Reimagining the Strip in Cascadia - Awards

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Prologue

1923, savvy LA developer, C.L. Peckham, announces plans for Ye Marketplace in a suburb and the strip mall is born. Car ownership in the US had increased tenfold in the preceding decade and Ye Marketplace capitalized on the burgeoning automotive lifestyle in the sprawling LA Basin. The Marketplace mall was a simple, U – shaped, single - story structure surrounding a parking lot that was directly accessible to both the shops and to the adjacent street. As we all know, the strip shopping center spread across the country.

Challenge

We thought it would be useful to reexamine the strip mall and its prospective commercial and social roles, nearly 100 years after its invention. Times have changed and e-commerce has transformed shopping. A pandemic impacted how we transact for goods and services. With digitization of commerce, automation of delivery and transportation has arrived. 

How will such trends impact the strip mall and its role in the future? And how would this now generic building/lifestyle type, originating in California, but certainly evident here in the Northwest respond more appropriately to local cultural and geographic factors? We issued a challenge. Reimagine it in the form of a design competition. 

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Awards

We did not ask for, or expect, fully realized schemes reimagining the strip mall. Instead, we solicited interesting and provocative ideas worth discussing and examining further; that’s why this is termed a sandbox – a figurative space in which to play with ideas. We made awards at the Chinook, Sockeye and Coho levels, in keeping with the Cascadian theme for this contest.

 
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Chinook Award

How can the strip evolve incrementally and make best use of what may be its most underutilized asset? A modular approach, proposed by StudioPOD Design configuring transportable “pods” on potentially unused parking spaces provides a small, but scalable way to test alternative retail and community use ideas. 


This was originally prototyped in a linear model with the ‘Parking Day” movement, where municipalities allowed limited individual street-side parking spaces to be repurposed once a year. And it has been fine-tuned by merchants, particularly restauranteurs, during the pandemic. Taking this to 2 or even 3 dimensions, using both the parking lot and even the roof of the retail structure may result in a complex mosaic of experiences - except, of course, for parking.


It has the potential to provide an incremental and experimental approach to existing strips, offering a unique venue to showcase products and services. Individual parking space-sized modules are a bit undersized for practicality and the more typical street-side ones typically borrow a bit more from adjacent sidewalk and travel lanes.  How this approach might also adapt to Cascadia geography, climate and culture is not yet fully realized.  Depictions provided by this entrant, StudioPOD, appear a bit generic. Could small dwelling units also be incorporated to address the shortage of workforce housing? 

Chinook Award

How to provide goods and services to people who can’t easily go online or get to them easily in person? Perhaps by re-purposing the strip mall with its expanse of paved surfaces, large open plan structures (often actual ’warehouses”) as the locus of distribution for last mile and further deliveries may take unique advantage of the center’s typical location. What if this distribution was focused on underserved populations via regularly scheduled “truck trains” circulating throughout the city at public parks and facilities, delivering social and health services, books, and sundries? Many older people may remember bookmobiles from childhood – this is the model. 

When the truck/train pulls up at the local park, etc. on a scheduled basis, what might be other pop-up activities or amenities? Anonymous gives us a new purpose for the centers, taking advantage of their geographic distribution and the nexus of their decline and thus likely nearby community needs. Also, if the essence of Cascadia is abundance, as Anonymous has asserted, is there a physical expression of this in design?

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Sockeye Award

How do you celebrate Cascadian regional character and bring makers closer to customers? Formworks proposes mass timber, A - Frame structures, suggesting a Cascadian regionalism and a brew pub and coffee roastery as examples of making and consumption on the same premises.  We wonder how such a configuration might fit into an existing urban strip context, since the proposal seems to suggest a greenfield site? What other combinations of making and retail might be feasible?

 
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Sockeye Award

What would a truly Bioregional approach to the strip look like? In her critique of the existing strip Alyssa Cove’s entry employed a powerful gardening metaphor as an antidote. How could the gardening metaphor be applied more literally and in greater detail to an existing or future strip development, with rain gardens and other features? How can community activities be incorporated; in underutilized space, in parking areas?

Coho Award

How can the strip mall be more celebrated as place? Elder Sanchez suggests exuberant signage and an expansive shade structure to identify the strip center oriented around a paseo - like market space. The entry tacitly suggests that the Pacific Northwest is increasingly influenced by Latino culture and that Cascadia also extends to drier areas east of the Cascade range. We think the imagery appears to be somewhat Southwest inspired so how could this reflect the culture, climate and geography of the Pacific Northwest a little more?

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Coho Award

How can people and cars coexist more safely and attractively. Belle Miller proposes a “Woolerf” approach originally developed in the Netherlands and Belgium that requires car to accommodate pedestrians. It also facilitates flexibility in the fundamental, underutilized asset of the strip mall; parking. We wonder how the Woolerf treatment might adapt more specifically to the Cascadia environment in terms of hardscape and planting? Can existing strip malls be retrofit or does this apply to new development only.

 

Closing Thoughts

When we critique strip malls it really isn’t about the architecture. These quotidien structures are merely the efficient and often uninspiring products of the low density living and the automotive and commercial lifestyle typical of much of America. However, the Sandbox entries presented here have demonstrated that what we know as the strip mall might adapt and transform. 


It can change incrementally by adding and subtracting different uses and services in modular fashion. Or services can be distributed to the underserved without going to the strip. It can bring makers and consumers closer together and it can foster community growth and regional identity. It can make cars better adapt to people and not the other way around in flexible pedestrian - oriented parking areas and it can actually celebrate the strip as a place to see and be seen. 

We thank all entrants for their contributions and hope this is the beginning of a conversation.


Sincerely,

The Judges




 

About The Judges

Mark Gionet, ASLA, PLA, AICP, Principal, LSG Landscape Architects

Mark’s career includes stops in Florida as a landscape architect and Massachusetts as a community planner. Mark has contributed to the planning and design for over 50 parks of all kinds and nearly 20 senior housing campuses and communities plus a variety of other project types. Mark enjoys a good community process and believes that the most meaningful and ultimately successful ideas come from users’ own experiences. He coaxes these ideas out of task forces, hearings, and committees with humor, patience and a keen sense of the public’s often contradictory interests and expectations. Mark has won multiple design awards and has served on design juries in Georgia and Florida. He holds an MLA from the University of Massachusetts, and a BA in History from Union College.


Eric Carlson, AIA, Editor, Cascadia Sandbox

Eric is a cleantech advocate, investor and architect. He has worked throughout the country and around the world on a broad variety of energy and environmental design consultancies. His current priorities include: helping startups bring cleantech to the marketplace and supporting organizations advocating for the Cascadia region and particularly for a healthy Salish Sea. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and Yale School of Environment.