Looking for new ideas about a next generation retail center?

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By Roger Snodgrass

Looking for new ideas about a next generation retail center?

Face it, most of us don’t have the foggiest notion about what’s going on in the realm of post-meltdown shopping centers.

Much less do we know what the odds are that anything is going to work for very long.

Having been shopping-deprived for most of its existence has been at best a mixed blessing for Los Alamos, but one of the things it has not provided is a well-developed, experienced nose for how to create a vibrant retail environment for the future.

For the copycat past, yes.

The current plans and ideas are all based on a slightly spiffed up version of old shopping centers, anchored by a retail concept that was a big success two or three decades ago.

Essentially, the debate now is between whether to try a really ancient idea, a classic big box, or merely a medieval one, a whozit’s, good-enough big-box.

Very little is heard about the profound changes that are upon us and what they might mean for such a major and sensitive investment.

It turns out the International Council on Shopping Centers held its annual convention earlier this year in the midst of a crisis that some participants shrugged off and glossed over. But at least a few designers and architects took the changes very seriously.

As one of them noted, “A four trillion dollar industry is in peril.”

Normal people, defenseless consumers at the mercy of whatever schemes and dreams their planners and elected officials have been fed that season, would hardly know that a revolution is taking place.

Allison Arieff, who blogs with The New York Times on design and architecture in everyday life, wrote a piece about her experience at the 2009 International Council on Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Arieff had a privileged viewpoint because she was one of the judges in a new annual contest for the trade organization that called for ideas about the shopping mall of the future.

In fact, she found most current ideas lacking, because the designers clung to the nostalgic days of shop-till-you-drop consumerism. The problem was that rather than express solutions to future needs, most of the proposals merely tried to decorate the old retail centers with snazzier futurific symbols.

“I was struck by how little attention entrants paid to things like sustainable architecture, alternative transit or changing consumer attitudes about consumption,” Arieff wrote in an opinion piece on June 1.

But she did find a few ideas worth praising, and these are the kinds of things that are deeply present but not always well expressed in this community’s portfolio of values.

They are things like sustainability, resourcefulness, innovation, collaboration, efficiency, self-reliance, a culture of wellness and life-long education.

The county’s investment can be justified if it leverages our brand as a science city and demonstrates our ability to rise creatively above the noise of past conceptual failures.

A town as architecturally-challenged as Los Alamos should only trust itself after recognizing that it has not exactly demonstrated that it knows what it is doing in the built environment.

The lab grew up on a 43 square-mile vacant lot and frankly still looks a lot like government issue. No building fits any other building and everything seems designed to avoid envy from other states’ congressional leaders.

To attract and keep the best, the community has to act and look like it is on top of things and stretching from there, not trying to catch up with the old days that have pretty much closed up shop.

As the discussion on what to do with Trinity Site crawls toward next level of action, let’s rediscover the power of new ideas.