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A slippery slope? How to build a suburban shopping mega-project on land with huge grade change.

Those of us who grew up in comparatively topographically unvaried regions are probably a bit more sensitive to changes in grade than those who hail from the hills.  I grew up in Indianapolis, a city generally perceived as fairly flat.  The fact that it has relatively few vantage points by which one can survey the land below, however, does not mean that it has zero vantage points: most people who grew up in Indy know that Crown Point Cemetery is the highest point in the city, with James Whitcomb Riley’s gravesite offering a charming view of the the city’s skyline in the distance, allowing with a considerable expanse of that mostly (but not completely) flat terrain.  Less known is Highland Park in the Holy Cross neighborhood, just a mile east of downtown.  Though gentler and thus less dramatic, it still offers views which are no doubt expediting the gentrification of the once-downtrodden area.

But it’s still Indy, and to someone from San Francisco or Pittsburgh or Cincinnati (the latter just barely 100 miles away from Indy and yet in the top quartile of hilly American cities), these vistas don’t amount to much.  I’ve lived in various locations across the eastern half of the US, and incidentally, these include at least three cities even flatter than Indianapolis.  The first, Chicago, is a titan of topographic tedium.  Even from my Indy perspective, moving there and learning what they call a “ridge” (as demarcated by “Ridge Avenue”) wouldn’t pass muster.  The ridge barely goes up to my shoulder.  Chicago has magnificent vantage points from the promontories that punctuate its Lake Michigan shoreline, but I’m not aware of vistas that owe their luster to grade change.  Then there’s New Orleans, which also ostensibly has ridges criss-crossing through this basin-shaped city, created through the depositing of silt from previous paths of the Mississippi River.  But none of them are really discernible to the naked eye until a certain hurricane sweeps in, builds pressure on the levees and flood walls, they break, the storm surge inundates the city, and everyone thus learns which portions are actually above sea level.  (But at that point, boy do they know where the ridges are.)  And, for those not lucky enough to have experienced the joys of Hurricane Katrina, one of the few true vantage points in the Crescent City is Monkey Hill, a mound of approximately 30 feet nestled within the city’s Audubon Zoo, which the Civil Works Administration created in the early days of the Great Depression (before the WPA existed) to give New Orleans’ young people the experience of an actual hill.  And there’s Detroit: while the suburbs offer some topographic interest, the city itself has only one west-side neighborhood, Brightmoor, which offers some mild slopes.  The highest point is Gorham Playground in the far northwest corner of the city, but the grade change is so slight that it is undetectable; in most empirical respects, Motor City is pancake flat.

Naturally, not one of these above cities prepared me for a move to the Lehigh Valley, in far eastern Pennsylvania north of Philadelphia.

Like most of the Keystone State, the three cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton have considerable topographic variety, which provide for numerous remarkable vantage points: the Lehigh River flows through all three cities and forms the obvious basis for the valley upon which the bluffs project.  With dense old colonial settlements like Easton perched over both the Lehigh and the mighty Delaware rivers, the opportunities for postcard-perfect vignettes are abundant, even when (as is often the case in Bethlehem) they include terrifying blast furnaces in the foreground.

But, as usual, I prefer to focus on the more banal.  Like the parking lot of a strip mall on the outskirts of Bethlehem, seen in the Google Street View.  It’s not easy to tell from a fish-eye camera technique on display in that hyperlink, but if it appears that the Bethlehem Square Shopping Center might rest on a slope, that’s because it does.

While this probably isn’t a huge problem for most of the tenants at Bethlehem Square, its a minor mishap for an automobile-oriented supermarket to occupy space on a sloped parking lot.  The reasons should be obvious.  But if they aren’t, suffice it to say that a person with a cart of groceries will have to engage various laws of physics to keep his or her purchases close at hand.  In the short time between letting go of the cart and pulling the first of a series of bags into the car’s trunk, the cart rolls right away, careening down the parking lot, potentially ready to slam into another parked car.  A customer either has to position the cart so that the physicality of the car impedes it from rolling down the hill—a position in defiance of the parking lot’s stripes—or to brace one’s self against the cart.  It’s a minor but ridiculous situation that deterred me from shopping here in the long run.  (And yes, there’s a Home Depot in Bethlehem Square as well; I’m sure people using their cumbersome carts face many of the same hurdles.) The developer of Bethlehem Square might have been able to avoid the situation by striping the parking spaces differently, so that they are more parallel to the slope, as opposed to perpendicular.  It would have been an economical solution, but it still may not have worked; after all, positioning the car parallel to the slope in the current arrangement doesn’t keep it from rolling.  Besides, the slope may not be evenly distributed or uniformly angled across the expanse of asphalt.  The more practical solution, of course, would have been simply to grade the entire site far more effectively.  It’s a situation that commercial developers in Indianapolis, New Orleans, Chicago, or Detroit rarely face.

