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by
Ed Driscoll

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October 14, 2011 - 3:22 pm
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We take shopping malls for granted, although they’re actually a relatively new phenomenon, all things considered. The first indoor shopping mall in America opened in 1956 and is — not surprisingly — located in Minneapolis, which seems during wintertime to be located above the arctic circle. James Lileks has a section of his sprawling Website devoted to its history.

But malls change and adapt to current trends, or risk dying (and for shopping mall necrophiliacs, Dead Mall.com is your Website). Around 20 years ago, Starbucks and other retailers began to implement the idea of the Third Place, a term which was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the late 1980s, and explored by Virginia Postrel in her 1998 book, The Future and its Enemies:

Or consider the proliferation of coffee houses in the 1990s. Until recently, many U.S. social critics made much of the lack of “third places,” neither home nor work, where people could hang out and chat. Unlike Europeans, they complained, Americans have no café culture; shopping malls, suburbia, and commerce in general, they charged, have destroyed the democratic conversation of bars and social clubs.25 Such criticism was overstated, ignoring the many informal interactions that occur in such places as malls, restaurants, and doughnut shops. But the “third place” critique did identify a real source of discontent—as Starbucks discovered when its stores took off in ways the company never expected.

The original idea, writes CEO Howard Schultz, “was to provide a quick, stand-up, to-go service in downtown office locations.” Instead, the fastest-growing Starbucks stores turned out to be those near where people lived—the ones that functioned as neighborhood watering holes. The young adults who had grown up hanging out in shopping malls were looking for safe, friendly places to be with other people, places where, in Schultz’s words, “No one is carded and no one is drunk.” In focus groups, Los Angeles customers said they went to Starbucks because the place felt social. The company adjusted its strategy accordingly, building more and larger neighborhood stores, with more tables to sit around. It now deliberately seeks to foster a social, European-style café environment.

But what happens if you build a whole mixed-use development, a combination of stores, restaurants, professional offices and apartments around that notion of “a social, European-style café environment”? You get San Jose’s Santana Row development, which opened slowly in November 2002 and has since expanded into a sprawling project, despite California, and America’s, current sluggish (dare I say European-style) economy.

As I wrote on my blog back in early 2005, my wife and I stumbled onto our own local European-style development rather by surprise:

 There’s a sort of mixed use shopping center/condominium complex that opened in San Jose a couple of years ago called Santana Row. (No relation, best as we can tell, to the psychedelic guitarist.) It’s located opposite a conventional indoor shopping mall that’s existed for decades. Whenever we’ve driven past its new opposite number, all we’ve seen are a few megastores, such as an enormous Best Buy and a surprisingly large Crate & Barrel. One night in 2003, we drove over there–I think to check out the Crate & Barrel, or maybe just to explore. After parking the car in the requisite multistory concrete garage, we emerged…in the Village.

[Enough with the Village stuff, OK??-Ed]

I dubbed it that when I first saw it, because its developers chose to house its group of smaller high-end boutique stores and restaurants in a sort of pretend 19th century-ish Parisian block, with condominiums on top of them (and a high-tech network underneath. But for better or worse, no signs of evil weather balloons patrolling the perimeter). Leaving the sprawling suburban section of San Jose that it’s located on and entering this alternate universe for the first time really does feel like you’re Patrick McGoohan being knocked out in London and waking up in the who-knows-where-in-the-world Village.

The photo above gives a sense of the Santana Row’s McGoohan-esque feel. Its the facade of a small stone chapel imported from France, and serves as Santana Row’s “Vintage Wine Bar.”

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