Woodland County Fair Mall Retrofit Plan guided by NCI charrette process

In the Woodland County Fair Mall Retrofit Plan, a group of 20 architects, planners, engineers, attorneys and real estate professionals from all over California assembled for a 4.5 day, volunteer charrette commencing Sept. 29, 2017.

Photo of the Woodland Charrette Team.
Woodland Charrette Team. Photo courtesy of the Congress for the New Urbanism, California Chapter.

In the U.S., e-commerce will likely comprise 25 percent of total retail within six short years. In less than 20 years, mall and retail center shopping will disappear as our daily needs arrive in our homes and workspaces.

The future spaces will function as brand and product experiences, entertainment and community, not aisles flanked by shelves of products. Most critically is the place, walkable, continuous storefronts, historic or newly minted main or high streets that charm all the senses.

What should we do with the struggling mall and shopping center that remain on life support, especially in our towns and smaller cities, and how to accomplish this objective?

Answer: Convert dying malls and centers into mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable places that house millennials and seniors, provide right-sized spaces for entrepreneurs, makers and shakers, and safe, interesting and magnetic community plazas. Not lifestyle centers, but a new urban neighborhood in suburbia, the village, town or city.

How can we achieve this vision? Design it, code it, entitle it and build it through a lean, collaborative Charrette process.

In the Woodland County Fair Mall Retrofit Plan, a group of 20 architects, planners, engineers, attorneys and real estate professionals from all over California, led by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU)-California Chapter and working with City of Woodland staff, assembled for a 4.5 day, volunteer charrette commencing September 29, 2017.

For preparation, Zimmerman/Volk Associates, Inc.- San Diego provided a pro-bono real estate market analysis. The charrette team set up a studio in an empty mall space and invited the community to participate in the design and pin-ups.

The team interviewed, in confidence, more than 25 stakeholders from city councilors and private developers to mall tenants and potential investors, and spoke with dozens who visited the studio. They also distributed a bilingual survey to better determine the housing demand and preferences.

During the next three days, the team produced a redevelopment design and plan, zoning/development standards and implementation strategies as the public, city officials and staff, transit district representatives, and many other stakeholders reviewed, commented and suggested improvements to the evolving plan.

The local newspaper, the Daily Democrat, reported on the community's excitement over their first charrette and the group of top professionals all volunteering their time for the duration as members of CNU-California Chapter, a nonprofit, volunteer, professional organization.

Most importantly, public officials, businesses and residents experienced how their once proud, now failing mall might be reborn in a new incarnation where their children might want and could afford to live, perhaps even starting a business. Citizens and local developers speculated on how Woodland's other empty retail boxes might be repurposed or redeveloped.

A professional videoed the entire charrette, including presentations on retail trends and successful mall redevelopments so the event's impact will shine through a documentary of this memorable, community-building effort.

This film and the Final Charrette Report were completed in early December 2017, and made available as an educational tool for other cities and towns that face similar retail struggles or lack sites for higher density or "missing middle" housing that avoids NIMBYism.

The combination of market analysis design, codes, and development and investment strategies will all be available to any city. For more information about the NCI charrette process used, visit NCI Charrette Theory.

Remaking a mall or shopping center into a Main Street is an idea, but also a place. It is the small town and big city, the neighborhood stores and the urbane street. We do not know what new physical shopping formats and concepts the future will bring. However, we know that real estate innovations without walkability and placemaking will fail.

E-commerce and global economics mean that to innovate. We must make reproducible places to live, work, shop and recreate.

Our focus on the failing mall or center – most almost identical in configuration since form follows finance – allows us to use a time- tested process like the Charrette and a market-tested design using walkable, mixed-use placemaking to create resilient, adaptable retrofits that reduce auto-dependency, decrease land consumption and provide housing and jobs. 

How many dying malls and centers exist nationwide? Many, many hundreds. The County Fair Mall Retrofit Charrette approach is modern, but the planning and collaboration principles used are timeless.

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