Rebuilding Downtowns

Interesting article at the San Jose Mercury News today on the rebuilding of Sunnyvale Town Center having stalled out, and how the only piece that’s thriving – and having a hard time of it even then because of all the surrounding construction – is the one block of Murphy Street. A few choice quotes:

In the 1970s, Sunnyvale razed its downtown and built a shopping mall, complete with a Macy’s. It kept one block of Murphy Avenue intact, and that street—crowded with cafes and boutiques—thrived, becoming one of the valley’s coolest hangouts while people bypassed the sun-starved mall.


Now the mayor and council have to deal with one of the largest redevelopment fiascoes after the half-completed project fell into foreclosure proceedings and contractors walked off the job last year.

Today, Murphy Avenue sits next to a mishmash of vacant lots, nearly completed buildings and the steel skeletons of others. Orange tape stops shoppers from pulling into never-finished parking lots.

I think my own city of Mountain View really dodged a bullet regarding its own downtown. It probably helped that in the 1970s and early 1980s Mountain View had not one, not two, but three malls: The huge strip mall San Antonio Center (which still exists today and even thrives despite seeming hopeless outdated in its layout), the Mayfield Mall (now a defunct office building and itself the subject of ongoing redevelopment efforts), and the Old Mill (now the site of two townhome complexes), so turning Mountain View’s downtown Castro Street – which at the time I hear was a wasteland – into another large mall would have been redundant. Castro Street’s renaissance apparently came from redevelopment funds in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, when it was turned from a 4-lane thoroughfare to a 2-lane pedestrian shopping district.

Mountain View has been one of the smarter cities I know of about land use (no doubt some would disagree, but looking at some other cities the bar has been set pretty low), and development of downtown has been gradual and considered. Castro Street has three forms of public transit (bus, light rail, and CalTrain) that stop at one end of the street, and there is a huge amount of lot and garage parking behind the storefronts, avoiding that strip mall look. Castro Street has become a lot more interesting just in the 10 years I’ve lived here, as the vast numbers of Asian restaurants which supposedly kept the area afloat in the 80s have thinned out and been replaced by a more diverse selection. It’s very nice.

But then there’s Sunnyvale.

Sunnyvale’s main shopping district other than downtown is El Camino Real, and without a large mall as a shopping anchor it’s perhaps no surprise that the city decided to redevelop downtown into a mall in the 70s. But large malls have large problems as the years wear on: They’re not modular, like downtowns are, so renovating and updating them is difficult (and expensive, if the whole mall has to be updated at once). And if the mall falls so far behind the times that no one wants to renovate it, then your only option is to bulldoze it (wasteful) and redevelop it (expensive), possibly as another large mall project (really expensive). This could be the ultimate fate of other nearby large malls, such as Westfield Valley Fair (a traditional indoor mall) and Santana Row (an outdoor pedestrian mall with housing on the upper floors), although Westfield has worked hard to keep Valley Fair up-to-date, and Santana Row is less than 10 years old. Also-nearby Cupertino Square (formerly Vallco) is also a traditional indoor mall, and it’s been struggling to stay afloat as long as I’ve been here. The current owners are making a good go of it, but I wouldn’t lay money that it will still be open in another decade.

So Sunnyvale’s decision to redevelop downtown as a second mall is expensive, risky, and probably dooms the city to having to go through the whole thing again in another generation. Now, they do seem to be trying to apply the Santana Row model (or something closer to it) this time, but it’s yet to be seen whether that model will be more durable over the long haul.

Meanwhile, Murphy Street is already an unqualified success (its biggest problem is not enough parking – and it’s only one block long!), and redeveloping the mall space as a traditional pedestrian street-oriented shopping center might be less expensive (or at least the expense could be amortized over time as the streets are built out gradually), less risky, and more enduring, while perhaps being more successful in the long run. Sunnyvale does have a problem in that it has few places to locate large anchor stores like Macy’s, but it’s not too hard to envision a creative solution that places a large department store venue in the midst of smaller stores.

Given the straits that Sunnyvale seems to be in now, I wonder whether they might be better off razing large chunks of the work that’s already been done, and heading in a completely different direction. Of course, I don’t know what financial problems that might raise for the city, given the money that’s already been borrowed for the current project, but at some point they may have to just see that as a sunk cost and that the current project just isn’t worth pursuing.

I would be amazed if they pursued that route, and no doubt they’ll at least wait until the economy improves to see if the current project becomes viable again (although the Merc article says they might consider going partway on that). But ultimately I think it’s a shame that they went the mall route at all, since traditional downtowns are now in vogue, and have shown themselves to be enduring over long spans of time through changing demographics – a feat that few malls have managed to achieve.