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Realty Check: Santana Row developer Federal Realty has tried to create a 'Euro-village' where residents can live, eat and shop. 'Great cities,' its brochure states, 'are remembered for neighborhoods like this.'

My So-Malled Life

Santana Row's grand design poses the question of our times: Can community be ready-made?

By Traci Vogel

SAN JOSE IS no stranger to malls. Giant destination box malls, acre-long auto malls, fancy boutique malls, duly functional strip malls--we've got them all and more. Many of us spend a significant percentage of our days at malls, working, shopping, socializing, trying to find that particular pair of pants or gadget or hairstyle that will make our lives complete. We drive, we park, we walk beneath their overhangs; we eat in their restaurants; we work out in their gyms; we drop off at their day-care centers. If we live in Milpitas, our City Council meets there. We may even go to church at the mall.

To some, then, the concept of living at the mall might seem a natural evolution, a given, even a delight. Then there are others to whom the very phrase--"living at the mall?"--conjures up visions of a nightmare biosphere existence, the kind of contained living in which the natural world gets reduced to an air fern hanging from a skylight that's lit by a fluorescent bulb.

Santana Row at Winchester and Stevens Creek boulevards in San Jose is a mall. No matter how Federal Realty Investment Trust, the company behind its development, might spin things, taking up residence at the complex entails, yes, living at
the mall.

The distinction isn't just a semantic or aesthetic one--it raises important questions about public space vs. private space and about what community really means. In a society that seems to discourage public interactions that are not strictly regulated--and that seems to be deeply afraid of organic growth--more and more of our interactions are taking place on privately owned properties such as malls.

In these spaces, public discourse is delineated by laws imposed by the owners or manipulated by commercial interests. Codes of conduct, often enforced by private security squads, are put into place without public input. The commercial interest replaces the public interest.

Santana Row also throws into focus the city of San Jose's own downtown development, or lack of development, now overshadowed by its wealthier, differently regulated neighboring simulacrum.

Most of all, Santana Row raises questions about the future. If the development is successful--which will likely be measured by how well it sells, not how fulfilled its residents are--will these instant communities replace the ones we already have?

Home Sweet Euro-Village

Strolling around Santana Row, even in its unfinished and post-fire state, certainly doesn't feel like walking around in a mall. It feels more like walking around on a movie set, one of those pasteboard but eerily convincing re-creations of a genteel downtown you might see on Universal's production lot. Or maybe on the set of The Truman Show.

The sensation is heightened when Santana Row general manager Tom Miles points out a 19th-century French chapel being reconstructed in the midst of a wide avenue. The chapel, which is scheduled to house a flower shop, is merely one of hundreds of architectural details that the developers imported personally from Europe to complement Santana Row's "Euro-village" atmosphere. Euro-village, in the case of Santana Row, appears to mean stone planters, wide sidewalks, high windows and bubbling fountains.

After a construction-site fire this August that destroyed the main building at the high-profile structure (and six condominiums in the nearby Moorpark neighborhood) and is still under investigation, Federal is considering whether or not to replace some of its housing units with retail. The building was originally slated to house 36 stores and 246 housing units.

Federal Realty's original website included the statement that "great cities are remembered for neighborhoods like this," and this is true, if one alters the phrase slightly to read, "neighborhoods that look like this." Federal's mission statement implies that building a utopian version of a harmonious community is as simple as putting together the right shops and the right lampposts: "Every city relies on vibrant neighborhoods. For most, this means a place to relax, shop or meet a friend for coffee and a stroll along a sunny, tree-lined street. ... Our mission is to create urban spaces that are not just shopping centers, but dynamic, people- and pedestrian-oriented places that locals can look forward to visiting again and again."

And, indeed, standing inside the cove-ceilinged corner tower of one of Santana Row's luxury townhouses, with a 180-degree view of the Santa Cruz Mountains and an eagle's-eye perspective on the development's main thoroughfare, the vision tempts. Even the smaller studio loft apartments for rent (700 square feet, with rents starting at $1,850 a month) along the street feature well-made split-level designs, sleek kitchens and glowing wood floors. The demo units are decked out with Scandinavian-style furniture, cleanly modern. The décor evokes a tenant who might whip up a seared ahi salad while wearing his Armani linen button-up and listening to NPR, perhaps pausing to open a can for his pet Weimeraner.

