Monday, January 28, 2013

Reviving with the wave of a wizard’s wand.

Earlier this past fall, I featured the accomplishments of the City of Kokomo, Indiana in reinventing itself over the past few years, after two decades of rust-belt, deindustrialized stagnancy.  Civic leadership successfully elicited a certain degree of buy-in among its constituent, all toward sundry capital improvements, the likes of which most similarly sized cities still only retain on their wish lists.  The results are conspicuous.  Kokomo has made formidable strides in infrastructural improvements, mass transit, downtown revitalization, park expansion, public art, and an ambitious International Baccalaureate exchange program at the public schools—all while maintaining a balanced city budget.  According to some of the city’s cheerleaders for these expenditures, the overall ethos driving the city is far more upbeat than it has been in years, despite the fact that, as recently as 2008, Forbes listed the city as one of America’s fastest dying towns.  Perhaps that article served as a wake-up call, because I’d be hard-pressed to imagine that recent visitors to Kokomo’s downtown would ever see the city as dying—certainly in comparison to dozens of other similarly sized cities across New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana that show little to no evidence of revitalization at work.

The combined impact of these upgrades is inspiring.  But none of them (with the possible exception of the International Baccalaureate exchange) is particularly groundbreaking.  Virtually every city these days has attempted revitalization through a certain combination of sculptures/murals, streetscape improvements, heritage pedestrian/bike trails, new parks, et cetera et cetera.  These initiatives seem to come from a City Planning 101 playbook.  It’s as though cities have completely taken the bait from the many national assessment tools created by various urban advocacy nonprofits in order to gauge quality of life.  At the same time, the advisory committees that operate these organizations (and thus create their highly subjective definitions of “quality of life”) consist overwhelmingly of city planners and their lobbyist allies, cajoling municipalities to eat out of their hands in a manner that smacks of self-aggrandizement.  To put it more simply, cities like Kokomo strive for (and ultimately invest in) bike lanes, mixed-use trails, or omnipresent bike racks, all in order to achieve and flaunt that bronze rating from the League of Bicyclists, which in turn wins free publicity for itself in the process.  I cynically alluded to this practice in Baton Rouge a few years ago. 

I’m not trying to undermine or belittle these practices, nor do I mean to pick on the League of American Bicyclists’ worthy mission.  And the initiative that Kokomo has shown these past few years is commendable—and the city has usually implemented these upgrades far more smartly than one might see in a larger city like Indianapolis.  But the standards for what constitutes a “livable” city seem to grow more uniform and homogenized with each passing year that these standard-bearers of good urbanism grow in influence.  The remedy for economic malaise increasingly seems to be the same everywhere, like a doctor who prescribes cod liver oil for both arthritis and malaria.  So it is with no small fanfare that I declare how happy I am that a local entrepreneur in Kokomo has marched alongside the corps of revitalizers, but to his own beat.

This whimsical structure, known as Storybook Express, opened in 2012 at a long-vacant site at Sycamore Street and Apperson Way, just a few blocks from the Howard County Courthouse.  Although it’s a convenience store, the unconventional, fairytale appearance has prompted locals to christen it the “Harry Potter house”.  Even from a distance, the building’s densely ornamented façade and off-kilter massing and brickwork help distinguish it.
But a closer look reveals the devil-may-care insertion of neglected or discarded antiques into the masonry:
Notice the metal pig’s derriere rammed into the wood just above the transom window.

More often than not, eye-catching façades such as these are a total bust when viewed from less prominent angles.  The designer puts all the mojo in the front view.  But Storybook Express includes just as much eccentric detail on the backside as well:
An old church inscription, a car’s suspension coil, antiquated plumbing, and other unidentifiable bric-a-brac enhance the façade’s visual interest.  Even the relatively conventional brick wall, used to elevate and protect the convenience store’s HVAC equipment, deliberately employs an excessive amount of mortar to enhance the multi-dimensionality.  Look how it oozes from between the bricks.
The western wall is equally whimsical and boasts the added benefit of a drive-thru window, a relatively uncommon feature in convenience stores.
But I have to confess that my favorite detail is the parking lot, mainly because it would be so easy to settle for drab convention.  But the brains behind Storybook Express allowed the whimsy to permeate the entire design.  The retaining wall adheres to the same pastiche as the masonry:
And it takes real chutzpah to employ an unconventional striping for a parking lot, a practice that in many cities would require special approval:

Storybook Express would easily qualify as a great roadside curiosity even if it sat in isolation.  But it is the culminating achievement of Fortune Management, a local real estate development firm with holdings throughout the city, including a few other developments in a similar vernacular.  I found one of these other curiosities on my own, at Markland Avenue and Calumet Street.
This structure, dating from 1999, hosts a nail salon.
Like Storybook Express, it applies the fanciful masonry mixed with assorted folderol on all four sides.
Digging back a bit further in time, Fortune Management adapted some brownfield sites into office space.  The property at Markland and Washington previously hosted a transmission repair shop that had clearly seen better days:
In 1995, Fortune Management transformed it into this:
And the company pioneered this aesthetic with a Shell Station at Sycamore and Washington, way back in 1987.  Before the redevelopment, it looked like this:
And afterwards:
These earlier efforts may appear less ostentatious than the convenience store downtown, but they ascribe to the same spirit in their design.

