Glen O’Reilly is a professional designer who has some thoughts regarding the proposed Revelstoke Crossing highway mall.
Design is an interesting concept. It surrounds us, from the clothes we wear and the cars we drive, to the houses we live in and the cities we inhabit, however for the most part we take it for granted. In fact most people don’t appreciate design and planning, until it affects them in a negative way. This is even more evident when it comes to large scale urban planning. A surprising number of people tend to assume that cities just evolve and give little thought to the planning involved. Ironically though, it is the cities that just evolve, through reactionary or default planning, that have the most negative and long term effect on their citizens.
The first rule of urban planning is; you never let Developers design your city. The role of the urban planner is to look ahead and take into account projected population growth, traffic patterns, retail needs, etc. and see the long term effects of planning. Developers, on the other hand, tend to think in the short term, which causes the reactionary or default planning that typically has the long term negative effect on communities. Unlike choosing a paint colour or laminate colour, urban planning projects are not as easily undone.
The proposal for a parking lot style mall on the highway has our city caught, in what unfortunately, is turning into an unpleasant battle. The reality is that this is a zoning amendment issue first and foremost, and is being sold as a economic windfall. Now I realize that our Councilors are not urban planners, they are a Journalist, lawyer, Funeral Director and nurse, and are relying on the information that that they are given. So based on what is requested in the amendment a responsible urban planner should have seen that this runs contrary to best planning practices and have recommend to Council that it not proceed. Put simply, we shouldn’t even be in the position we are in.
So what is being offer to us? From a design point of view, not anything different than any other generic parking lot mall. There are retail stores arranged around the perimeter of a large parking lot (an unusually large parking lot, which I’ll discuss later). This mall could be dropped onto any parcel of land in any community and fit right in. As long as they have 7.5 acres to spare as this layout is much larger than I think the average person realizes.
A good design not only respects the site but also respects the neighbors as well, this design does neither. This plan actually does the opposite and offends the neighbors, as well as the traveling public, which it is trying to attract. By facing inwards towards the parking lot it turns it back on Victoria Rd. and the Trans Canada highway. Further, for a mall which the developer claims will increase interest and draw highway traffic into the city centre there is nothing in the layout designed to attract the visitor’s attention to the town beyond it.
I suspect there will be comments from the proponents that this design can be altered, and those features can be added later. However, it has been indicated to me at the Nov. 24th open, by our Manager of Development Services, that input will be directed more towards the parking lot, with regards to snow clearing, and to landscaping, not the design elements. Further, it is my understanding from the Developer, also during the open house, that this was the plan they are submitting. With the exception that they will be adding another 5000 sq. ft. and could possibly be adding another 10,000 sq. ft which is not indicated on the plan. The reality is that the Developer, or any future owner, can develop up to 50% of the gross area of the site as long as they meet the City’s parking requirements, which would help to explain the unusually large parking lot.
Any good Designer, Architect or Urban Planner needs to be able to anticipate the future. In the same way that a Residential Designer needs to consider a growing family’s needs, an Urban Planner needs to look long term at what is being proposed for a city or town. They need to determine if what is being put in place today will achieve the desired goal in the future, or have just the opposite effect.
So where will this mall lead us in 25 years. When I look into the future here is what I see, and be warned it’s not pretty. First, you should expect that there will be empty store front at the mall just as there currently are in town. Perhaps it could take several years after the mall is complete to reach full vacancy, if it ever does. I don’t expect that empty store fronts will do much to attract tourist off the highway.
Next the erosion of the downtown will start with what is perceived to be competition. However this is a perverse use of the term when in fact healthy competition is developing retail businesses within an existing retail zone, and not creating a new retail zone within a population that cannot sustain it. It is not a stretch to say there will be a clothing store, a Mark’s Work Warehouse perhaps. Making the Work & Play which is for sale, less attractive to buyers. So what, it closes without being sold? Then perhaps there will be a Second Cup at the mall, which puts Sanga Bean in the same situation as the Work & Play. Adding to the already empty store front in the core.
Then I suspect you will start to see a division between the merchant on the highway and the ones in town. The Highway merchant may complain that it is an unfair advantage that the car show is always held downtown, and that with their large parking lot there are far better equipped to host it. Causing the car show to move up to the highway. Next could be a battle for the Farmer’s Market, creating a split and resulting in one of those weekday afternoon Farmer’s Market’s you see parking lots in Vernon and Penticton. Further eroding the tourist draw into town.
Several year later, it is not a stretch to speculate that the six acres where the Ol` Frontier is located is sold to a developer who wants the same zoning as the precedents already been set, and promises to bring more national retailers. Perhaps an Overwaite to compete directly with the grocery store across the highway. Leaving a large hole in the Alpine Shopping Centre. Then there is the half acre next to the Subway, and the one acre where the Esso used to be. Eventually pulling all the major retail to the highway.
Then, as with Edmonton’s Whyte Ave. (also decimated by a mall), as the day time pedestrian traffic in the city centre dwindles it is replaced by evening oriented bars and pubs. As the ski hill grows in popularity the ski crowd will flock to the city centre in the evenings and leave it a urine soaked, vomit covered mess by morning. Causing it to be even less attractive to daytime visitors and a financial burden on the City.
Build Hotels! If we are ever going to be the Resort Town that we want to be then we need resort style hotels. Say no to Bylaw 2088, and negotiate with the Developer to builds hotels and a smaller “Welcome Plaza”. If the Developer is not interested then we thank him for his time and find someone who is. How do we do this? Like other communities do, we create a position (probably within the Economic Development Department) for someone who sells what Revelstoke has to offer to Developers and Business owners. Yes… it is that simple.
The Final Word
The first mall was designed in 1956. The architect that designed it believed that by creating a social gathering space it would slow and control the post war urban sprawl. Ironically it had the opposite effect and only lured more people away from the city centres. Unfortunately here we are almost 60 years later and we still haven’t learnt from everyone’s past mistakes. When asked about this new shopping mall concept the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright said they “should have left downtown, downtown”. I couldn’t agree more.