Make-believe Main Street

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 10, 2009

But the Country Club Plaza, for all its flaws, was better than what followed.

Victor Gruen, the Austrian-born architect who designed the first enclosed mall — Southdale, outside Minneapolis — envisioned something like Nichols’ project: a shopping center with a “Garden of Perpetual Spring” at its center and a lake, schools and houses rimming the commercial collosus.

When the mall opened in 1956, to great fanfare, the garden was in place. But there was no lake. There were no schools and no houses. Only acres of parking lots. And the count-less imitators that followed did little better. Primitive zoning codes and a bottomless appetite for tax revenue cleared the way for an eager class of builders with none of Gruen’s concern for place.

“The developer community of the 1950s and 1960s was a cowboy community,” said Paco Underhill, author of Call of the Mall, in a recent interview from his Manhattan office. “They were making deals and doing things so quickly, no one was asking them to present a complex master plan.”

By 1978, the father of the American mall was disowning Southdale and the projects it spawned. “I refuse to pay alimony,” Gruen quipped, “for those bastard developments.”

The emergence of the lifestyle center can be read, in part, as a reaction to the inward-looking, sprawl-inducing behemoths Gruen came to despise. But it was the ubiquity of the mall, more than its design, that drove the return to a Country Club Plaza-type development.

The cowboys had saturated the market. And a new generation of builders, keen on accommodating the expansion plans of the Gap, Starbucks, and Ann Taylor Loft, needed to differentiate.

Memphis-based developer Poag & McEwen built the first lifestyle center in 1987. But the concept took off in the early and middle part of this decade: developers, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, erected about 100 lifestyle centers between 2000 and 2006.

Rhode Island was a bit behind the curve. Here the phenomenon is a more contemporary affair.

In Cranston, the retail portion of Chapel View is open, but crews are still working on the bulk of the residential section. In Westerly, the Atrium at the Quarry took the place of an old strip mall a few months ago. The Centre at Cherry Hill in Johnston just opened its first store — a Walgreen’s rimmed by red, white, and blue pennants. And a Coventry de-velopment is still on the drawing board.

But South County Commons, South Kings-town’s village-on-the-highway, dates back to the boom years. And it is, perhaps, the most fully evolved of Rhody’s lifestyle centers.


WHERE THE WILD THINGS AREN’T There are rules here. Photos by Richard McCaffrey

Pull into the parking lot and you’re greeted, first, by a pair of warnings for wayward youth: there is no loitering, “police enforced.” And skateboarding, it seems, is a crime.

It’s a short walk from the car to South County Commons Way, where Rick Perry nudges the flaneur down the sidewalk, “Oh Sherry” drifting from one discreetly placed speaker after another.

Just past the bakery and lingerie shop, the Brewed Awakenings coffee shop offers plush leather chairs, a flat-screen television and a jar of biscotti. Above the shops, paintings of bobbing boats and seaside homes line quiet, carpeted hallways that lead to lawyers’ offices and the headquarters of the National Domestic Preparedness Coalition. Al Qaeda, they must have figured, would never look here.

It is a clean and bright sort of living. And for the truly enamored, the Preserve at the Commons offers a chance to own a bit of the new downtown — if you have the means. Con-dominiums here sell for $400,000 to $600,000.

Over in Cranston, the bulk of The Residences at Chapel View are still taking shape: the hand-scraped plank hardwood floors and gas fireplaces with custom textured marble are the stuff of brochures for now.

But the development is already sending high-end signals. At Gents Barbershop and Spa, a royal shave — pre-shave oil, foaming lather, and mini-facial included — runs $48. And Kristina Richards, “premium denim” shop, sells a $176 pair of jeans by Hudson and a full line from Rich & Skinny.

But Gents and Kristina Richards, if painted in high gloss, still represent a dash of local color — a bit of Rhode Island enterprise to go along with Ted’s Montana Grill. And the de-velopers of South County Commons, though eager for a Gap or Victoria’s Secret, have wound up with a heavy complement of local merchants.

That’s no small departure. Even the proto-lifestyle centers — the Country Club Plaza and Cranston’s Garden City shopping center, among them — have largely surrendered to the big-name brands at this point.

And at Chapel View, it is not merely the merchant mix that gestures to the local. The development sits on the site of the old Sockanosset School for Boys, a long-time home for the sort of juvenile delinquents lifestyle centers do their best to ward off these days. And Rhode Islanders of a certain age still recall, with a peculiar fondness, cruising past the 19th-century Gothic campus with parents who threatened to leave them at the gates.

Carpianato Properties, developer of the shopping center, has preserved some key elements of that elaborate check on naughty behavior. The training school chapel, referenced in the project name, remains in place with plans for conversion to a restaurant. A handsome copper beech lingers on the property. And crews have stitched together three of the old stone dormitories with new construction, providing a three-story mix of retail, offices and condominiums. US Senator Jack Reed maintains an office on site.

Anthony Corrente, 71, a retiree stepping into Ted’s Montana Grill with his wife on a recent afternoon, said he was glad to see bits of the training school preserved — and cleaned up. “I worked at the other end of the institutions, so I know what it was like,” he said. “It was a dump, in plain English.”

And if the lifestyle center poses an existential threat to Main Street, it’s not all that evident yet. Merchants in downtown Wakefield, near South County Commons, vigorously opposed construction of the lifestyle center. But while a movie theater at the Commons spelled the end of an older model near the town center, the impact seems mostly muted.

Indeed, the downtown business owners feel confident enough these days to smirk a bit at their sterile rival down the road. Wakefield, they suggest, is a real place and South County Commons something less than.

They are right, of course. But perceptions could shift. The Country Club Plaza has survived. Has become something permanent. And the Commons may do the same.

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