On the Town

Retail headlines on newspapers and trade journals around the country have heralded the end of the golden age of the traditional shopping mall.

Depends on how you define traditional.

True, today’s penchant for building and tenanting open-air shopping centers is a powerful deviation from the regional enclosed shopping-mall experience. But, as more and more of these open-air projects take on a Main Street or town-center flavor, the experience may feel more familiar than you think.

Main Street and town-center-style shopping centers return us, visually and functionally, to the days when we shopped downtown, when the department stores were part of our geographic centers, when Main Street’s local boutiques and service business dominated our downtown landscapes.

Although the original Main Street all but disappeared after enclosed-mall developments followed the residential populations out to the suburbs, a bevy of new Main Street-inspired projects have rekindled those downtown memories. Certainly, today’s Main Street and town-center projects aren’t solely urban developments—they work quite nicely in the suburbs, as well—but they provide the same intimate, connected feel, whether in an urban or a suburban setting, that the original town squares and Main Streets offered.

Not surprisingly, America’s shopping center development community is divided on the definition of “town center.” Some developers describe a town center as an open-air project that contains a town square, fountains, landscaping, benches, places for people to meet and to socialize. Others, however, believe that in order to qualify as a town center, the project must have a civic component—whether that be a post office, City Hall, or a library that pulls people into the town-square arena.

Some think the town-center approach is more of a street grid, with an abundance of city blocks spanning the acreage.

However it is defined, town-center developments and their Main Street counterparts are taking lifestyle centers to an entirely different level. On the following pages, you’ll see examples of perhaps the finest Main Streets and town centers in America. More of these projects are in the pipelines, so you can be sure there will be a “Main Streets and Town Centers, Part 2” in 2008.

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