Lakewood Shopping Center, for the past many years, has had empty storefronts, unappealing businesses, and vacant parking lots. In 2016, the Scrap Exchange purchased the north half of the mall property and has been developing plans for “The ReUse Arts District”, their vision for a mixed-use, public space that encompasses not only the shops, but public space development on the existing parking lot as well.
Below are ideas that take planning principles and apply them to the redevelopment of this mall. I will refer to the area as Lakewood Center (LC), dropping the “shopping” from the name as it is too limited in scope. There will be much more than just a shopping mall in this space.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Placemaking is a holistic endeavor. The ideas below are broken up into principles, but it would be a mistake to pick and choose some of the ideas below to implement without addressing the rest of the principles. They all work in concert to create a thriving community. Density without access, connectivity without diversity of use, etc, will all lead to suboptimal outcomes. While the implementations can be adjusted, the principles should not be overlooked.
Principle: Mixed Use
There should be a number of uses for a wide diversity of people, such that at any time of day, there is a reason for people to be enjoying the space. Increased usage begets further usage as people want to be in areas that are well-used.
This would be a place that might land on a Durham “list of 10 places to visit”, would attract school field trips, and would be a point of pride for the neighborhood.
Currently, the access into Lakewood Center as well as access from one part of LC to any other part is woefully inadequate. As of now, people must walk through the parking lot to get anywhere within the LC. People must walk on sidewalk-less streets and jaywalk to enter the LC on foot. The new plan should be multi-modal, taking into account buses, bikes, pedestrians, and ride sharing (with less emphasis on private cars).
All features of the mall should have great connectivity to each other. A visitor should be able to get from any single point of interest, to another directly.
Proposal: This principle has been addressed in other sections. However, when constructing the path proposed above and when placing the public features, it is important to avoid having one main path that travels North/South, with small paths branching out to the various attractions. It shouldn’t be a promenade or “mall”. Instead, there should be a network of paths. There should be as many direct routes as possible from one business/point of interest to another. Planners can’t and shouldn’t predict an itinerary of the average person (first they go to the coffee shop, then the play area, then they get an ice cream). Instead, the layout should encourage a diversity of people and activities. The paths should reflect that and create a diversity of routes that can be taken. Of course, along these paths, there can be different themes as well (one path might have picnic tables, one path might be the “history trail” with signs about the amusement park, etc). The feeling of connectedness is crucial in these paths.
Principle: Mixed Building Age/Business Accessibility
It is important to build new construction and to renovate areas of the mall. However, the LC should also have older, unrenovated store space that is more affordable for smaller businesses.
Proposal: It wouldn’t be a good idea to renovate or tear down every single structure in the area to have 100% shiny new buildings. New construction AND renovations are expensive and thus require high rents. Some of the buildings like the one that houses the barber shop and Chinese restaurant or some of the stores in the main strip, should be left alone, so we aren’t displacing businesses. Some storefronts could potentially subdivided into smaller, more affordable spaces. Meanwhile, there should be some that are renovated, like the beautiful job done at El Futuro, just not all.
This plan shouldn’t recommend WHICH buildings are renovated. That should come as businesses want to move in, the more established ones wanting to renovate or build a new construction, and the smaller, more innovative ones choosing to locate in existing old spaces. (that said, I would love to see what type of shop might exist in the old “Dog House” building - I hope that is one of the buildings that stays old).
Over time (generations) the renovations and construction that was once new will turn old and other buildings within LC will be renovated, but it is important to keep a mix as opposed to creating a plan where the entire district is demolished and made completely shiny and new (and that would age and get old and run down all at the same time, 20 years from now). This would stifle small, local businesses looking for space to experiment with new concepts, fun art projects, and other creative use of space. For example, without an old space, the Little Green Pig theatrical group could never have developed “This is Not a Novel” in the LC space in 2017.
In addition to keeping older spaces for smaller, innovative local businesses, a great feature of the LC would be a place (or multiple places) for street vendors of all kids. Perhaps there is a “Market”, similar to a farmer’s market, but for more than just farm-grown food (essentially, this market could consist of super low-rent, rotating stalls for budding vendors). Perhaps this takes the form of the currently popular Food Hall concept, but again, not specific to food. Perhaps there are spaces that vendors can be scattered throughout the LC. There are quite a few options for how to accomplish this, but the main idea is to allow micro-businesses the opportunity to flourish.
High density has been shown over and over to be a key ingredient to keeping skyrocketing prices in check. This applies to residential, commercial, and office space alike. The more supply that exists, the less scarcity, and therefore the lower the upward pressure on prices. While there is the concern of gentrification on the flip side and making the neighborhood more appealing, thus inducing gentrification, Durham is already going down the gentrification path. Building more housing targeted at every level of income could help the problem.
Proposal: Commercial/retail space has a lot of room to grow. The vacant storefronts in LC are ready to be filled and there are opportunities for new pop-up shops to be built within the parking lot as that is converted to a public space.
