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April 2, 2009

“Valley Fair to add 50 stores and mega-parking”… a comparison to Santana Row

The Mercury News

Westfield Valley Fair, the region’s leading shopping center, could set an architectural standard as it continues to grow. But instead, it keeps repeating the same mistakes.  Ever since its major remodeling in 1986, the upscale mall has become not only larger, but gracelessly so. Its current development plans show it expanding to the edges of its property and trying to fill every inch with shops and parking.   In this remodel, Valley Fair’s enormous facade, already intimidating, will be pushed out toward Stevens Creek Boulevard, creating space for 50 more shops along a third interior east-west pedestrian promenade. The utilitarian parking structure now standing on the spot will be bulldozed, and a new multilevel parking garage will elbow its way right up to the street.   The new design lacks imagination. A boulevard should be lined with shop windows, restaurants and pedestrians, not a sterile parking garage.  Another new department store will stand just west of the projected parking structure, also edging closer to the street. Westfield does make a few token nods toward humanizing these bulky forms by trying to enliven some of the entries as plazas. The Cheesecake Factory and other restaurants will be allowed to spill out onto the sidewalk between the parking facilities and the mall. The plan calls for some patterned paving and landscaping along the drive leading toward Santana Row.


But to judge by Westfield’s 2004 remodel of Oakridge Mall, where the spaces between parking lot and stores, cars and pedestrians were made minimal at best, the company shows very little commitment to creating pleasant spaces for people to enjoy before they are rushed inside. The current Valley Fair plan shows the narrow alley between the new parking structure and the new department store flanked by service entries.  If Valley Fair is an ordinary Excel spreadsheet, Santana Row, just across the boulevard, is the iPhone of retail centers. Its uncommon concept took the appealing spaces that draw people like a magnet to traditional downtowns — sidewalks, parks, streets, tall buildings — and tweaked them into a high-octane design that was, first and foremost, a place where people enjoy going.   Then it plugged in shops, restaurants, condos and hotels. That attitude makes all the difference in the quality of the architecture.   What’s needed at Valley Fair is a clear concept for growth informed by an understanding that shopping malls are the building blocks that will make the future’s suburbs either livable or not. Other shopping centers have grasped that idea.

Santana Row was just the latest in the Bay Area’s long line of innovative retail centers. Preceding it was Stonestown by Welton Becket Associates in 1949, with one of the first department stores outside downtown San Francisco.  Along came Edgewood Plaza by Jones and Emmons in 1956, the first to integrate a small shopping center into a residential neighborhood.   Then there were the original 1956 Valley Fair; Stevens Creek Plaza; Cambrian Center; and the Town and Country centers in several communities.

Shopping malls have tremendous potential to help create good cities. But by narrowly defining itself as merely a machine for commerce, Westfield Valley Fair is neglecting this role.   Fortunately, Sunnyvale’s new Town Center, designed by architect Ken Rodrigues, developed by Sand Hill Property and under construction, is running with the Santana Row idea.   Stanford Shopping Center, under management of Simon Property Group, also is planning to expand. To sell its proposal to the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board, did it boast of copying Valley Fair? No, it proposed a street for pedestrians, cars and shops like Santana Row’s. Shops and landscaping, not just parking structures, will line El Camino Real. The initial sketches by ELS Architects borrow another idea from Santana Row: The parking structures are buried inside the blocks and surrounded by stores, playing down their visual impact while still providing convenience.   The design includes a “village green” at one intersection, reminiscent of Santana Row’s central park.

It’s too early to tell if these ideas will be skillfully executed, but history bodes well. Stanford Shopping Center has retained its outdoor landscaped village green, part of the original Welton Becket Associates design. It’s an idea that still works.   Westfield Valley Fair could take some cues about updating a 1950s-era mall from Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, one of the country’s most successful regional retail centers.   Like Valley Fair when it combined with Stevens Creek Plaza, South Coast was built in the typical dumbbell layout of the period, with two major stores at either end connected by a long, open-air promenade lined by smaller shops. Like Valley Fair, it is an upscale regional mall.   But unlike Valley Fair, South Coast Plaza’s inspired remodels have created delightful modern spaces. And unlike Valley Fair, which transformed its classic-modern Emporium into a pseudoclassic pastiche to accommodate Macy’s Home Store, South Coast Plaza retained the look of its classic 1970s crystalline-modern Bullock’s to house a Macy’s location.

But instead of creating a grid of traditional streets and blocks like Santana Row, South Coast Plaza built on its suburban-mall framework of parking lots, service alleys, wings, entries and outlying buildings to create a new kind of miniature city.   With extraordinary richness, stylish restaurants were allowed to spill onto plazas fronting on the parking lots. Small service alleys were transformed into exclusive entries for valet parking and upscale stores.   A bridge to more shopping became a bold combination of restaurant, garden and walkway. South Coast Plaza played off its strengths as a mall, one of the 20th century’s great architectural innovations.   Though Valley Fair has picked up a few of these ideas, they are poorly designed and further undercut by the badly sited parking structures.