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Not Crowded Enough, Nobody Goes There
And some like it that way
I came across an article a couple of months ago headlined “Virginia Beach residents concerned over plans to redevelop KempsRiver Crossing Shopping Center.” The proposal is to demolish about half of the center and build apartments. According to the article it suffers from a number of vacancies.
I believe it, and Google confirms it. Here it is; it’s missing one of its largest stores, the anchors that drive traffic to the other smaller stores (it looks like a former supermarket). The really large one was once a K-Mart; a Planet Fitness is there now, but I doubt it takes up the whole former K-Mart. (The Google imagery isn’t recent enough to tell.) So you went from having a supermarket and a discount department store to having…neither of those.
Look how empty that parking lot is, especially around the old K-Mart. This is a massive asphalt financial sink. A liability. A nuisance.
Yet the article is basically a laundry list of the issues that come up during these debates and paralyze the process of trying to make these kinds of sites better. Traffic, of course, comes up:
“Traffic congestion is very bad,” said resident Drew Little. “At rush hour, you’ll see traffic backed up from Indian River all the way onto the interstate.”
Little, who visits KempsRiver Crossing often, said he and his neighbors would like to see the quiet shopping center bustling again. He said that first, they want city leaders to address traffic at the intersection.
“Anything that creates more traffic here won’t work unless we address the traffic we already have," he said.
The shopping center is aging and struggling. Demolishing some of that square footage and building adjacent homes might help—both by locating customers nearby and by pruning away the dead wood. But traffic is bad, and the traffic has to get fixed first. How? By spreading development further out and forcing every errand to involve a car trip?
It’s a self-reinforcing problem: in order to dilute traffic, we dilute development, which intensifies traffic, which intensifies the desire to dilute development. Rinse, repeat: suburbia.
This bit really struck me, though:
“I think it’s a nice, cool, laid-back atmosphere,” said Jevan Pasley, who works at the Planet Fitness within the shopping center. “A lot of people don’t know it’s here.”
This is a particular sentiment, I think. I’m not sure what to call it. But it doesn’t account for the reality of running a business. The place is “laid back” because it’s not getting enough traffic. It isn’t a “hidden gem”; it’s just an aging strip plaza reaching the end of its life. The fact that things like this, which are drags on communities, are viewed as favorable because they aren’t crowded speaks to an inversion of understanding about how human settlements work.
I keep coming back to an analogy Charles Marohn makes: he refers to traditional patterns of development as a “good party”—more people enhance it. And he refers to suburban land use as a “bad party,” i.e. more people make it worse.
In other words, rather than paint suburbanites as misanthropes, he argues that misanthropy is a correct intuition about the fundamental nature of suburbia. Much of what we call NIMBYism is in fact a logical position based on the kind of places we have built.
I think about a coffee shop I used to go to. It was in the ground floor of a mid-sized suburban office building. It was not visible from the main road. Parking right outside was free and easy. The offices appeared at least half empty at any given time. The coffee bar was in a big lobby space, where you could hang out all day and not get in anybody’s way; it barely ever filled up. I’d take little walking breaks while I worked, strolling two or three times around the office building, finding stick bugs and mantises clinging to its exterior walls. It was almost like a little hidden secret.
Late last year, the coffee shop closed and moved to a nearby strip plaza, into a smaller space with much more foot traffic. Why? They weren’t making enough money. Every thing that I particularly valued about that space made it a poor business proposition. I was applying a “suburban” view—a zero-sum view—to this business. I wanted them to keep losing money so I could park easily and camp out in a half-empty office lobby.
The way you know there is something wrong with this is that it is not scalable; if everybody operated this way, we would not have human settlements. Instead, we would have disconnected, spread-out development, chronic traffic jams, and half-empty strip malls whose redevelopment plans trigger a furor.
Churchill was talking about buildings, but we can expand his insight: we shape our land use, and thereafter it shapes us.
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