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All I Want For Christmas is *Place*!

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This is the third installment of our Suburban Mom series by our COO, Michelle Drouse Woodhouse, about placemaking and the State of Suburban Places. In the first two installments, Michelle reflected back on her very urban, spontaneous life sans-kids, and then discussed her renewed appreciation of the importance of mobility, inclusivity, and choice with the introduction of her two daughters and her move to the suburbs of Detroit. In this next installment, Michelle builds upon our Technical Product Manager Alli's observations about the role of malls in placemaking and shares how she's getting into the holiday “place” spirit...at the mall...

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Winter in Michigan

Baby, it’s cold outside. It’s my fifth winter in Michigan and I really thought I was prepared for the snow, ice, and cold! I should be a pro by now but it doesn’t seem to get easier. We recently moved house from Troy to Bloomfield Hills and the first thing I did was hire a snow plowing company to keep my driveway and walkways snow free (don’t judge - I am a sunshine girl hailing from Vegas and SoCal and refuse to do it myself). I did that just in time for the 8+ inches of snow that fell this week. Our winter wonderland has arrived, including our family of (rein)deer that frequent our backyard! It’s really wonderful to see the snowy landscape in the winter months...from the warmth of our living room! This scene is definitely putting me into the holiday spirit. But, as a work-at-home mom with two little ones, I still have to wander out...the question still remains, where? 

As I've written about before, adjusting to suburban life has been challenging, particularly in terms of finding warm, walkable, and family-friendly places in the cold winter months. A few readers commented that they felt sorry for me that I had resigned to the fact that a mall (gasp!) had become one of my favorite places to visit given the circumstances. This has come as a big surprise to me too given I work for a walkability software company (and the shopping gene did not get passed down to me from my self-proclaimed shopaholic mom)! Honestly, the mall is the last place I thought I’d see myself wanting to frequent. So why am I drawn to the mall when I don’t even like to shop?

It's (not) the shopping, stupid! ;)

Our holiday blog last year (Deck the Malls) posed an important question about whether transactional experiences are enough to keep malls relevant. Indeed, this is a topic our Founder/CEO explored in depth in her dissertation - published over 10 years ago! - and that has recently caught the attention of the news media who is posing the question, is the Mall dead? The answer of course is, it's complicated...

For the suburban mom in me, the Somerset Collection in Troy, Michigan, offers a very pleasant experience of “place,” especially in the cold months. With experiences for the kids (Santa), awesome water features that they can touch (sensorial), a variety of casual and formal dining options, window shopping (that hubby loves to do to get inspiration for his design projects), and a super cool pedestrian bridge...this place is a destination!

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The Somerset Collection is actually comprised of two malls (Somerset Collection North and South) that are separated by the major arterial West Big Beaver Road. You can see the floorplan directory here and the satellite Google map here. The mall is situated on a busy commercial corridor with hotels, businesses and restaurants, but surprisingly it’s walking distance to multi-family residential developments with great leisure facilities like parks, pools, sidewalks and a golf course (check out Somerset Park Apartments).

 
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I’m embarrassed to reveal that I only just researched whether any public transportation serves this mall (I’ve only driven there with my car!), and I was pleasantly surprised to find that our Metro Detroit SMART bus has regular routes serving the mall. Plus, there is even a special SMARTbus shuttle that provides the community flexible, curb-to-curb service that only costs $2 for the full fare and $1 for older adults and those with disabilities. This shuttle moves people around the Somerset Collection area with special stops at the Troy Transit Center (that has regular Amtrak routes around Michigan and daily service to Chicago!), Troy Civic Center (with a library, water park, recreation center, city hall/police department), Troy Post Office, medical offices and various big box retail providers like Walmart and Meijer. The public transportation lover (Londoner) in me was so impressed!

 Image credit: Somerset Collection Wikipedia page

Image credit: Somerset Collection Wikipedia page

The coolest pedestrian-friendly feature at the mall is the climate controlled and enclosed “Skywalk” pedestrian bridge that connects Somerset North and South and spans West Big Beaver Road. This 700-foot bridge on the second floor includes a moving sidewalk and elevated views of Big Beaver business corridor and enables visitors to conveniently experience the entire center in a single trip.

