I’m very glad there is positive forward movement on redevelopment of the Oak Ridge Mall. However, I feel that the current layout proposed will fall far short of the ideal design, one that will best do what Oak Ridge wants it to.
I recently returned from my honeymoon through the Carolinas and Georgia, and along the way it dawned on me precisely what elements are in play regarding our gut “feelings” about downtown shopping, dining, and nightlife architecture—what makes one place more appealing than another.
As my wife and I walked along the downtown in Asheville, we observed classic brick buildings, rarely the same in their window sizes, floor sizes, embellishments, or colors. We noticed the shops were rarely more than 20 feet wide, but were deep. We noticed trees and shrubbery along the sidewalk and that the sidewalks varied in width and style.
When we visited Columbia, S.C., we saw similar, but sometimes in a more urban setting. We noticed a liberal use of brick to break up the monotony of concrete and asphalt wherever possible.
When we reached Savannah, Ga., we reached the holy grail of aesthetic comfort in Market Square. There was the same variety of brick styles, but dating further back in historical architectural styles.
In places, wooden structures even break up the stream of hard surfaces and sharp right angles. The distance between the two building fronts in Market Square varies from 30 feet upward. Where the space is wide, parks and “gathering places” exist in the center alongside satellite single story “blocks.” Where space is tighter, it is closed for all but pedestrian traffic. These aspects reminded me very much of both Faneuil Hall and Harvard Square in the Boston area, and of Knoxville’s own Market Square.
All these places felt “comfortable” to be in. They have character, and made me want to continue being there. They are relaxing and stimulating at the same time. Ultimately, what I discerned is that to create such a place three things are needed: diversity, proximity, and multi-story buildings.
Diversity seems to be key in promoting a sense of character. Uniformity strips a view of its character. You NEED a change in architectural styles every 20 or 30 feet: the more significant the change, the better. Without such diversity, a place seems sterile, cold, and impersonal.
You want as many storefronts as close together as possible, which is directly counter to the common design of wide storefronts. Aesthetically, though, from the outside, wide and shallow stores pale in comparison to the alternative.
In regard to building proximity, you ABSOLUTELY want the buildings as close together as possible. The modern mall concept of a big parking lot between buildings is completely counter to creating the right emotional response.
What you want, ideally, are storefront blocks separated by as little space as possible, around 30 feet apart, without vehicle access between them. Building proximity just feels “right.” The “spread them out” way of doing things has been a problem in Oak Ridge for a long time, and simply needs to stop if we want our town to be visually appealing. The long expanses between the various fast food joints and mini-malls along the Oak Ridge Turnpike illustrate this, and to a degree, so does our newest area of development along Illinois between Rutgers and Lafayette.
If you want people to window shop, you don’t want them to have to walk long distances across roads and parking lots between stores. When this happens, people stop at one place and then drive off, instead of staying and window-shopping. As a bonus, proximity makes a place seem more crowded, more “popular” than it is, like the difference between 20 people in a small apartment and 20 people in a gymnasium.
I’m not sure why this feels right, but single-story blocks feel much less “warm” and “safe” than taller building blocks. The added bonus to creating buildings that have more than one floor is that we can move forward on the “mixed use building” concept knowing that not only is it an efficient use of the space, but also a more appealing one. Second-story apartments and offices in shopping districts usually rent for a high price, as well.
￼As an example, compare the image at left to the previous pictures. To me, this is too “cookie cutter” to be appealing, although they did attempt to vary the cornice design and alternate between painted surfaces and brick facades, and the storefronts aren’t very wide. But the single-story aspect of it seriously detracts from its appeal, as does the reuse of only two awning styles and one brick color.
If we’re going to move ahead with the mall, and other developments, let’s do it as “right” as possible. The insides of stores are designed meticulously to achieve a certain “feeling” from us.
Many of us homeowners have applied similar approaches with our yards and our homes, to great success. Those design patterns need to be applied to city planning as well. You simply cannot downplay the massive effect simple changes in layout and architecture can have in changing a location from looking “blah” to looking “wow,” from looking “cold” to looking “inviting.”
This new mall will be likely ours for decades, and although we can go in later to redo certain aspects of the design, we’ll find people warming up to our new mall MUCH faster if we just do it the best we can from the get-go.
At left is the current overhead view for our new mall, as previously reported in the local news. The red-colored buildings will be the new ones built.
I’ve attempted to contact the developers, Crosland Southeast, to find out more specifics about the plan currently on the table, but they’ve not returned my calls. Therefore, I cannot speak with knowledge to the specifics currently in the design. My opinions for this new mall follow.
Make the new buildings two stories tall, at least, with a variety of embellishments (cornices, window sizes, etc) and core structural designs. Make the individual storefronts short instead of wide, to accommodate many smaller shops. As for materials, the city should impose a desire, at the very least, to use alternating brick colors.
In regard to the layout itself, the biggest fault seen above is the large central parking area between Belk and Walmart. It needs to be replaced with a park or another block of stores, or both. If a roadway is absolutely needed, make it a single lane, one-way loop with only drop-off and handicapped parking. All other parking should surround the mall area.
And the red-colored building just below the theater should be placed farther to the right so its left side aligns with the right side of the theater. This will allow the theater to be a direct part of the “center” area instead of excluded from it. Theaters generate crowds, and crowds of almost all sorts are good for a shopping area. Plus, a direct view from the front of the theater into the “center” area may encourage impulse shopping from theater patrons.
Altogether, these approaches will make the mall an immensely more visually pleasant place to be in, and will create for us an actual downtown square. It will make people want to stick around instead of “shop and go.” Whatever we end up doing, we’ll be better off than we have been for the past 10 years or more, but I truly feel we should aim as high as we can on this.
I hope this treaty finds welcoming ears in the members of our city government, and in the developers themselves, who are capable of achieving this higher goal.