But the clearing and grading of land prior to site development are part of the basic stipulations to almost all Subdivision and Land Development Ordinances (SALDOs, as they call them in Pennsylvania).  And it’s a practice that developers and civil engineers must confront across the rolling and rugged terrain of the East Coast.  The developers at the Alexandria Commons shopping center in the namesake city in Virginia faced a grade change similar to those at Bethlehem Square.  But they approached the problem differently.

To be fair, the topography at the Alexandria Commons property isn’t quite the same as at Bethlehem Square: in this Virginia strip mall, the building itself stretches across the slope, so the western end of the row of shops is higher grade than the eastern end, rather the rather than  the whole structure sitting perched at the property’s highest elevation.  But isn’t that at least in part the justification for civil engineering—that no two pieces of land need improving in the exact same fashion?

Here’s the strategy the development team deployed at Alexandria Commons, a community-sized strip mall with multiple points of access from a single arterial (Duke Street—Virginia State Road 236).  Looking out to the west—

—it seems unremarkable.  A strip mall with a second floor for more conventional office-type uses, as one can expect in a region where land values are high.  But pivot slightly and look straight ahead:

It’s not entirely clear, but, behind all the landscaping, the parking lot on the right side of the photo is at a good ten or fifteen feet higher elevation than the parking on the left.  But it’s all part of one structure.  Here’s a clearer view:

Grade change at Alexandria Commons

The two parking lots require a flight of stairs for pedestrians to manage the hill.  And the building itself straddles this slope, so storefronts that had at-grade access from the parking lot with higher elevation become second-story tenants on the portion of the building that fronts the lower parking lot.  Here’s a view of a restaurant that offers balcony-style seating when peering over the lower, eastern parking lot:

But the view to the west?  I’ve already shown it—just a one-level strip mall (except for those second-floor offices in the distance).

It’s an unusual arrangement, but a more distant view puts it all into perspective.

Evidence of grade change at an Alexandria VA strip mall

The developer of Alexandria Commons managed the most significant grade change not by leveling half the hill, or by filling the other half, but by doing essentially nothing.  The hill remains intact.  It was impractical to alter the land so much at this point to create a perfectly level expanse of parking lot across the entire large strip mall.  So the civil engineers simply reconciled themselves to a design in which the slope cuts a swathe across the impervious surface, filling it instead with grass and trees.  It makes the entire lot more aesthetic as a result, and, for those who seek to get from high to low, there’s obviously still a flight of stairs.

Stairs to manage grade change at Alexandria Commons

In short, the developer and civil engineers found a cost-effective solution that allows them the full-scale strip mall, curtails only about twenty or so parking spaces, saves the cost for grading a single, uninterrupted parking lot, and allows for a nice looking green space right in the middle of the whole thing.  It’s a smart move in almost all respects.  Here’s another view from the lower elevation, eastern parking lot, which reveals the one potential deficiency that I can see: if there’s any means of ascending the hill for individuals in wheelchairs, it sure isn’t obvious.  Presumably there’s an elevator tucked away in one of the corners of the strip mall.  Otherwise, a person in a wheelchair may have to go all the way toward Duke Street, where the grade change is gentle enough not to warrant stairs, and it may be of a sufficiently low grade change to meet ADA standards—that is, an individual in a wheelchair can safely and comfortably ascend or descend.

