These days, looking at the empty spot in the center of our neighborhod, I find myself thinking often about one of my "local heroes": the developer Ron Sher. His idealistic vision of community nurtured the development of Crossroads Mall in Bellevue and Lake Forest Towne Centre in Seattle. His current project is in the middle of Bremerton--a windowless hulk that once housed the JC Penney's.
At Crossroads and Lake Forest, events are programmed in to the spaces which combine city services, a stage and other amenities with retail shops and restaurants. At Crossroads, where there was originally a "main street" he added a stage, seating, a giant chessboard. A farmer's market has taken root in the parking lot, and a library, a mini-City Hall and lots of other places for people to sit and mingle have all joined the lively mix. One visitor labeled it "a mall with soul."
The Seattle Times ran a feature article by Eric Pryne last October on Sher's work and I've borrowed from it here:
"'This kind of stuff is what I'm passionate about. 'I love place-making. My whole thing is to be able to create these places that catalyze a community.'"
When he repeated Crossroads' success at Lake Forest Park Town Centre, fans said it had become the city's living room, its heart.
In Lake Forest Park, for instance, there's a "commons" with a stage where musicians perform on weekend nights. Couples and toddlers dance. Families fill big tables, eating food from one of the eateries on the periphery.
Knitting clubs, book groups and gamers hold regular meetings at the shopping center. The county library system and Shoreline Community College have branches there. Most days, an author reads at Third Place Books, an anchor tenant.
Like at Crossroads, there's a giant chess board painted on the commons floor, with king-sized pieces.
"I love the message it sends to people," he says. "It says, 'You can come here, you're welcome here — and you don't have to buy anything.' "
Now this is the amazing thing:
Sher comes from a family of developers. He's a principal in a company that controls shopping centers, hotels and office buildings in Washington, California and New Jersey. He once co-owned the largest retail-leasing brokerage in the country.
But Sher doesn't fit the developer stereotype. He's been intrigued for decades by the notion that shopping centers could be places for social interaction as well as commercial transaction.
He got the idea from sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who has written that Americans lack but desperately need "third places" — informal, socially inclusive settings away from home and work where they can relax, connect, build community and foster democracy.
From an article which originally appeared in The Seattle Times
Oct 19, 2008 by Eric Pryne