 and renovated 20 years ago, the 613,000-square-foot mall had lost much of its market share to the newer Galleria at Tyler five miles west. After acquiring the aging mall in 1998, the owner decided that a change was needed.
According to Kelley, "this part of the city needed a gathering place." The opportunity was the local dearth in movie screens. The bankruptcy of Montgomery Ward, which had a 60-year lease on a stand-alone building, delayed the start of work until 2001 but also freed up a big piece of space. Harris/Gottschalk’s, the other department-store "anchor," did want to leave its 113,000-square-foot leasehold — it’s the only part of the old mall that dodged the bulldozer — while other merchants wanted to stay in the mall but were willing to accept new or renovated quarters. This bit of history is worth remembering, because it may account for a certain awkwardness or inflexibility in the plan. Harris/Gottschalk’s is smack dab in the center of the plan, and to large extent, Riverside Plaza had to be planned around the remaining department store.
I am not going to pass final judgement on Riverside Plaza because I do not believe the story is over. This mall wants to become a street. It is a considerable achievement, if an incomplete one, that the developer and owner were able to carve a public-spirited street out of the carcass of the dead mall.
The amphibious nature of the site plan is unsatisfying and incomplete. True, the developer has worked hard to provide a walkable sidewalk around the left side of the plan, but it still seems like a beautification of the old suburban, car-oriented mall. The main street, ersatz or not, wants to continue all the way through. I am hoping that in the not too distant future, the mall will be successful enough to justify construction of a new row of buildings where much of the parking is now. Cars could park in a new vertical parking structure.
Someday, the traces of the old mall will be little more than a scar in the city pattern, such as the place where old roads meet new roads along a seam that was the boundary line of the mall parking lot, or that odd jog in the road that used to be place where the food court on Main Street met the big parking lot. Those are bits of urban history worth preserving. Compared with the open wound of a dead or dying mall, these few scars will be beautiful.