The Mirage of the Neighborhood Model

Hollymead Town Center isn’t the paragon of pedestrian friendliness that it’s touted as, Erika Howsare writes in the current C-Ville Weekly. Years after the development went in, Howsare tried to take a stroll to the shopping center from the townhouses that make the place ostensibly mixed-use. It did not go well. Sidewalks stop abruptly. One must walk through mud, dodge cars, and swish through long grass. Checking with employees of businesses in the shopping center, C-Ville couldn’t find a one who walked to work. The development’s website brags that “dining and shopping are within walking distance,” but they never point out that the walk is entirely theoretical.

I’ve written before about the poor planning that went into Hollymead, though I never got past its bizarre relationship with 29N. Every time I have cause to go there, I wonder aloud about how so many gestures at walkability were made without ever coming together to actually make it friendly to pedestrians.

11 thoughts on “The Mirage of the Neighborhood Model”

  1. The County planners are an inept bunch who embrace the theories of neo-urbanism without the skills to put them to practice in real life. Watching misstep after misstep got so painful that I skipped right over to complete apathy.

    Being an existentialist in Albemarle County is not a bad thing.

  2. The only way that you can have an effective mixed use development is if the commercial space is on the ground floor and there are condos on all of the above floors. Or something similar with that principle.

  3. You also have to have the stores facing each other and not spread around the outside of a large parking lot. Try walking from one to the other.

    I don’t think anyone believed this was a “neighborhood model”, it was just a phrase used to jusitfy approving it.

  4. When I was looking at townhouses and condos back in the spring, my realtor heavily pushed the ones in Hollymead (of course, it was her company that was selling them). The idea that I could walk to Target and Harris Teeter from there never even entered my mind, and she didn’t even mention it. And there was absolutely no hope of walking or biking or my job at UVA. I also realized I could buy a 2 or 3-bedroom townhouse for the price of their one-bedrooms. And what about people with kids? There’s no school that they could safely walk to, so the development just forces more school bus stops.

    I drive that route pretty regularly and I’d never want to try to walk it. Drivers fly down Timberwood and its traffic circles mean that they never have to stop. Sometimes I’ll park my car in by one of the stores and make trips to HT, Petsmart and Target, and trying to get across the one-way street between HT and Petsmart isn’t too fun. The idea that the whole area was intended to be pedestrian-friendly is laughable.

  5. Town centers usually fail to work in situations where a single entity controls/develops the entire site. Their financing is based on commitments from national and regional chain retailers, and that is who they are beholden to. Just as they have no real interest in local mom & pop type stores as they lack the long term bankable guarantees that’ll get you your acquisition and development money, so too they pay only lip service (if that)to the mindless drones willing to live across the parking lot from a Petsmart. Diversity of ownership is the only way to go, and the most important difference between real town centers like our downtown mall and fake plastic corporate knock-offs like Hollymead. Think of the multitude of local minds engaged at any given moment in making our downtown mall (or even just their tiny piece of it) better, more attractive, hospitable, accessible, etc. and compare that to Hollymead where at best you’ve got a handful of sub-regional managers straining purposefully to comport to a field-guide defined corporate model. Their utter lack of even a hint of unique-ness make me ill.

  6. Diversity of ownership is the only way to go, and the most important difference between real town centers like our downtown mall and fake plastic corporate knock-offs like Hollymead.

    You’re absolutely right. I never once thought about it in such simple terms. It takes me 200 words to say what you managed in, like, ten. :)

  7. “Diversity of ownership is the only way to go, and the most important difference between real town centers like our downtown mall and fake plastic corporate knock-offs like Hollymead.”

    I know you’re talking about business developments, or business/residential mixes, but you’re also making me think about plain old residential development. I’m thinking about modern suburban developments where every house looks essentially like every other house, the lots all look alike, the streets all look alike, etc., because the whole development is built all at once by one company. By contrast, I live in an older suburban subdivision in which none of the houses really look alike. They were each built at different times, by different builders, following different models. Some are very traditional four over four Federalist looking things, some are ranches, some are angular contemporary things. Some are a little bit scruffy, some are extremely polished. Some are set way back on their lots, some are close to the road. Some have garages, some don’t. I don’t know the history of my subdivision very well, but I assume that it was began back in a day when an individual bought a parcel of land within the subdivision and built one house and either lived in it or sold it. I’d be curious to hear from someone who knows more about the history of this kind of thing, to know if there was a time when the building of residential subdivisions worked differently than it does today, and why that changed.

  8. Excellent point about residential developments, Cecil. If your neighborhood predates WWII, then, yes, it was probably divided up and lots sold to individuals or builders who’d throw up a house or two, thus the variations you describe. After WWII you had experiments like Levittown in NY where vast suburban tracts of land were covered with identical homes. Such places had to be suburban because land in the quantities needed didn’t exist in an urban environment and would be too expensive if it did. Since they were located away from places of employment, suburban developments couldn’t happen in America until automobiles were affordable for average families (1946-on). Perhaps even more important and equally necessary was the rise of REITs from the 1960’s on. They fueled the fire by providing access to funding on a scale required for massive projects.

  9. Interestingly, Levittown has since become a relatively diverse community, in terms of the appearance of the houses. Many of them have been heavily modified over the years, and it’s not exactly the monoculture that it once was.

    That’s a minor point against this larger issue, but it’s just something that I picked up in an urban planning class that surprised me.

  10. I grew up not too far from Levittown, but in a very different type of neighborhood, but still if you drive the roads around my parents home you see many that were once its fraternal if not identical twins. While Levittown has come some way from the place it once was, its mostly cosmetic. Lot sizes, setbacks, home placement, and relative immaturity of landscaping remain and are unlikely to change any time soon. Yet more subtle things like consistency in the radius of curves in the streets and a topography that was stripped bare and graded flat leave very few surprises around the next corner. And thats unlikely to change in the forseeable future.

  11. Great post and points. Like Levittown now, many planned developments loosen up over time and become more diverse. So there is hope. But the shopping centers that are single owned spaces, just like malls, have no hope in my opinion. As long as they are effectively owned or controlled by one company, they won’t evolve to be more diverse.

    Perhaps one answer is to just have a city (or county) develop such things instead of a company. Or perhaps let a company develop, but only if it is required to be broken up and stores owned outright shortly down the road. That would make the surrounding area and roads public. I’d like to see the same with malls. When these sorts of places become public centers, they should be owned by the public.

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