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Turning a 50s mall into a town: a look at sprawl repair prototypes

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/22/12 @ 8:00am  |  Posted in Reuse, Transform

What are other parts of the country doing to breathe new life into obsolete, 1950s-era shopping centers like Severance Town Center in Cleveland Heights? Now that Wal-Mart has signed on to anchor the Oakwood big box development a few miles away-and certain to go dark at Severance-the end, is it nigh for Severance? What is a smart response to ensure a more prosperous future? Some suggest retrofitting the 147 acre location as a comfortable, walkable downtown for Cleveland Heights.

After all, that's what Mr. Severance claimed as an idea before building his mall in 1962, which, ironically, siphoned Higbee's and Halle's-the Wal-Marts of their day-out of the city to the booming suburbs. Diana Tittle in her book, The Severances, explains: "In an era before the undercutting effect of urban sprawl on central cities was felt or understood, Severance Millikin aspired to create a 'new downtown' on his benefactor's former property. He wanted to offer his carriage-trade peers a gracious alternative to shopping in downtown Cleveland's aging retail district."

What came out the other end was a pretty conventional mall-the biggest in the region at that time. It has gone through two iterations of retrofit as an outdoor shopping center in recent times. But what great potential it has for a retrofit from a shopping center surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking to a fully realized town center.

A national group of designers calling themselves the Incremental Sprawl Repair Working Group has some interesting prototypes for infill development on asphalt parking lots that help create a walkable environment. They call this model the Trenton Donut because it sets up an interior courtyard with a mixed-use outbuilding. It's a clever way of introducing a 'town like' building type- three-story, brick facade with retail below and residential above. Imagine a new alley lined by development-like the Uptown District alley going in at Euclid and Mayfield right now -for the former Wal-Mart parking lot at Severance. It can connect with the ring road, with its bus stop and bike lane-to form a pedestrian promenade. It will take a recognition on the part of Severance's owner that it needs to act in order to stay relevant.

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