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As a very busy working mom who is yearning for exercise (the dancer in me begs for it!), I often go to the mall just to walk. I like to take my kids and pick up a smoothie or coffee and walk the mall even before any shops open (and sometimes multitask and make work calls while I’m on the go). And, I’m not alone! What I didn’t realize was that Somerset has a “Skywalkers” program that encourages visitors to come to the mall even before the shops open and walk...and it’s FREE! What I love is that I see diverse people of all ages walking and everyone is friendly, chatty and helpful. Once, I had someone chase me down to give me a baby shoe that my daughter tossed out of the stroller halfway across the mall! Awesome!

And, the food! My favorite family-friendly restaurant is California Pizza Kitchen where I can get nostalgic about my former life in California. I like to sit next to the window for some good people-watching (they open the windows so it’s like “outdoor” dining indoors - appropriate for Michiganders). But if we want a super quick bite to eat or snack with the kids where we don’t have to worry about bothering anyone, we can dine in the Peacock Cafe food court (or just grab a scoop of fudge brownie ice cream from Haagen Dazs). For extra special date nights, The Capital Grill is a lovely restaurant where I’ve enjoyed amazing lobster bisque (yum!) with my hubby.

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If you are a shop-o-holic and love window shopping (unlike me) on foot or by stroller/wheelchair, Somerset is pretty incredible. Whether it’s Louis Vuitton or Lego, there are 180 retailers to suit your fancy. It’s unusual for me to go to the mall with the kids without a stop at The Disney Store where they get a chance to color their favorite characters, dance to sing-along-songs on the large monitor, and check out the latest toys and overly cute clothes. They even offer daily interactive programs for the kids and do a mini-birthday celebration (a definite extension to the happiest place on earth!).

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Don’t forget Santa! There are many fun programs and events throughout the year from yoga to a visit with Santa. Lana is just learning about the fun that comes with Santa and you can see her excitement about Santa, reindeer, and monkeys (haha there weren’t actually monkeys!).

 

A MAll BY Any Other Name (IS not always Doomed to Fail)

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So, what is it that makes me (and others) want to visit and walk at Somerset? Our Technical Product Manager Alli Torban’s recent blog about Tysons Corner outlined the five levels of “walking needs” that are making that mall a people-magnet. I’ve done the same for the Somerset Collection.

There are five levels of "needs" that influence walkability, four of which pertain to the built environment. Some built environment features matter more - or are more "fundamental" - than others, in influencing people's decisions to walk. In order of the most basic to the most higher order need, these are:

1. Feasibility (are people of various ages and abilities able to leave their homes/work?)

  • Nearby developments with people of various ages/abilities

2. Accessibility (is there somewhere to walk and something to walk on?)

  • Covered and accessible pedestrian pathway from parking garages/lots and bus/shuttle stops
  • Valet parking
  • Ample parking garages/lots
  • Pedestrian bridge with moving sidewalk
  • Complimentary stroller and wheelchairs

3. Safety (does the walk feel safe with respect to crime?)

  • Aesthetically pleasing
  • Abundant lighting
  • Presence of security in and around the mall

4. Comfort (does the walk feel comfortable with respect to traffic safety?)

  • Water features
  • Landscaping
  • Benches/tables
  • Enclosed and climate controlled pedestrian bridge

5. Pleasurability (is the walk interesting and/or pleasurable?)

  • Central and programmed event spaces
  • Skywalker program
  • Interesting and interactive seasonal decor and sculptures
  • Engaging storefronts
  • Various types of dining (casual food court to high-end)
  • Wi-Fi Internet servic
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      All I Want for Christmas is…PLACE!

      While I don’t actually like consuming “things,” (why I thought that I hated malls/shopping), I’m driven by consuming “experiences” and that’s what I enjoy most about visiting the Somerset Collection - walking, eating, and playing with my kids. What sets it apart from other malls is that it's a destination and isn’t just about buying and selling. By incorporating so many of our walking (and placemaking) needs, the Somerset Collection is a people-magnet and it has become a wonderful place for my family to enjoy year-round!

      Is your mall a people-magnet? Could it use a placemaking intervention? Our software can help cities identify what their optimal placemaking project looks like given current conditions and budget. Connect with us to learn more about how we can help you get your placemaking plans approved and funded.