There it is, just off the freeway, exactly what I wanted.
I've been in my car for fifteen minutes, driving northwest, searching for two things I expect to find in one of those suburban, edge-of-the-freeway retail developments: a big sporting-goods store where I can park, get in and get out; and a movie theater with stadium seating.
I get off Interstate 94 and follow the curving boulevards of Maple Grove toward an enclave of stores in a development dubbed Arbor Lakes. All around there are giant, big-box retailers: Jo-Ann etc., Byerly's, Babies "R" Us, Best Buy, Linens 'n Things, Chuck E. Cheese's, and a MegaStar Cinema (all stadium seating, all the time). The hulking stores form a sort of border around a valley of asphalt. Plentiful parking, lots of convenience. Perfect. But in the middle of it all, there's something I don't expect.
Smack in the center of the parking lots and megastores is a two-and-a-half block stretch of small shops. They line up on both sides of a north-south throughway called Main Street, which is designed to look like the heart of a small town, circa 1950. The buildings are only a couple of stories tall, with brick façades and lots of windows. Some have balconies that look out over the street. Curlicue street lamps line the sidewalks that line these few blocks, and matching park benches are scattered along the way.
After finding a parking spot near Sportmart, I find myself drawn toward Main Street. It seems logical to walk there. But although there are sidewalks along the street itself, there are no such pathways through the parking lot. So I dodge cars as they zoom across the paved lot.
I have lunch at the bakery on the corner. It's a chain I've eaten at before. I get an ice-cream cone at the corner parlor, another chain. Main Street Maple Grove is designed to be iconic of those hometown Main Streets we like to remember (or imagine), with a hardware store, a butcher, and a florist--all locally owned and unique. Yet nearly all the shops are the sorts of corporate-owned carbon copies that can be found in any strip mall in any other suburb, from the Panera Bread to the Cold Stone Creamery, the Chico's clothing store to the Schuler Shoes.
It's a sunny afternoon, but there are more cars than people on Main Street. It's little wonder. The cross streets along Main Street are in fact driveways into the surrounding parking lots. And while there are traffic signals that tell pedestrians when it's safe to stroll across the street, drivers seem eager to ignore them. One family exits the corner shoe store and crosses the street to a parking area. They hop in a minivan, then drive about a hundred feet into the grocery-store parking lot next door.
It looks like Main Street. It almost feels like Main Street. But it doesn't quite work like Main Street. It's artificial somehow, a fabricated hometown in the middle of parking lots. Call it Faketown.
Maple Grove, a city of some 55,000 people, lies 15 miles northwest of downtown Minneapolis. Its population is 96 percent white, more than half the residents are between ages 25 and 55, and the estimated average household income is higher than $120,000. For the most part, it's a typical suburb. In some areas there are busy streets flanked by strip malls, while in residential neighborhoods there are curling, meandering lanes and homes on large lots. Lakes and ponds dot the city, though some are hidden behind various developments.
Since the 1950s Maple Grove has grown up quickly--without having much of a town center. Until a few years ago, the eastern area of the city was a gravel pit. In fact, gravel mining continues in these parts, but as the industrial uses start to fade, the land becomes ripe for commercial growth.
For the past decade retail stores have wanted to put down stakes in Maple Grove so they could tap into the city's growing population and attractive (read: lucrative) demographics. Developers were champing at the bit to build in the gravel mining area. In 1999, the Arbor Lakes shopping development became the area's first major commercial project. Later this month, a one-block expansion to Main Street is slated to open, bringing with it an Ann Taylor LOFT, Quizno's, and Dunn Bros Coffee, among others.
But all of this isn't just about shopping, insists Tim Murnane, vice president and general manager of Opus Northwest LLC, the Minnetonka-based developer of Arbor Lakes. It's about building a community that the landowners, the city officials, and the shoppers themselves were clamoring for. "We wanted to try and create a more traditional Main Street," he explains. "We asked ourselves, 'What is a downtown? What is a Main Street? How do you get it? How do you make it work?'"
