The Burbs

Post image for Oh the Stories They Could Tell… The “Is That a Beluga Whale?” Edition

There is a unique joy in walking through a building and experiencing what it was, understanding what it is now, and contemplating what it can be in the future.

Some structures clearly have a grand old past, evoked by remnants of fixtures, stained glass, and finish work. Some have a more sordid identity, making it difficult to imagine a new future.  Ruminating on building stories  — both glorious and sordid — is going to be a new series here on the blog.  And, the kick-off will be this tale from a structure often referred to as the Sugar Shack.

The story of the Sugar Shack is a tale of the more sordid variety.  And the tour of this building  was, perhaps, one of the most unusual I have ever had the pleasure of taking.

Imagine a mid-century strip mall, built in 1951, now entirely sided with corrugated metal, its storefronts lost to time.

If you took this metal-walled building and filled it with sea animal replicas, a largely empty porn video store, a wannabe natural history museum, a working strip club, and odd people living in the nooks and crannies of the rabbit warren of rooms that had been carved out over time, voila, you would have the Sugar Shack.

(Yep, you read that list correctly.)

On the day I took a tour of these fine facilities, we thankfully set out to look at the building prior to the adult entertainment business actually opening to the public.   It began in the seafood restaurant.  We filed into its darkened recesses, one after another.  As my eyes adjusted, I gasped when images came into focus and I could make sense of them.

“Is that a beluga whale over there?”

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The room was filled with all manner of creatures from the deep blue sea — on tables, on the floor, and still hanging from the ceiling.  It was eerie in the gloom, and we had to be careful not to trip over said sea life as we traipsed around the room.

We then stepped through to the strip club, poised to begin operation for the day, replete with disco ball, low lighting, and tired interior.

The walkthrough also included areas that showed how the internet killed brick & mortar pornography, including an abandoned adult video store and little used lap dance studios.

By far the strangest, and most surprising part of the tour was the retail space devoted entirely to a very complete collection of taxidermy.  I kid you not.

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Once again, we found ourselves in the dark, no natural light intruded upon this area of the building.   It had a musty aroma — a combination of the dead animals and wood chips that were strewn about the floor.  The impressive collection of animals was intermittently illuminated by the swinging flashlights and cell phone beams of us tour goers, creating a surreal atmosphere.

This structure has certainly seen some hard days, it has housed some highly illegal activities, and the operators have been investigated by what seemed like every law enforcement agency in existence.  But that’s not its entire story.  That’s not what this building is, nor is it what this building has to be.

You see, the community took this building back when it was purchased recently by a group of area non-profits, and they are working now to consider what it can be, and determining how it can tell new stories — stories of hope, stories of jobs, stories of activity — stories that are good for the neighborhood.

I, for one, am very excited about the next chapter of the building formerly known as the Sugar Shack.

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A Wall, No Matter How Pretty, Is Still…a Wall

by Michele Reeves on March 11, 2014

Post image for A Wall, No Matter How Pretty, Is Still…a Wall

During the summer of 2013, my husband and I took a very uncharacteristic vacation to a spa in Scottsdale, Arizona. I say “uncharacteristic” because a spa in the desert at the height of summer would not normally be at the top of our list of vacation destinations.

But, long story short, we were quite happy to find ourselves, sans children, in this suburban Arizona town in June. (And, may I say, it was a lovely location from which to watch the super moon!)

So, one of the things that jumped out at me about The West’s Most Western Town (yes, that is Scottsdale’s somewhat official nickname), is that the built environment of this relatively new, arterial-focused city is dominated by walls.

Undulating walls…walls made of different materials…short walls, long walls, tall walls, grand walls, pony walls. There are walls with embedded art. There are elaborate walls along freeways. One special wall, my personal favorite, had fish sculptures on it that glowed a deep, blood red in the night.

And I realized something by the end of my stay there: no matter how much you spruce ’em up, a wall will always tell a story of division, of separation, of disconnection, of hinderance, and of restriction. They certainly lent an air of desolation while driving about the city, and made me rather desperate to penetrate the walls, so I could feel as if I had arrived somewhere.

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Easy to Build, Hard to Reuse

by Michele Reeves on October 28, 2010

Bridgeport Village

This faux downtown lifestyle center in Tigard, Oregon, called Bridgeport Village, has created a riotous cacophony of demand from various suburban communities throughout the Portland Metro region: “Hey, we want one of those malls in our town!!”

Aside from the fact that we are not going to see US consumer buying power expand any time soon, and aside from the fact that many of these places have real historic downtowns that are languishing and could use some love, the reality is that the proliferation of structures that cannot be adaptively reused easily is creating future headaches for property owners, city government, and the neighborhoods that surround them.

For the life of me, I cannot imagine why, in this economic climate, a city would pursue the construction of a large lifestyle center, since it would merely shift existing retailers from older malls or big box locations into these sexy new buildings, leaving difficult-to fill space behind. So, what do you do with dying malls and empty big box locations?

Below, Ellen Dunham-Jones shares a host of interesting suburban adaptive reuse projects based on her book: Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. She has uncovered some very innovate approaches throughout the country, but I fear our supply of dying malls is going to far outstrip our ability to fill them.



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