The 'third place' in our lives: Could it be a mall with a soul?


BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Eighteen years ago this column reported that Victor Gruen, the Austrian-American architect credited with conceiving and designing America's first post-World War II shopping centers, had decided to disavow his own progeny.

His early intent, Gruen told me in an interview in his native Vienna, was that shopping centers be "more than selling machines." They'd also provide post offices, circulating libraries, club meeting rooms, everything it takes to make a real town center. But "fast-buck promoters and speculators" focusing exclusively on selling had irreparably corrupted his idea, Gruen said.

One would like to bring Victor Gruen back to life for just a day and take him out to the Crossroads Mall in the lively, multi-ethnic neighborhood of east Bellevue, outside Seattle. Crossroads is taking on some essentials of townhood a mini-town hall, a police station, meeting rooms and a stage open to all comers.

Just as vital: It's a convivial, social place. At the main entrance there's a newsstand where people are encouraged to browse. Sixteen international restaurants and coffee shops are clustered around an international food court with hundreds of tables and no limit on how long you can sit, chat or read. There's a king-size chessboard, open-mike night on Thursdays, performances from jazz to folk on Fridays.

In his book of the early '90s, "The Great Good Place," sociologist Ray Oldenburg said each of us, to have a rewarding life, needs three places a home, a workplace, and a third place where people can congregate to relax and gossip.

The English have their pubs, Viennese their cafes, Germans their bierstuben. And Americans at least once had the breakfast cafe, the bench outside the country store, the town square or neighborhood bar.

Sweet old time

In a motorized, TV-saturated world, most of that's vanished. But Crossroads' managing partner, Ron Sher, claims his shopping center is just such a convivial people place. And so it looks to me, with lots of folks taking their sweet old time sitting, sipping and chatting.

In the words of mall patron Don Morrissey: "Crossroads is a giant living room for people. It's like being in a small European town where people go to an outdoor cafe and sit and talk."

There's an added feature here: the neighborhood, with lots of multifamily housing, is as mixed ethnically as America seems bent on becoming. From Russians to Mexicans to Indians, there are lots of immigrants, added to an existing mix of Anglos, African-Americans and Asians. Even with language and culture barriers, people are getting a daily chance to rub shoulders in a convivial place.

Crossroads also seems to be making it economically. A decade ago, when Mr. Sher took over, it was a dying mall afflicted by empty storefronts, vandalism and the dull, concrete-box architecture you've seen in shopping centers everywhere.

The recovery strategy began with making the mall a more attractive neighbor. The bleak parking lots got lots of trees. Flower-packed landscaping was installed all around the property. Replacing a dull, flat roofline, stores were encouraged to put up individualistic storefronts; some dragged their feet but others (like Barnes & Noble with books on its rooftop, or Coyote Creek Pizza with a coyote) went along.

Public art was added a family of "pipe people" (constructed of air vents), a 19th-century fountain brought over from France and a rock-like Volkswagen in front of a state auto-licensing station.

Is this still a shopping center surrounded by parking? Yes. Can you find a village green, a church spire, shopkeepers living above their stores? No. Does the mall's bottom line depend on mass merchandizing? Yes.

But Crossroads has left the fancy fashion-oriented anchor stores to the much larger Bellevue Mall, down the road. It's excluded the likes of McDonald's and Mrs. Fields, encouraging owner-operators. It serves about 35,000 people from immediate neighborhoods, but pulls customers regionally for its entertainment offerings (including a nine-screen movie theater). It caters families first; video arcades aren't welcome.

A mall every 7 hours

Between 1970 and 1990, Planning magazine reports, a new shopping center opened every seven hours in the United States. But the easy days are history. In today's cutthroat world of supermalls, big-box outlets, inroads from catalog and on-line buying, retailing has become one of America's riskiest businesses. Many malls are destined to become suburban derelicts; more and more abandoned centers are to be seen coast to coast.

Some malls will survive by becoming the biggest, flashiest, most exciting retail outlets in their region.

But what of all the others? The survivors may well be those that learn to respect their neighbors, offer them a warm and welcoming place to sit and talk, senior days and single nights, day care, flowers, public art the great third place.

Indeed, the future might belong to new, old town centers that Victor Gruen imagined and Ron Sher has made come true.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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