A recent interview with Fortune Management’s president, Scott Pitcher, helped shed some light on his rationale.  The firm has purchased and renovated over 50 properties in the Kokomo area since its 1982 founding.  Pitcher’s goal, even for the less fanciful redevelopments, has been to employ high-quality materials from the same time period as the original structure.  More often than not, Fortune Management has rescued materials from other buildings under demolition in Kokomo other various Indiana.  Not surprisingly, the Storybook Express convenience store featured in the first photos series was new construction on a lot that the company had held in its portfolio for years.  Although not a renovation, it nonetheless consists primarily of repurposed material, while the customized roof exclusively employed Kokomo craftspeople.
The ostensible “Harry Potter” references are a throwback to a legitimate Storybook architectural style in vogue during the 1920s in Hollywood.  Despite the recession, the time finally seemed right a few years ago for Pitcher to begin developing Storybook Express in order to capitalize on the other revitalization efforts that had taken place in downtown Kokomo.  He partnered with a local entrepreneur who was interested in opening a convenience store at the site, and though it was inevitable that it would require parking, the structure still engages Sycamore Street with a very small setback, allowing the structure to accommodate vehicles and pedestrians in nearly equal measure, as the somewhat blurry photo below still demonstrates:

What motivated Pitcher and his team to try this style?  These sundry developments seem inspired by both a love of vintage Hollywood movie sets as well as the plundering of small-town antique shops, though they have also achieved statewide recognition for persistent use of local material, winning an Indiana Green Business Award in 2010.  At the same time, I see little evidence in Pitcher’s work that he was striving for broader recognition in the architectural or artistic community.  He wasn’t trying to impress the New York art scene; he built this way because he felt like it.  I shy away from the dubious label of “folk art” because it carries with it a whiff of condescension—that folk artists are uncouth autodidacts who remain ignorant of the preferred aesthetic standards and mores of the time.  Pitcher knows exactly what he’s trying to achieve, but Storybook Express and its cousins have flourished despite being untethered to any broader cultural barometer.  For me, the DIY framework by which these buildings came into being can’t help but recall the work of Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, who for decades has charmed his neighborhood through colorful mosaics and found-object installations superimposed onto various buildings.  The vast majority of Zagar’s corpus remains concentrated along South Street and the adjacent blocks, such as the examples below:

Obviously Scott Pitcher and Isaiah Zagar aren’t entirely kindred spirits: Zagar self-identifies as an artist and Pitcher is first and foremost a developer.  And while Zagar’s most widely recognized artistic output polka-dots the various workaday streets of South Philly, his work also sits in the permanent collections of art institutions both inside and outside of metro Philadelphia.  Nonetheless, Zagar has admitted his affinity with folk and visionary artists from across the globe, and he doesn’t hesitate to identify as a “vernacular artist” because the majority of his corpus thrives from decades of embedding himself in the community he loves, rather than responding exclusively to the dictates of specific commissions.  Pitcher, meanwhile, has indicated that any new Storybook project will likely take place far from downtown Kokomo, since he feels a similar edifice will only dilute the impact of Storybook Express (which, not surprisingly, has proven a resounding success as a convenience store).  He hopes to forge his next venture in another smaller Indiana downtown, or perhaps even something in Indianapolis.

What Zagar and Pitcher clearly share is an aesthetic vision divorced from an overt context.  Zagar could have filled his murals with references to Jim Croce or Marian Anderson or Mario Lanza, if he wanted to draw from South Philly’s heritage of vocal musicians.  He could have partnered with a nonprofit to engage in a comprehensive beautification campaign through targeted mosaic design and specific locations.  But the visual evidence suggests neither of these.  Nor does Scott Pitcher seem to care if 1920s Hollywood (or Hogwarts) has anything to do with Kokomo, the City of Firsts.  And therein lies the appeal.  Most of Kokomo’s other revitalization initiatives are sincere attempts to jolt the city out of its multi-decade torpor by massaging the dormant creative economy.  Kokomo hopes to retain its population through compelling quality of life amenities.  But when every small city sees bike lanes and murals as the remedy, couldn’t these urban organisms eventually develop immunity to the treatment?  Sometimes individual ingenuity—the entrepreneurs who swim against the current—can offer more long-term regenerative potential than all the social policies a city council can conceive.  Kokomo’s future success will undoubtedly owes a great deal to committed and talented civic leadership, but its distinctiveness may rely heavily upon a playful little building near downtown called Storybook Express.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

MONTAGE: Stratification across the river.