How you get it, it turns out, is to decide where the town center will be, then build it from scratch. You create the pretty downtown atmosphere, but to make it work economically, you ensure that Main Street is surrounded by larger shops that draw people not just from Maple Grove, but from the Twin Cities, even as far as St. Cloud or Monticello. "You can't just put 100,000 square feet of shops in a gravel pit," Murnane explains. "You've got to surround it with other reasons to be there."
Once upon a time folks flocked to the suburbs, opting to swap the concentration and community of city neighborhoods and downtowns for comfort, ease, and a private plot of land to call their own. But today there seems to be a growing desire to converge once more on public spaces, and the resulting trend is to refurbish, and in some cases to invent, downtowns in suburbs, all across the country. A town center suddenly seems to represent more than a place; it evokes a sense of community, a comfort that arises from personal contact and closeness. It's that kinship that people seem to want today, a tangible notion of connection that springs as much from the imagination as it does from any reality. They're nostalgic for the life associated with a traditional, old-time Main Street--even if they themselves grew up in sprawling suburbs and have experienced Main Street only through those holiday airings of It's a Wonderful Life.
"Once it was enough to go and live on a lot in the suburbs. That's what people wanted to do," explains Geoffrey Booth, director of retail development at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes excellence in land use. "But these days, people want to get more out of suburban living than just living on a house on a quarter-acre lot. What people are craving is to go and actually meet and greet. Locations that are special, that they're comfortable with."
And that, stresses Opus's Tim Murnane, is the need developers in Maple Grove are striving to meet. In addition to the current Main Street expansion, his company plans to break ground this summer on the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes, a much-ballyhooed project termed a "lifestyle center." Not only will the shops be upscale retailers (Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma), but they'll be laid out around a pedestrian plaza that will also have space for meetings and events. Insta-community, one might proclaim. But is that all it takes to weave the personal connections and sense of belonging that people increasingly desire?
The developers and architects of Arbor Lakes tout their creation as a pedestrian-friendly area, easy to walk to, easy to walk around, the kind of place where you might run into a neighbor and stop for some coffee and conversation. They compare the project to St. Paul's Grand Avenue and Edina's 50th and France. But where those districts have pedestrians, Maple Grove seems to have only cars.
"That project is a big box dressed up as a Main Street," quips William Morrish, the Elwood R. Quesada Professor of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. Until a year ago Morrish directed the University of Minnesota's Design Center for American Urban Landscape, so he has a local knowledge of, and undisguised disdain for, the Maple Grove project. "It's symbolic. It's easy to read through. It's just a billboard in front of a Wal-Mart," he says.
What irks Morrish about Arbor Lakes is that it's very retail-dominated and doesn't include a mix of uses that would constitute a real community, like offices, social services, parks, civic spaces, and, especially, housing. Only with that type of mix, along with sufficient walking paths and mass-transit choices, can you achieve a dense population that lives, works, relaxes, and shops all in the same area. "There's a difference between naming a village center and making one," Morrish argues. "The mask seems to evoke community. But is there going to be anybody there?"
To date there have been two residential developments built near Main Street. Both are rental townhomes (20 percent of which are considered affordable housing). More housing is being planned for the gravel mining area, according to Bob Waibel, Maple Grove's community development director. In addition the city would like to develop parkland around the ponds and possibly an amphitheater and a new library. That's on top of a sleek new government center at the northern tip of Main Street, and a community center that lies several blocks in the distance. Waibel also admits that there need to be better pedestrian paths to get people to walk--and to walk across busy streets. For the moment, many of the new additions ("plan aspirations," as Waibel calls them) are only on paper. "They have to happen over time and only if the resources become available," he says.
So for now it seems that Main Street predates its promise and the sense of community it aims to fulfill. Which is, in itself, an interesting conundrum. Perhaps it's true that today we, as humans--both urban and suburban--are seeking a feeling of community we once dismissed. But do we know how to make it? It's fairly easy to put up drywall and stucco; it's much harder to create a lasting connection between friends and neighbors. Creating a community is more than constructing a shopping mall. The difference, over time, is what could turn Faketown into Hometown.
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