Regardless of the gentler grade near Duke Street, the configuration does not lend itself well for people navigating this shopping center who seek to avoid stairs.  Plenty of people will just get back in their car to avoid those stairs.  As far as strip malls go, Alexandria Commons has an inordinate number of them.  And, judging from the deficiencies (mild though they may be), it’s likely that the local land development ordinance offers basic stipulations for developing commercial properties on slopes.  But it doesn’t account for abundant, clearly defined alternatives to stairs.  It’s not that the developer deliberately avoided these provisions; there’s simply no other development quite like this one, and the existing legal fishnet allowed a few walleyes to pass right through.  Not exactly a crisis, but a telling moment in a reasonably hilly city that also has its share of auto-oriented shopping districts, where the slopes do still require unusual safety measures.  

My one gripe on how Alexandria Commons handled the grade change is a minor one.  It’s a good looking development, and, most importantly of all, when you shop at the grocery store, your cart doesn’t fly away as soon as you let it go.  Then again, maybe the Giant Supermarket is just positioned at the right portion of the development, and the parking lot near the Giant is sufficiently level to stop runaway carts.  After all, here’s a photo I snapped at a distant corner of Alexandria Commons that doesn’t exactly suggest an even keel.

Grade change on a parking lot

Better yank up that parking brake on your car.

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16 thoughts on “A slippery slope? How to build a suburban shopping mega-project on land with huge grade change.

  1. AvatarSteve P

    Interesting work, Eric. In Indianapolis I am always flummoxed by Glendale Town Center’s street view, which is inviting, but requires driving away from site-line destinies that traverse the basin. There are some ways to walk/park that allow a gentle slope climb, but the switchbacks seem not what we prefer to do in Indianapolis, with our car culture and whatnot.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10157549493081106&set=p.10157549493081106&type=3

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10157549493216106&set=p.10157549493216106&type=3

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10157549493316106&set=p.10157549493316106&type=3

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Congratulations, Steve, you managed to reference the one mall in Indianapolis that I know the absolute least about! Yes, even less than I know about Washington Square or Lafayette Square — are those two malls even still open? Anyway, you’ve prompted me to do a deeper dive when I have a chance, so I’ll probably import your comments and your photos to my blog if that works, and resume this conversation once I’ve explored the surroundings a bit more. Thanks!

      Reply
    2. AvatarSteve P

      WS seems to still have a Target as an anchor, but I think it’s a stub with no mall entrance. LS I think has a strip open inside but stubbed so there’s no mall access. This requires in-person visiting, though, because everything changes so rapidly.

      My observation is that My/Our culture seems to live well with albatross buildings, such as Carnegie libraries, failed malls, empty Marsh stores. These facilities aren’t abandoned, but as corporations and communities hold onto them as collateral, the empty parking lots continue to drain storm water into the municipal channels with no great payback to the social good. In Indiana, lawmakers are considering a rollback of wetland protection. Sigh.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

        Having completed an internet reconnaissance of the areas you mentioned, I’ve learned a few things:

        – LS does still have one real anchor: a Shoppers World, which is an all-purpose discounter akin to TJ Maxx or Ross…only not as fancy. But if LS can no longer support Burlington (the Grim Reaper of malls), it’s likely not long for this world.

        – You were absolutely right about Glendale, and I completely understand why my photos of that strip mall in Alexandria made you think of it. But that switchback (https://goo.gl/maps/pteVF7enEhaaan3g9) is definitely the sort of thing that one would hope to see at Alexandria Commons…but isn’t there. Glendale is, IIRC, the oldest enclosed mall in the Indy metro (although no longer really enclosed), and it has undergone extensive surgery over the years. One of the more recent reinventions–the one that eliminated most of the enclosed part–is probably what prompted that elaborate ADA-compliant switchback sidewalk. Because it certainly wouldn’t have been part of the design way back in 1955.

        I think we sometimes forget that Indianapolis absolutely does have its hilly portions, and, frankly, they’re more prevalent on the north side of the city than the south side, even though areas like Glenns Valley in Perry Twp are the clear precursor to the unequivocally hilly terrain of Morgan County, Brown County, Monroe County.

