Archive for February, 2013

The Charleston Town Center got a major makeover, but it's the new furniture that makes a difference.

The Charleston Town Center got a major makeover, but it’s the new furniture that makes a difference.

When searching my corner of the world for good public spaces, I didn’t expect to find anything at the mall. But during a recent shopping trip, I was surprised. The Charleston Town Center has changed.

First, some background.  The Town Center opened thirty years ago as one of the few urban malls in the country.  While suburban malls typically drained business from downtowns, the Town Center, situated in an urban renewal area of downtown Charleston, at least kept the business in the city.  Yes, some of the local shops were affected by the mall, but the old downtown retail area has managed to develop a new identity over the years and today is doing fairly well.

In 1983, the mall, at least by West Virginia standards, was grand.  Three floors of shops, a center atrium and a three-story, cascading fountain made the mall the place to go.  Amenities, though, were standard mall fare. Wire benches were placed in short rows with seemingly no more thought than to give tired shoppers – usually dads and grandfathers – a place to impatiently wait out the whole shopping adventure.   Nonetheless, you could count on a good crowd at the mall, especially around holidays.

Then in the late 1990’s, there was a boom of commercial development on the outskirts of the city.  Big box stores and their national-chain satellites gave Charleston shoppers more choices.  Despite the fact that you had to drive in crazy traffic to visit any of the stores in the big box solar system, the stores on the Corridor, as they are known by the locals, became the destination of choice.  The mall became the place that nobody went to anymore.

Last year, the Charleston Town Center changed its look, as well as its attitude toward shoppers.  After thirty years, the mall needed some updates.  Every square foot of flooring is either new tile or new carpet.  Old steel railing was replaced with a shiny new glass rail system.  The three-story waterfall is gone, and in its place is a more modest water feature.  Of course everything that didn’t move was painted.  But what really caught my attention was the change in seating opportunities.

The rows of wire seating have been replaced with clusters of upholstered, comfortable chairs.  Instead of worn-out dads waiting for the day to be over, you see couples enjoying coffee together.  Kids kicking back with their smart phones.  Now when grandpa takes a seat, he can lean back and actually relax a little.

The clusters are more social spaces, with spacing more encouraging for social interaction.  There are lots of cafe tables and even movable chairsHolly Whyte would be pleased.  It’s a huge improvement over the old seating patterns.  But you have to do it right.   I’ve seen other malls attempt the upholstered seating with less success.  You really do have to pay attention to how you arrange the furniture. 

No, the mall is not the perfect public space.  It’s still a controlled environment and interaction between socio-economic classes is limited.  It’s not a town square environment where freedom of expression reigns.  But something good is happening. Social spaces in malls aren’t created because of any sense of altruism.  Profit drives the design.  But mall owners and managers know that providing an overall enjoyable experience makes the shoppers more likely to return. 

New furniture at the mall includes the more sociable moveable tables and chairs.

New furniture at the mall includes the more sociable moveable tables and chairs.