Late last year I featured an article on the unusual Oxford Valley Mall in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a mostly upper-middle income suburban region of Philadelphia.  It’s a distinctive mall because it’s simultaneously both low-rent and affluent: it has such high-end tenants as Williams Sonoma or Swarovski, but it also has Five Below, Dollar Hut, and a number of mom-and-pop establishments that you’d typically only see in struggling or dying malls.  This is unusual, since most malls either assume a uniformly upward trajectory, or they manifest their gradual decline.  Meanwhile, Oxford Valley has a higher vacancy rate than it probably should, especially since one of the four department stores has been empty for several years.  But it’s still attracting new tenants, both fancy and downmarket: Sephora (the former) and H&R Block (the latter) are opening in the mall over the upcoming weeks.  So what’s the verdict on Oxford Valley?  Is it on the fritz or will it persevere?

I’m not from Bucks County and haven’t gotten to witness it over the years, so it’s hard for me to form much of a judgment.  But it’s not the only mall in the area that suffers from this strange split personality.  Just across the river, in Windsor Township, New Jersey, the Quaker Bridge Mall must grapple with an equally uncertain future. 

It’s not far at all: less than 15 miles from Oxford Valley.  Like the Pennsylvania mall, Simon Property Group manages the space.  In fact, the story here is so similar to its predecessor, I’m going to intervene minimally with text and let the pictures tell most of the story.

Quaker Bridge Mall opened in 1975, just two years after Oxford Valley.  Like its Pennsylvania counterpart, Quaker Bridge sits in a mostly affluent suburban area, just a stone’s throw away from Route 1.  It, too, contains over one million square feet across two floors, though Oxford Valley has it beat in size by about a quarter million.  (Quaker Bridge just barely passes the one million mark.)  Both malls feature four department stores, though only Quaker Bridge can claim occupancy in all of them.  The ubiquitous J.C. Penney, Sears, and Macy’s take three of the spaces, while Quaker Bridge’s most prestigious department store is the Lord and Taylor, featured above.

In addition, if one were to judge the affluence of a mall by its interior aesthetics, Quaker Bridge would probably come out ahead.

The shiny, white faux-marble floors and the relative lack of ornamentation evoke contemporary notions of privileged consumption a bit more precisely than the dowdy, middlebrow appearance of Oxford Valley.  To top it off, Simon Property Group (50% owner as well as manager) was investing in a full renovation at the end of 2012.

Apparently, until recently, Simon had bolder ambitions for this property: the company hoped to inject a distinctively upscale vibe through a 600,000 square foot expansion that would include Nordstrom, Nieman Marcus, and about 100 new inline stores and restaurants.  The recession a few years later put the kibosh on those plans, and these days the renovations are a bit more modest: new flooring, ceilings, lighting, signage, hand railings, and landscaping.  And apparently within the past year, Simon leased a newly constructed space to The Cheesecake Factory attached to the mall and widely visible from the parking lot.

The presence of a recognized restaurant chain at Quaker Bridge further enhances its advantage over Oxford Valley; while the Bucks County mall can claim a few outparcel restaurants, none are physically connected to the mall.  A drive around the perimeter of Oxford Valley reveals nothing more than a blank wall; the mall orients itself completely inward.  Simon also has made no announcements regarding any upgrades at Oxford Valley.  Regardless of the scaled-down ambitions at Quaker Bridge, the fact that Simon Property Group has invested in both renovation and new restaurant construction suggests the company’s confidence in the long-term viability in the mall.

All of the above conditions indicate that Quaker Bridge enjoys more auspicious economic forecasts than its counterpart across the Delaware River.  But does it?   To the right of The Cheesecake Factory in the photo above is an entrance to the mall, and as soon as a visitor walks through the doors, this is what he or she sees:

The checkerboard motif coupled with intermittent yellow accents suggests California Pizza Kitchen to me, though if Quaker Bridge hosted a branch of this popular restaurant in the past, it must have folded a long time ago; I can find no online evidence that it existed here.  Across from the old CPK?

The photo featured earlier, with the renovation explanations, also shrouds a huge vacant in-line storefront.  This entire minor entrance corridor is vacant.  Proceeding through this passageway to the mall’s main commercial spine, the vacancies are glaring:

Quite a few on the upper floor as well.  It has reliable tenants, like New York and Company:

And a Hallmark store, which seems to be more prevalent in the Northeast than it does in the Midwest.

The typically commodious Forever 21 seems to be taking a major space in the near future:

But much of the floor is patchy.