        As for the semi-abandoned holdings, you’re absolutely right about hw various dime-store venture capital entities wring whatever revenue they can out of places, while leaving a deteriorating shell and an enormous, oversized, pothole-riddled parking lot which serves no real purpose…but absolutely still has all the negative impacts regarding impervious surfaces and stormwater runoff. Yes, many of these sites eventually do get completely repurposed, but just as many don’t, and the repurposing isn’t happening nearly as quickly as the decline.

        Reply
        1. AvatarSteve P

          great response. Thank you! Glenn’s Valley park has a cute sledding hill that abruptly ends in a fence, if I remember, but it’s thrilling nonetheless!

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

            Sounds about right. It’s an awesome obscure little park, but that sounds like the sort of thing they’d completely overlook!

            Reply
        2. AvatarChris B

          LOL. I lived near Glendale and shopped there from the early 80s to the mid 00s, then still visited Lowe’s, Staples and Macy’s there on occasion. I knew it pretty well.

          Glendale is not really hilly. The truck docks for the department stores were tucked underneath, so the north and southwest sides were excavated to create two-story facades and multiple entrances to the former Ayres and Block’s stores. The tunnel access is still used as far as I know. The entrances were open the last time I circled the site, probably a year or so ago.

          When the 1990s wave of department store consolidation occurred, the successors of Ayres and Blocks ended up as Macy’s, so the former Block’s became a triple stack: Staples in the basement, Old Navy on the mall level, and the relocated Broad Ripple Library on the top. After the mall was “daylighted”, the Old Navy site was expanded and became Target…still with the library over and Staples under.

          Some City funds were used in the redevelopment, so that probably occasioned the ADA-compliant switchback ramp. (It had formerly been only straight stairs.)

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

            I’m sure that, in the grand scheme of things, Glendale is not all that hilly, even by Indianapolis’s standards. But it was clearly too vast of a development and the slope too great to justify the considerable earthwork necessary to place the site all at one grade (stormwater drainage notwithstanding). I have barely a blip of memory of the William H. Block Company (Block’s), but from what you’re stating, it sounds like the Glendale locations was three stories at one point in time? Or was one floor simply the loading dock, and then the merchandise showrooms were the other two floors?

            Glad to know about the development of those long-unused parking lots just to the east of the mall. I feel like I had read about that somewhere but didn’t have a sense of exactly what it was referring to. I’m sure the SFD just to the east raised a bit of a stink. A smart developer would simply propose the absolute maximum intensity that zoning would allow (even if no intent of building such a thing), expect the objections, then respond with the desired development couched in language of compromise.

            These sort of multifamily developments in excess parking are becoming more common, throughout the country, even in suburban settings, installing the area with a residential density that at least encourages some basic walkability, even if for short trips. The people who live in these apartments won’t have exactly an urban experience, but at least they’ll be able to walk to a library, a place for office supplies, your all purpose middlebrow discounter, hardware, and maybe someday…sometime, in the not so distant future…a movie.

            Reply
            1. AvatarChris B

              Both Block’s and Ayres were 2 stories plus basement selling floor. There was also a basement level in the mall between the two back in the day. (Originally there was a Woolworth store in between, and it also had a basement frontage.)

              Reply
        3. AvatarChris B

          Also, the “great outback” parking lots across Rural St. from the mall, seldom used for anything except teaching teenagers to drive, are becoming an apartment development. Non-beneficial hard surface becomes something useful!

          Reply
          1. AvatarChris B

            Southwest “tunnel” (now just a loading dock that ends some distance back) beside Staples and below Target:

            https://www.google.com/maps/@39.8650089,-86.1200293,3a,75y,28.3h,86.69t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sRuzf7mLdbC8uuEiR1X-fJg!2e0!5s20190601T000000!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en

            North “tunnel”, now just a truck dock for the former Macy’s:

            https://www.google.com/maps/place/Glendale+Town+Center/@39.8690216,-86.1207813,125a,35y,156.57h,45t/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x886b525b665edff1:0xbee2c7a5a9c50e00!8m2!3d39.8661618!4d-86.1195342?hl=en

            Reply
  2. AvatarJeffrey Jakucyk

    “…a titan of topographic tedium.” Nice.

