Monday, August 18, 2008

Retail Diversity

In Response to Jennifer Langston’s article in the Seattle P-I “Seattle’s small shops…”:

“Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration,” writes Jane Jacobs in the final sentence of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her critique of postwar urban planning, which is often celebrated and frequently cited in the academic world, yet seemingly ignored in practice. Published nearly fifty years ago, her seminal work – which stresses, among other things, the importance of diversity, active streetscapes and buildings of all ages – remains incredibly relevant in the “world-class city” we are ostensibly trying to build. However, as Jennifer Langston shows in her article on the displacement of established independent retailers by shiny new mixed-use developments in West Seattle, Jacobs’ wisdom has again been relegated to the bookshelf while developers continue to homogenize our city in the name of expediency and low-risk returns.

Whether one is concerned with twin-tower condominium projects downtown, mid-rise and mixed-use condo projects on Capitol Hill or the ubiquitous townhouse rows that Lawrence Cheek described as “The Townhouse Scourge,” a poignant unifying theme is the disregard for diversity. The extent of this disregard is, paradoxically, remarkably diverse. It ignores both economic and aesthetic diversity: groups of varying income levels, living in or patronizing establishments diverse in function and form, are replaced by new groups in visually indistinctive, often block-long developments, which are affordable to only a small subset of the population. Spatial and temporal diversity also fall to the wayside: extensive redevelopment of an area isolates the new architecture in time, leaving it disconnected from the history of the area and often becoming the dominant style, which overpowers any remaining buildings. Traditional distinctions between public and private spaces are also blurred: a new project may, much like a shopping mall, provide intentional or de facto “public space” for the surrounding area, but if one attempts to partake in an old-fashioned public activity, such as handing out pamphlets or staging a political demonstration, the security guards will likely come running.

In the case of Funky Janes, the West Seattle consignment shop profiled in Langston’s article, which lost its first lease because it appealed to an alternative demographic, this disregard for diversity might better be described as paternalistic or even authoritarian, both adjectives that would probably make most businessmen, including developers, cringe.

On the other hand, developers like Dunn & Hobbes, who have helped propagate diversity on Capitol Hill with the Agnes Lofts and Pacific Supply Company hardware store restoration, show an authentic concern for the current residents, as well as the future residents whom they are hoping to attract. Returning to the spatial aspect of development, the modest size of these projects speaks volumes about the intent of the project: rather than attempting to transform the area via sheer magnitude, as in the case of block-long projects, they simply cut out a small parcel and become another integral part of the increasingly vibrant urban fabric; as for temporality, where the larger developments seek rapid change, the smaller are part of a slower organic evolution. Fremont was not built in a day.

We must remember that one of Seattle’s finest points is that it has not been overrun by big-box retailers and chain restaurants, at least not yet. Ensuring that small, independent, and diverse enterprises can continue to thrive is of paramount importance as we strive to create a vibrant, livable and sustainable built environment.

1 comment:

Winiznayne said...

When I was in China, one of the leftover effects of communism was a serious lack of diversity in architecture. In an effort to house as many people as humanly possible in small amounts of urban space in a country of poverty to boot, you would see countless apartment buildings with rust stains dripping from the windows and the poor condition of the outside edifice betraying the fact that it was relatively new.

All that to say, it seems counter intuitive for a country of so much diversity to resort to the cheap and lame. I guess it's one of the paradoxes of modern economics that lack of foresight and innovation often take precedence.