But "we haven't decided if we're going to allow pets," Tom Miles interjects into my reverie.

No pets? I edit my vision: OK, then, a young couple getting ready to drop their child off at day-care so they can enjoy an uninhibited day of prime shopping ...

"No day-cares have signed on yet," Miles admits. "But they still could."

No day care?

These flickering visions, while superficial, demonstrate the limitations to Santana Row. Since Santana Row is private property, and its residents will be bound by tenant agreements, certain regulations apply--and certain random elements that might define a real urban neighborhood are lost. Street performers are strictly regulated; in fact, they'll be auditioned by management. Garage sales are prohibited.

More ominously, since the First Amendment only compels the government to protect free speech in the public arena, there are no laws against it being restricted at a place like Santana Row. In fact, a 1972 Supreme Court decision upheld a mall owner's right to limit access to its private property if someone or some activity was considered detrimental to consumption. The right to assemble is therefore nonexistent. Picketing can be forbidden. Mall owners may choose to keep political canvassing and pamphleting off their property.

So although Santana Row might look like a beautiful alternative to San Jose's dusty downtown, and its Euro style might give the impression of urban sophistication, it is important to remember that Santana Row's carefully groomed town square does not serve the traditional function a real town square once did. The development's 1,200 residents and countless visitors will need to ask, What do we give up when we allow town squares to become privatized?

Reality Bites

Margaret Crawford, professor of urban design at Harvard University, once described the shopping mall as "the new stage of hyper reality," writing, "Reality always has its detrimental aspects like crime, homeless people, dirt. In a situation like hyper reality, like a shopping mall, everything is reduced to a set of agreed-upon themes, so people feel more comfortable here than in a real situation. The accurate urban reality is replaced by the falsehood of the shopping mall."

To many, this hyper reality would be a state of sterile culture, a dissociation so extreme as to be pathological: no crime, sure, but also a dehumanization of homeless people, no spontaneous street art, no organic interaction, no inspired use of imperfect but charming spaces.

To others, it's a higher level of civilization. Even Crawford has admitted in interviews that "speaking as a middle-class person, I find a lot of these things annoying. So I understand the traditional point of view. It's just that the other viewpoint has to be looked at as well."

Speaking with Metro, Crawford also cautions, "Once people start to own, or even rent, they become much less predictable. They start to make demands and use their condo associations to get what they want. Not that what they want is necessarily undesirable, but they are impossible to control."

She predicts that the project may turn into a Pandora's box for Federal Realty, with tenants, who will be wealthy professionals judging by the rental rates, challenging the limitations imposed on them by the management.

And if Santana Row's codes follow those of most malls, residents there may have much to challenge. Beyond regulations similar to those adopted by condo associations, like "no bird feeders," malls may regulate behavior, socializing, recreation--anything they think constitutes a security issue.

Many malls have even instituted dress codes. Last year, Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, Fla., came under fire for its "no sideways hats" policy, which protesters said was tantamount to racial profiling. Other malls have prohibited wearing handkerchiefs on the head or T-shirts with slogans deemed offensive. Bonita Lakes Mall, in Meridian, Miss., lays its dress and conduct code out very openly. According to its website:

While some people may think the mall is a public facility, it is not. It is a private business property designed for one purpose: To provide a convenient, safe and attractive place for shopping and carrying out business with retailers who lease space within the mall. It is not designed for general socializing or recreation and can not function as a place for people to "just hang out."

The website also specifies that actions such as loitering, yelling or loud talk of any kind will not be tolerated. Neither will congregating or walking in groups that may impede traffic flow. The website also states, "Using profane or sexually offensive language or conduct, or in any way creating a disturbance which interferes, disrupts or endangers mall patrons is not permitted."

It's impossible not to feel torn about the implications of Santana Row. The development is such a perfect example of what San Jose is missing and what the city has failed to create where it should be: downtown. Fantastic shops and restaurants, plentiful parking, pedestrian-friendly pathways--these are sure to create a vibrant street scene at Santana Row. The question is: Will that scene be allowed to evolve into reality or will it remain as carefully choreographed as The Truman Show?


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From the November 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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