urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Archive for September 2011

The Grove, Disney parks and faux urbanism

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I just returned from a week in the greater Los Angeles area visiting family and friends. As usual, Los Angeles is an endlessly fascinating place, simultaneously the derided poster child of American sprawl and yet home to some of the biggest changes in urban life today.

I hadn’t planned to go, but when I finished the Rethink/LA exhibit at the Architecture & Design museum more quickly than I had anticipated, I drove over to the Grove, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex at Fairfax and 3rd. Although my original goal of finding a Macy’s was thwarted, I was amused, as always, by how closely places and “lifestyle centers” of the Grove hew to urbanist tenets of city life:

A façade of an inviting streetscape

– Street-level retail
There’s a feeling of vitality all along the “city streets” of the Grove. The stores all open out onto the street, and there is a lot to see while strolling at street level. This being an August day in southern California, the weather was of course conducive to store doors flung open and people weaving in and out.

Pedestrian-friendly "streets"

– Small blocks
There isn’t any grid or blocks, so to speak of, at the Grove, as it’s far too small (even though its host city of Los Angeles actually has a fairly strong, if oft-interrupted, street grid). But there are frequent corners and intersections onto other streets. While I have no idea if “corner lots” at the Grove attract higher rent than the street lots, it still encourages a sense of vitality and exploration.

One wonders what the ridership per mile figure is.

– Pedestrian-friendliness
I suppose, strictly speaking, that the Grove is a pedestrian mall, as there aren’t any cars along the road. There is, in fact, even a trolley that runs along tracks laid into the ground. But all in all, there are few impediments to pedestrians, sidewalks are wide and there’s a parklike feeling in the middle.

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The overriding thing to keep in mind, of course, is that the Grove is completely sheltered from the city block around it. I drove there, as I imagine the vast majority of shoppers did as well, and the “Welcome to the Grove” sign is at the bottom of the bank of escalators as you exit the parking structure.

Places like the Grove, and Los Angeles in general, are often derided for being ersatz and “Disneyfied” versions of so-called “real” places. There’s no doubt that the architecture at the Grove, for instance, is a mishmash of traditional European architectural styles; the developer claims to have incorporated Los Angeles vernacular architecture into the design, but there seems to precious little red tile on the roofs.

But ironically, places like Disney parks and the Grove offer more of a feel of traditional urbanism, even if it’s only the surface level. Faux architecture and artificial weathering aside, the Main Street at Disneyland and the outdoor dining next to the fountain at the Grove offer an urbanist sheen, even if it’s through a painstakingly corporate-crafted lens. While there are certainly no actual apartments above any of the stores of Main Street, it is certainly more walkable than Wilshire Blvd! And I’d venture to say that at least in look and feel, if not substance, it certainly brushes up close to violating much of the Euclidean zoning present in American cities today.

I wonder, in the end, what kind of effect these places have on the urbanite and suburbanite psyche. Part of me thinks that there’s a positive effect in showing (versus telling), and that there’s something to this whole urbanist mumbo-jumbo. On the other hand, I think it also has the effect of ghettoizing this sort of development into carefully scripted and constrained locations. It seems bad to set up a sense that this type of development is limited to playground-type locations and separate it from “real life”: counterproductive in the log run.

Written by Andrew ACG

September 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm