Well-regulated suburban development: hardly off the rails.

A railing on a sidewalk may seem like a humble installation, in the context of the vast strip mall that surrounds it. And it is.

railings at The Shoppes at Foxchase

But it does seem odd, almost random, based on the environment. Why does this twelve-foot stretch of sidewalk need two railings when nothing around it has them? A view from the other angle might help clarify.

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It becomes clear that this segment of sidewalk runs on a slope, subtle as it may be. And while it’s not likely that the average patron of The Shoppes of Foxchase in suburban Alexandria, Virginia would notice an incline this slight, it’s equally unlikely that the developers would have perceived it as a hazard through the naked eye.

Thus the question arises: how did this segment get railings, and how did they decide? Without diving too deeply into Alexandria’s code, I can only speak from my own experience with municipal development review. These railings almost certainly owe their existence to the design and engineering drawings, superimposed over a topographic map with contour intervals—intervals that revealed this particular portion of the sidewalk exceeded the acceptable grade for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And while I’m sure one could find plenty other strip malls in plenty of other municipalities that have sidewalks at this slope or greater—but lack the requisite railings—Alexandria holds its developers’ feet to the fire in terms of code enforcement. (Either that or the high concentration of lawyers in the area ensures that the design and engineering team for The Shoppes of Foxchase would do the utmost to avoid liability.) The result may not be obvious to 99% of the population, but those using wheelchairs to ascend a prohibitively steep slope no doubt appreciate the added leverage that these railings provide. It’s all part of compliance. Notice how, a few dozen feet away, another entrance to one of the shops provides a more conventional handicapped ramp to manage the sudden grade change.

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But that’s not all. Returning to the photograph at the foot of the “hill”—

strip mall railings in Alexandria

–it’s critical to notice the tiny logo imprinted on the yellow rubber. It indicates an embedded censor that will lock the carts’ wheels if they venture beyond this line, no doubt to prevent the sort of shopping cart theft we’ve all witnessed at less plush shopping centers.

 

The presence of shopping carts raises an entirely different concern in regards to the layout and design of Foxchase. Notice the parking lot’s configuration, as witnessed from this exact same sidewalk segment.IMG_9838IMG_9839Though it’s not easy to tell, the entire strip mall rests upon a mild slope. Most undeveloped parcels require a high level of grade and fill for them to function as viable, automobile-oriented commercial space. If a strip mall hopes to attract a grocery store or some other anchor tenant that uses shopping carts, the concern for good grading increases exponentially. The same subdivision regulations that planted those railings along the sidewalk required considerable mitigation of the grade change to support such a large parking lot. For anyone who has shopped at a poorly graded strip mall, the reason is obvious: without a reasonably level surface, that shopping cart will likely escape down the slope as soon as we have loaded the first bag into our carts. The Shoppes at Foxchase hosts a Harris Teeter grocery store as its anchor tenant, so carts are abundant.

Inconsequential though these regulations may seem, they reveal the host of concerns that make modern living amenable to as many people as possible: not only those arriving via motorized four wheels, but those using two wheels powered by hand. The incremental improvements of subdivision regulations over the last three decades have turned drab, uncomfortably hot parking lots into clearly demarcated and smartly landscaped arrangements. But it isn’t just about aesthetics (though that’s huge), it’s also recognizing the ecumenical nature of the laws of physics, even when a human-conceived fabrication gets superimposed on top. Along with the safety railings.

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13 thoughts on “Well-regulated suburban development: hardly off the rails.

    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      You’d almost suspect that a forward thinking town like Alexandria would design a mini-skatepark nearby to keep errant behavior at bay.

      Reply
  1. AvatarBrian M

    I only wish the codes would prohibit abominations like “The Shoppes at Foxchase”

    I vote for an AAPA law. “Americans Against Pretentious Advertising Act”

    🙂

    Reply
      1. AvatarBrian M

        Nah….there are better options on Alameda de las Pulgas!

        (That is an actual road name on the Peninsula. REAL old time street, given that it means “Pathway of the Fleas”. Our ancestors did it better!

        Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      But which is it you hate more: the pretentious name or the fact the presence of a humdrum strip mall? (Or the fact that a pretentious name gets applied to a humdrum strip mall–a double-whammy?)

      It was a friend who pointed out to me that many of Washington DC’s classiest old apartment buildings had the most fanciful, artificial names: Wotherington Highlands, the Cotswolds, etc. It has been a popular practice for many many years. In Alexandria’s defense, so much of the city is densifying with mixed-use projects (where the density can actually generally support first-floor retail), that the mega strip malls and power centers are relatively few and far between. And since they’re uncommon, they usually are at perfect or near-perfect occupancy. A much better sight to see, at least, than a 80% vacant strip mall. (Then again, a strip mall that vacant might hold some promise for redevelopment.)

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        In Alexandria (and Arlington, and Falls Church, McLean, Tysons, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Chevy Chase, and more), it’s certainly true that if there were any humdrum strip malls left, developers would be eyeing them for more-dense redevelopment.

        But as Johnny S. points out on the Granola Shotgun blog, the places where there are abandoned and decaying low-value auto-centric strips vastly outnumber the ones where there is high-value land underneath. The Bay Area and DC environs are two of the high-value exceptions.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Yeah, the culture in Arlington–and the insatiable demand for more and more rental units–is one of TOD, with densification on the old strip malls next to Metro stops. This is not a condition we typically see in too many cities–certainly not in the Midwest, where strip malls the likes of Irvington Plaza abound. Even metro NYC has more than its share of dying strip malls, particularly in the less favored stretches of northern NJ or Long Island.

          Reply
      2. AvatarBrian M

        Hatred may be too strong a term. I find them funny. 🙂

        My hometown in Indiana certainly had its share of pretentious faux-English names-but also Indian names.

        Living in California, we have mostly Spanish naming. Not 100%, of course. There are also the inevitable “name the subdivision tract after what you have destroyed” convention. I live in, literally, “Cowtown”. Vacaville. MY place of employment, though, was named by its founding sea captain after a city in Connecticut!

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          I think I prefer keeping the origins of “Boca Raton” a mystery. All the better that it’s one of the most affluent towns in Florida…

          Reply

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