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Downtowns & Main Streets

What Makes A Town Center A Town Center

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One of the forces that creates value is scarcity, or uniqueness. A baseball autographed by Babe Ruth is worth more than an unsigned baseball. A postage stamp with a misprint is more valuable than one printed correctly. And, town centers with unique characteristics — historic buildings, mom-and-pop businesses, unusual traditions — tend to be more valued by residents (and visitors) than more predictable town centers. When it comes to downtowns, serendipity and individuality can translate into a strong sense of community.

Scores of communities are building new town centers these days, from automobile suburbs that never had them before, to new communities that want them as part of the whole new community plan. Many of these new town centers are handsome places, with inviting public spaces and an appealing mix of uses. And they typically have lots of well-planned details, like arcades that keep shoppers safe from the rain en route from the parking deck to the main street, and trash collection areas tidily fenced off and tucked away behind the storefronts.

While they are far better than the alternative of strip shopping centers, regional malls, and lifestyle centers (see Philip Langdon’s PCJ article “Creating the Missing Hub” for a good discussion of what distinguishes a town center from a lifestyle center), many of these new town centers nonetheless lack a certain … something. The stores may look suspiciously like the ones at the shopping mall. The buildings may appear too uniformly clean, with not a single poorly-scaled sign or protruding air conditioner window unit disrupting the streetscape. The odds are good that the town center’s stores maintain common hours, opening and closing in unison (anyone familiar with independently owned businesses knows that it’s just not normal for mom-and-pops to agree with each other on things like store hours).

I’m certainly not suggesting that conforming to design standards or having predictable store hours are bad things to do. But the centralized management and all-at-once development of a new town center (or, for that matter, a lifestyle center or shopping mall) can have a stifling effect. A town center should not simply be a gussied up shopping mall. Instead, it should be part of the community’s DNA, shaped over time by the people who live there as much as by the developer (or developers) who initially designed and built it. A town center will best succeed if it’s an active and animated place, with its own distinct personality. …

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