    You’re right that Ridge Road is a total nothingburger, but there’s at least a little terrain around the North Shore. The Highland Park Moraine first manifests as a noticeable ascent of Sheridan Road between Humboldt Avenue and Lloyd Place in Winnetka and runs clear up to the Wisconsin border. It provides 50′ bluffs and deeply cut ravines next to Lake Michigan. West of Green Bay Road it tapers gradually down to the Skokie Valley, but I can recall some difficulty as a child biking up the slopes to and from the lake, as well as the much tamer Lake Cook Road after visiting the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Riding in Cincinnati now I would barely notice such things, despite being older and heavier.

    With some brick paving that little grove of trees would make a nice outdoor dining area or plaza. I guess we can’t have that since some teenager might want to skateboard there.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Jeffrey, I wasn’t aware of what you were speaking of, even though, many years ago, as a student, I did occasionally jog through Winnetka. I revisited what you were speaking of through Street View and it’s very obvious. From the Sheridan Avenue perspective, it might be enough to justify changing a gear on a bicycle while riding uphill, though probably not enough to get a good acceleration going while going down it. It at least generates some pretty impressive vistas from the Lloyd Park Boat Launch: https://goo.gl/maps/83haZXDoyTYCb4aM8

      It might also serve to justify the name of the suburb “Highland Park”, which always left me scratching my head. On the other hand, I cannot tell from Street View that there’s any discernible slope leading toward the Skokie Lagoons. I never really knew what was meant by the Skokie Valley.

      As for Cincinnati, it absolutely is the most topographically underrated city in the country. Most folks out east just hear about Cincinnati and presume it’s flat because “Midwest = Flat”. Little do they knew that it’s considerably hillier than any East Coast major city.

      I agree there’s still some missed opportunity with the grove of trees at Alexandria Commons. Opening it up to such an opportunity might even be able to incentivize a restaurant tenant to locate on the lower level (under Glory Days restaurant). If we’re still dealing with anything remotely resembling the COVID restrictions we have now by the summer time, that would definitely be a prime opportunity to give additional seating to a restaurant or some other hospitality-based establishment.

      Reply
      1. AvatarJeffrey Jakucyk

        Highland Park was named as such because of the moraine, yes. It’s much more prevalent on the lake side, and the early settlers first arrived via schooner ship. In fact the original settlement was Port Clinton (nothing of which remains near Walker Avenue at the border with Highwood), which further illustrates the importance of lake travel prior to the mid-1850s when the C&NW Railroad was built. Also don’t forget Lake *Bluff* to the north. Once you get past there to Waukegan and beyond the bluff starts to recede from the shore, giving way to a marshy lake plain.

        This was my family church growing up near downtown Highland Park https://goo.gl/maps/ZVcwBs8Bka5ZxWBt6 It’s on the western slope of the moraine, and the lower west parking lot entrance is 1.5 stories below the sanctuary on the east side. The slope is much less prevalent in Glencoe and Winnetka, but like I said before, Green Bay Road is usually at or near the western “brow” of the hill. You can see how Tower Road in Winnetka here is cut down the slope a bit, with some berms and retaining walls. https://goo.gl/maps/8CMegW2rhpRUb94S9

        So yeah there is something to the Skokie Valley. In fact Green Bay Road is considered a continental divide. Drainage to the east goes into Lake Michigan and out the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic, while drainage to the west goes into the Chicago River to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico, due to the Chicago River’s flow reversal. Besides that, there is a very slight ridge between the Skokie River and the North Branch of the Chicago River to its west, both of which basically parallel one another and the lake shore from their confluence in Northfield to their headwaters west of Waukegan. Highland Park has a somewhat discontiguous Ridge Road that runs between and roughly parallels Skokie Highway and Waukegan Road.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

          These are some impressive details, Jeffrey. I definitely wasn’t aware of this grade change, but it’s clearly there from the limited photos available on Google Maps. It may in part also explain why Sheridan Road, which largely hugs the coastline in Winnetka and Glencoe, begins veering more sharply away from it for the most part in Highland Park. I had always wondered about how “Highland Park” earned its name; it never occurred to me, though, that topography might also explain “Lake Bluff”.

          It’s hard for me to tell, but the presence of these slopes might actually mean Chicago kids really DO have a place to go sledding on a snowy winter’s day. That is, aside from Mount Trashmore.

          Reply

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