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Awhile ago I posted this hateful title: “I Hate Avalon”. Extreme. I allowed it if only to examine my own mistrust of the mixed-use development model, although it failed to clarify, in my own mind, my lingering doubts. But recently I read about Dan Cathy’s project in Fayette County. And the comparison of his project to both Avalon and Serenbe served to enlighten me.
It was the comparison to Serenbe that unfolded things. If you’ve never been to south Fulton county to visit Serenbe, you should. South Fulton county is really very beautiful – and rural; not unlike Milton, the way it used to be. And it’s in the middle of this rural backdrop that Serenbe exists; a cloister in the middle of nothing, the fruit of the mind of former Peasant Restaurant chain owner Steve Nygren. Serenbe is all beautiful homes, an organic farm, restaurants. Serenbe is pastoral and idealistic, but it is a carefully controlled community. You better like your neighbors. It is a community that can only retain it’s idyllic posture with the extreme cooperation of residents; one flavor, one goal – that goal being to preserve the status quo of Serenbe.
Detractors of Serenbe commonly mention one thing: it is too Stepford Wives-ey; meaning, it is tightly controlled by internal community guidelines, not simply county, city or state guidelines, but internal community guidelines that are foundational to the original business plan for the development. Unfortunately, the fall-out from such controlled guidelines can be the failure to diversify, the failure to thrive and grow in the quest to maintain the status quo; in a word, the failure to be dynamic.
I believe that the new urban fad of “mixed-use development” fails to be dynamic. The goal of home ownership within specified, covenanted ideals must co-exist with what makes hotels ideal and what makes businesses ideal and what makes retail stores ideal and what makes restaurants ideal. To meet these goals is to require many constraints and these constraints delete the dynamic from the equation in favor of a business plan.
In reality, the mixed-use development is the ultimate gated community, but without the physical gate. Mixed-use development is gated by the corporation that controls it. It is not the city, county or state codes, ordinances or laws that make it unique and govern it so much as the very specific business practices of the corporation that manages it that make it unique; the corporation whose goal, after all, is to profit.
It is this sense of the over-riding corporate culture that manages it that makes me uncomfortable with the mixed-use development known as Avalon, and other mixed-use developments like it. It bombards you from every direction the minute you drive onto the development: in the carefully controlled grounds, in the carefully selected signage, in the thoughtful, age-specific marketing details, in the sexy placement of the high-end luxury cars at the Plaza. It is, to the best of it’s ability, mind control. It is a community to which I, and you, have been invited. We should behave within the guidelines of it’s mini-culture. We should purchase, we should take part in the carefully thought out schedule of events. We should feel the pull of it’s cloister; the invisible, but high walls and gates.
I contend that this isn’t the best and brightest that our society has to offer. I contend that this business model is inherently flawed because it pretends to be, indeed, markets itself to be the organic, human village; but humans are messy and business plans can’t be messy. Real villages come about despite diverse and competing interests. The mixed-use development can’t have competing interests within it’s gates, within it’s business plan. The mixed-use development mimics the village but avoids the more difficult aspects of the human village – the friction, the hard work it takes to get along, the struggle to accept and allow, even the ugly. These are the foundational elements of a true village. Mixed use is simply a business model; a tightly controlled business model. It makes the concept of the ‘mall’ look virtuous by comparison, ironically, because the malls weren’t trying to be virtuous. The mixed-use development is. The mixed-use development declares, ad nauseam, it’s virtuous ideals in the urban and sub-urban landscape. This is how people ‘should’ live, it tells us. This is not wasteful, it tells us, as it whispers, “Come buy from us, come buy from us.” Live here, shop here, eat here. Let us entertain you. But do it all within our business model. Don’t be messy. Don’t look ugly. Make us profit.
I contend that it is, and always has been, the struggle of diverse human beings to cooperate that brings about an authentic village. I contend that it is only by the juxtaposition of the ugly with the beautiful that we appreciate the beautiful and that by necessity, these things must endure one another, side by side, in an authentic village. I’m not sure this can happen in the corporate-controlled mixed-use development.
As the dust settles around all of Alpharetta’s new development, all of this new development will in time become authentic, that is to say, it will come to have a flavor and flair and personality that no one specifically set out to engineer or construct and that could not have been predicted. It will become all this from the thing we call “time”; specifically, the time it takes to walk, sweat, play, be sick, be well, repair, re-build, enjoy, avoid, compete with, cooperate with and live among other people. It’s success or failure depends upon no business plan. It will simply depend upon the intentions of extremely diverse human beings, for all of us are unique and individual thumb-prints.
How long it takes mixed-use developments to settle in and become authentic places remains to be seen, for the business plan and corporate entity control it. I suspect that, in general, mixed-use developments will have to go through several management companies, several ownerships, and multiple business cycles before the good and the bad shake out. It will take the continuing creation of a Disney World experience, in perpetuity, for these developments to even have a chance. Short term, maybe. Long term, very doubtful.
It’s not something I would invest in.