Ten tips for planners to convert a shopping center into a village center


Bruce Liedstrand, New Urban Network

1. Have a clear vision before you approve anything.  Knowing where you are going before you start is important. Without it, you don’t have a basis for judging the quality of any plan or development proposal. A walkable, mixed-use, medium density neighborhood with good shopping (let’s call it a “Village Center”) is probably what you will be trying to create. Picture it in your mind before you begin and stay focused on that vision.

2. Get the bones right. What are the bones? The fundamental characteristics that drive whether something will succeed or not. If the bones are good, success is likely. Bones differ in differing development patterns. In an auto-oriented shopping center, the bones are large superblocks with buildings set back from the street behind large parking lots, and on-site circulation is largely via driveways and parking lots. In a walkable Village Center, the bones are small blocks with streets and sidewalks lined by buildings with cafes and shopfronts, like in a traditional downtown. Parking is hidden where possible and no parking is allowed between sidewalks and buildings. Remember, get the bones right. Don’t get caught trying to make shopping center bones fit with Village Center bones.

3. Make it mixed-use. Regional shopping centers are single-use, so people don’t generally live or work within walking distance and almost everyone arrives by car. A Village Center is a mixed-use neighborhood so people can walk between home and work, shopping or entertainment. This helps minimize traffic congestion. 

4. Make it medium density, so you will have enough people to make the Village Center successful.As we all know, but seldom think about, customers are the lifeblood of any retail business. Without them, the business will wither and die. Suburban shopping centers reach out long distances to attract enough customers to drive to the center. A Village Center, on the other hand, thrives on people within walking distance. Putting enough people living and working right in the Village Center supports retail, restaurants and other local services and helps minimize the need to attract car-driving customers from other areas.

5. Focus the stores outward onto the sidewalks, not inward. Regional shopping mall stores generally turn their backs on the outside and focus internally. Shops in a Village Center have lots of windows and focus on the people on the sidewalks and welcome them as shoppers. This can help convert a dull shopping center driveway into a lively shopping street.

6. Handle the parking right. Parking is different in a Village Center than in a shopping center. In a shopping center, parking is often located between the street and the buildings, and people often have to walk across a parking lot to reach a store. In a Village Center, the store is conveniently located right at the edge of the sidewalk so people can window shop while walking. Don’t allow any parking to occur between the sidewalk and the shopfronts, even along major streets. Where possible, hide parking behind buildings or walls.

7. Promote non-auto means of mobility. Cars are not going away, but environmental regulations and increased world-wide competition for limited energy resources are likely to put upward pressure on energy prices in coming years. It is no longer safe for us to plan based on an assumption of plenty of cheap gas. New developments need to welcome all forms of mobility — walking, biking, and public transportation. And they should create comfortably walkable connections to regional transportation systems.

8. Connect to nearby neighborhoods. A regional shopping center assumes everyone will be arriving by car and turns its back on nearby areas. A good neighborhood (like a good neighbor) connects with others around it. Make sure people living or working nearby can conveniently walk, bike or drive to the Village Center, so they become part of the customer base of the Village Center merchants.

9. Tame adjacent streets. Regional shopping centers are generally on major arterial streets that are often almost uncomfortable to cross as a pedestrian or on a bicycle. To help make the Village Center successful, these streets must be made pedestrian-friendly. There are two issues here: the roadway and the development area. Both must be made comfortable for people.

a. For the roadway, reducing vehicle speeds, narrowing travel lanes, and creating comfortable pedestrian areas can help. For additional information, some helpful hints for taming busy streets are available by following this link.

b. For the development area, one key to success is to remember the Village Center bones and apply them to the arterial streets too. Because the major arterial street may be a harsh environment, the pedestrian area may need extra buffering from traffic. Make the sidewalk wider, 15 to 25 feet or so.  Larger trees along the street edge can help shelter the pedestrian area. On-street parking is also helpful. But buildings should not be allowed to be set back from the sidewalk or any parking allowed between the sidewalk and the shopfronts. For a successful Village Center, the pedestrian shopper must not be separated from the shop fronts.

10.  Checklist. You can use these Common Sense Tips as a checklist when you look at a plan or development proposal to see if it meets the criteria for creating a good Village Center.

Bruce Liedstrand is principal of Common Sense Community Design in Mountain View, California.