Office space has been a part of the current LC plan, (example: El Futuro opening). In the ideas outlined in this document, much of the rest of the storefronts would be retail and commercial, leaving less room for business space. There is not a severe lack of business space, but a mix of reserving some space in the current strip of the LC for nonprofits as well as building office space in the parking lot to the right of Shoppers St (multiple stories) could be beneficial. The new office space could be structured in a way to cater to small businesses and fit in with the ReUse aesthetic.
By far, the most density needed is in the residential sector. So many stories have emerged in the media about residents who can no longer afford to live in Lakewood. This is not the fault of the landlords. They charge more rent because it makes sense for them to do so, economically. They have to act in the interest of themselves and their families (these are typically not giant corporations who own these small apartments). They also have to deal with rising costs of insurance and property taxes as the area is revitalized. Likewise, preventing growth and progress is not a valid strategy.
There needs to be an increase in density. This should be comprised of affordable housing units, but it also needs quite a few market rate units as well to serve the “missing middle” population. Again, we are trying to promote diversity in the neighborhood and that means a diversity of income levels, not just the highest and lowest end.
One possible solution for the lack of residential density would be to build apartments above the LC strip mall shops. This would do two things. First, with the right design, it could give the entire area a strong sense of identity, aesthetically. It already is starting to look distinct from other strip malls, and this would further that trend (again, attention to detail with the design, being in line with the ReUse aesthetic would be crucial). The second benefit would be creating much higher density without taking up additional ground space. Living in these units would be desirable, with access to all the amenities of LC and the housing supply could be mixed income, with some subsidized housing and some market rate housing.
These apartments could be accessed by revamping the access road behind the strip of shops. Parking, outdoor staircases, and mailboxes could be installed in this back area. Of course, this plan would have to account for the shipping and loading dock needs of the businesses. However, places like El Futuro need less shipping/receiving space than the old shopping center tenants/big box stores needed. Some of those storefronts could accept shipping at the front without much interruption in service.
Side Note: I also like the idea of ADUs in the surrounding neighborhood as a way to increase density. Incentivizing ADUs in surrounding streets is outside the scope of this document, but if there is a way to lobby the city of Durham or another organization to incentivize ADUs on the lower density properties surround LC, that would fit with the identity of the area and bring the benefits of density to the LC and larger neighborhood.
Principle: Aesthetic Diversity
Places like office parks and malls are visually sad places because they don’t have any aesthetic diversity. In an office park, the buildings look the same and driving around them can be disorienting as there are no visual cues as to where you are. Malls sometimes manufacture forced aesthetic diversity with features like fountains, staircases, etc, but it doesn’t quite capture the aesthetic appeal of a great city block. Strip malls may be one of the biggest culprits of aesthetic anemia, so LC has an uphill battle.
Proposal: I included this principle here to reinforce the proposals above. With the Scrap Exchange creating the ReUse Arts district, complete with parks, public features, etc, combined with proposals for new office space, great paths/connectors, and interesting residential units above the stores, the aesthetics of LC would change drastically and transform from the blight of an empty parking lot to an amazing and diverse cultural center of Durham!
In addition, aesthetic diversity should include sight lines connecting the areas outside the LC to within. For instance, trees should not be planted as a border on the property, but rather interspersed throughout the property (sparingly, so as not to interrupt sight lines). Borders of all types should be avoided (trees, fences, lack of access, etc). Even aesthetically, the borders of the property should look to mimic the surrounding area as much as possible and gradually transform to suit the various uses within the LC.
Principle: Slow Growth
The plan outlined above represents a huge change in the look and feel of the LC. Making these changes all at once could be dangerous and run the risk of driving out diversity and spurring rampant gentrification.
Proposal: The LC is already in a good spot. The Scrap Exchange, an organization dedicated to equity and the Lakewood Community (as opposed to simple profit maximization) controls the north side of the property. The Scrap Exchange can direct slow and methodical change. The plan outlined above is merely one example of the way that LC could look after promoting diversity, density, and a thriving area that serves all residents. There are surely other ways to accomplish this goal and the best way to move forward is through slow development and community feedback.
As important as the American Tobacco Campus is to Durham, the LC does not want to follow the same path of massive injection of capital and a wholesale change all at once. The ATC doesn’t represent the diversity that should be part of the mission of the LC. As a result, even to those in higher income brackets, the ATC feels like a tourist destination as opposed to a place that is truly integrated into the community.
For every rehabilitation or new construction in the LC, there should be a pause to evaluate the post-construction effects on affordability (residential, commercial, and office) and create response plans accordingly. The recently announced University Hill is another example of the “adult disneyland” that could be created if private investment was allowed to completely take over the whole LC.
Ok, this one doesn’t have anything to do with my planning research or Jane Jacobs. I just think the proposal below would be a whole lot of fun!
Proposal: Behind the stores in the current Lakewood Shopping Center, there is an access road and a really steep hill. There is a whole neighborhood past that hill that has limited (even dangerous) access to the LC currently! Let’s tear down the chain link fences and put nice looking fences that have openings every couple dozen feet or so. Each of these openings has a GIGANTIC slide that can be used by kids and adults alike to get down to the LC. Of course, next to the slides would be sets of stairs to be able to get back up, but the slides would be so much fun!