That Wendy’s is a real oddity.  It’s all by itself on the second floor—no other restaurants nearby.  In mall milieus, one usually finds a Wendy’s in either the food court or an outparcel in the vast parking lot.  The fact that the Wendy’s is isolated reveals two other leasing hurdles the mall is trying to overcome.  The first of these hurdles is that the mall currently lacks any real food court.

Apparently one is on the way, but, in the meantime, the management has crammed remaining fast-food eateries in an unpleasant passageway leading to another mall exit.

Not much to look at, and the eatery options are meager.  Despite the thick crowds, this hallway cannot attract better tenants than a locally owned convenience store:

One typically only sees the likes of QB Express in seriously struggling malls.  The second of the two hurdles that explains the oddly located Wendy’s is that the mall didn’t need an appropriate tenant at this space; it just needed any tenant.  To put it frankly, Quaker Bridge will take whatever tenant it can get to put a dent in its approximately 20% in-line vacancy rate.

So maybe Quaker Bridge is floundering?  The Star-Ledger article that I cited earlier acknowledged that the mall recently ushered in a slew of new upscale online tenants, such as Michael Kors, Sephora, Teavana, and Sur la Table.  It also can claim the following choosy tenants:

And a few other specialty retailers are on their way:

But the current retail mix does not seem like the type that could usher in a Neiman Marcus.  I was quite surprised to see cash-for-gold store at this mall—a service that spouted like mushrooms about the time of the Great Recession.

And just take a look at the mall’s deadest wing, over by J.C. Penney:

The notion that J.C. Penney would be the least active section of a mall surprised me; after all, most of my mall tours of the past have proven that Sears is the typical Achilles’ heel.  (I blogged about it a while ago.)  But the general profile of the J.C Penney wing at Quaker Bridge is emptiness or unknown mom-and-pop stores.

As far as I can tell, this is the only location in the nation for Pelle and Company.  It doesn’t seem to have a website.  Just a few yards away, Belgium Jewelers reminds me of the sort of retailer one might see in a second or third-tier mall in Dubai:

Peering over the balcony to the floor below, witness another unknown:

The only other location for this mom-and-pop called Rubee?  None other than Oxford Valley Mall.  Rubee doesn’t have its own domain, but at least it has a Facebook page.  Elsewhere on the lower floor are a few more obscurities:

The Grand Fragrances store again looks like exactly something from Dubai of the 1990s.  Another little-known vendor along the J.C. Penney wing seems to have folded.

Meanwhile, Arthur Murray Dance Studio may be a national name, but its reduced hours and relative lack of impromptu visitors makes it an undesirable fit for a major mall.

After all, it was already closing down on the busy weekend night that I took these photos.  Simon Property wouldn’t even consider a dance studio if this mall commanded top-dollar leases.  The bleakest part of the J.C. Penney wing, however, is the cluster of inline stores directly abutting the entrance to J.C. Penney’s itself.

A Payless Shoes in a mall with upscale aspirations?  Not likely.  But J.C. Penney has suffered meager revenues these past few years, and, despite all the renovations taking place at the Quaker Bridge Mall, the management at J.C. Penney’s has apparently postponed updating this particular branch to the new “jcp” logo that is becoming more commonplace.  Then again, since it’s the third logoin as many years, it’s probably understandable that a floundering department store isn’t willing to hedge its bets at a conspicuously transitional mall.

As mentioned earlier, demographics around Quaker Bridge loosely echo those of Oxford Valley: both are mostly upper-middle class suburban areas with large foreign-born populations, which lean poorer in the older urban sections and wealthier in the newer exurbs.  This New Jersey side may be more extreme though: just a few miles away down Route 1 from Quaker Bridge sits the state capital, Trenton, a swatch of intensely concentrated poverty.  Conversely, the neighboring suburbs of Princeton and West Windsor Township far surpass anything in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in terms of affluence.  But Quaker Bridge also hosts a more intensive concentration of retail within a mile radius, because several newish “power centers” (inward turning strip malls) stretch along this same segment of Route 1: Mercer Mall, Nassau Park Mall, Windsor Green, and the Square at West Windsor.  The purlieus of Quaker Bridge Mall offer a ton of shopping options, all of them competitors of Simon Property Group with discrete goals of skimming away some of the choicier tenants at the forty-year-old enclosed mall.

Quaker Bridge might be more worthy than Oxford Valley of a follow-up blog in a year or two; it is, after all, under renovation (albeit a modest one), and it would be interesting to see if Simon’s original vision ever materializes.  At present, though, all the judgments I made in my Oxford Valley article—income disparities, the over representation of malls, and the increasingly diverse consumer base—still apply at Quaker Bridge.  The economic fortunes of these two populous, culturally dissimilar states may ultimately prove the stronger determining factor regarding which (if any) mall prevails.