The downtown space station

An article I read years ago, and wish I could find again, claimed that America’s first enclosed shopping malls were designed to evoke the space stations of the mid-twentieth-century sci-fi imagination. I don’t know if that’s true but they do share a common design: the long central axis, with attached pods bathed in artificial light and recirculated air.

Until we moved to Santa Rosa, I rarely visited an enclosed mall. There wasn’t (and still isn’t) one in Keene, NH, which suited me just fine. I’ve always been allergic to the experience that malls try to create.

Here, though, the Santa Rosa Plaza (5) is a obstacle I ofen encounter when I walk between our home (1) in the West End and Luann’s studio (6) in the SofA district.

There is, thankfully, an alternative. The Prince Memorial Greenway runs along both sides of Santa Rosa Creek (4). It takes you around or under both of the structures that so heinously divide our part of downtown from the main part: the 101 freeway and the mall.

I use the creek trail as often as I can. The areas under the freeway are brightened by vast painted and tiled murals. Wildlife sightings include fish, egrets, black-crowned night-herons and, one time, a merlin. I see some of my neighbors walking or biking along, and others — the homeless ones — encamped along the banks.

When I’m headed downtown, though, the path of least resistance is (1, 2, 3, 5, 7). As you can see it leads through the mall. Although 101 looks formidable, you can cross under it at many points visible in the photo: 3rd Street, 4th, 5th, and 6th. But there’s no getting around the mall! I’d have to detour south to 1st or north to 7th to avoid it.

So I end up walking through the mall a lot, along what would be 4th street if it still existed. I try to enjoy it, and if I pretend that I’m walking through a space station I almost can. But this space station has landed in the wrong place. It bisects downtown even more egregiously than the mighty 101 freeway. What the hell were they thinking?

5 Comments

  1. This brings back a few memories of visits to Santa Rosa when I couldn’t get a hotel reservation and found myself at the good ol’ Astro Motel on Santa Rose Ave. I visited that Mall each time I got stuck staying downtown. For me I was a stranger and had little other activities to do. The very last time I visited in 1998, I think I drove all the way out to Coddingtown Mall to see a movie. That was only slight less depressing. Funny you call it a spaceship with the “Astro Motel” just a few blocks over. Must have been aspirational design and urban planning back in the day.

  2. Our cities are full of well-intentioned but hideously executed urban-design faux pas (c.f. Robert Moses, Le Corbusier). As Alex Steffen once said in a talk, a large portion of our built environment will be turned over in the next century, so hopefully this will be an opportunity to redesign our cities along more sustainable and pleasant dimensions.

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