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Saturday
Apr212007

SPM Desperately seeking Third Place

I am disenchanted with urban life.   I finally escaped suburbia and moved to a spectacular new job in one of my favorite urban places in the world, Alexandria, VA.  I live next to a metro stop, in one of the "best places for singles."  And yet, much to my surprise, I am disenchanted with my new city after working hours.

Certainly, parts of Washington, DC, are still nine-to-five places, where they "roll up the sidewalks at 5 o'clock."  But Alexandria is a charming tourist district, with waterfront, and is a healthy city in its own right.  It is one of the finest examples of urban planning, walkability, and mixed-use "old urbanism" in the United States.  

Yet I am stunned to discover that my new neighborhood is....dull.  At least after 6:00.  I moved to a condo tower for the purpose of being sociable.  I rarely see neighbors.  Further, I live immediately adjacent to a Metro (subway) stop.  That, if anything, should yield a hub of activity.  Instead, the first floors of metro-adjacent real estate are vacant or used for offices, rather than retail or dining.  The nearest Starbucks is six blocks away.  Few cafes are open when I need them, and fewer have outdoor seating. Or any seating.

Granted, I also live next to public housing projects.  But condos in my building start at $340,000.  It's a genuine mixed-income area.   And some of my accusations apply even to renowned King Street, which is NOT the low rent district.

So far, my diagnosis is that store owners haven't gotten the memo that retail happens after work.  So many shops and even restaurants and coffee shops close at four or six o'clock!  In Indianapolis I lived next to a 24 hour Starbucks, and many of the casual restaurants were open until ten, or even later.

After a week as a pedestrian purist, I finally returned to my car in hopes of locating signs of life.  I am sad to admit it, but I found a beacon of bustling activity in a suburban-style shopping center called Potomac Yard.  It could be anywhere in the suburbs.  It was bright, and busy, and the stores were... OPEN.

As a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I am embarassed to admit that I am thrilled to have this lively strip-mall nearby.  But for the time being, this seems to be where my neighbors go to shop and play. And for lack of other alternatives, I'll gladly join them.

So hear me Alexandria businesses:  open your !@$% store later than 6 pm.  It's good for the neighborhood.

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Reader Comments (1)

Jeremy: I share your concerns and live next to the same Metro. Be sure to attend the next planning meeting on Sep 24th. See City of Alexandria website -- planning department section. Contact the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
September 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterStewart Schwartz

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