The complex is called CentreVille, and it’s the last thing I expect to find on State Farm Drive in Rohnert Park, a suburb 40 miles north of San Francisco. The three-story buildings hug the empty sidewalk with a methodical progression of boxy shapes that are as crisp as anything clad in four shades of stucco can be. There’s even a sharp-edged space at the corner intended for a café—all part of what CentreVille’s marketing brochure calls "exciting and modern architectural design…city style and luxury in the heart of downtown."
Only two things are missing: hordes of faded-rock-tee-clad hipsters, and any semblance of an urban scene. Instead I see handsome redwood trees, reedy Hinebaugh Creek, and a small office building that wears its dark wood shingles with ’70s pride. On the far side of Rohnert Park Expressway there’s a shopping center that rises from the asphalt with a look best described as washed-out Spanish Mission. SoHo, it ain’t.
No matter. If CentreVille is a textbook case of real estate marketing hubris, it’s also a fresh example of how America’s physical and cultural landscapes are shifting. In the United States of 2007, downtown is a state of mind. Urbanity is a branding exercise. And if your definition of "city life" is nothing more than a cool backdrop to high living, the suburbs are happy to try and fill the bill.
The notion that sleek looks and brushed steel translate into urban authenticity might seem absurd to oldsters like me, who expect our scenes to be rooted in an actual place. But that’s old-school thinking—pre-iPod and wifi, pre-Netflix and Amazon, pre-Urban Outfitters (99 stores at last count) and Starbucks (who’s counting?). I’m nearly 50, a relic of a time when tracking down the mysteries of art or the avant-garde still involved exploring, on foot, unfamiliar terrain. Today, cutting-edge culture is a mouse-click away; if you know exactly what to Google, or you’ve got a wired friend to send you links, you can be Kerouac 2.0.
This easy access to the edge didn’t happen overnight, of course; MTV introduced suburban teens to the gangsta lifestyle back in the late 1980s, and way back in 1994 the headline of a Time magazine cover story asked "If Everyone Is Hip…Is Anyone Hip?" The difference now is that entire projects and neighborhoods are being built on the premise that suburbs can design and offer their own calibrated slices of urbanity.
In my neck of the woods, the two best examples are downtown Walnut Creek and San Jose’s Santana Row.
The former is a real place, a once-rural crossroads that evolved into a suburban destination and now serves as the biggest Bay Area shopping hub east of San Francisco. Even five years ago, any condominiums built near the center of town adopted a rustic-resort air; by contrast, the new 181-unit Mercer looks like it was outfitted by Banana Republic. It’s lean, it’s taut, there are polished-concrete columns along the sidewalk, and the advertising stresses the easy walk to downtown shops as well as a performing arts center and a Peet’s (the Bay Area alternative to Starbucks).
Santana Row is something else: an ebulliently garish world of urban make-believe, 42 acres of former shopping center laid out in a street grid that tries to pretend it’s not next door to the Winchester Mystery House, a quirky, 160-room Victorian mansion moonlighting as the biggest tourist trap on I-280. The four- to eight-story buildings are a Disneyfied cross between New York’s SoHo and New Orleans’s French Quarter; the ground floors are stuffed with restaurants and bars and shops and spas.
As different as they feel, each project has the same aim: to make suburbanites feel like they’re part of a scene. Santana Row property manager Fred Walters describes the market for the 511 residential units on the upper floors as "modern urban…people who want an urban experience, like in San Francisco, but they also want to be close to work." At the Mercer, residential real estate broker Alan Mark explains, "A lot of people have absolutely no desire to live in San Francisco. But they’d love to walk to restaurants and some kind of cultural entertainment.… Just because people live in the suburbs doesn’t mean they’re looking for a suburban aesthetic."
And so we have Mies lite. All the complexities and ragged edges of older big cities are buffed to a glossy sheen. Forget the connotation of "downtown" that existed into the 1980s—blight and crime and corrosive decay, the New York of Fort Apache, The Bronx. Think instead of the New York of Friends. All that’s needed for an urban vibe is a café or two that serves fair trade coffee, a wine bar where you can get tapas, and a multi-screen cinema approachable on foot. Find room for a Design Within Reach and a Whole Foods Market, and the package is complete.
A place like Rohnert Park lacks even these basic items on the urban checklist. But it probably has politicians with dreams of a downtown to call their own—and a few big companies nearby that covet the sort of young high-tech workers who don’t cotton to the suburban ideal of a backyard and a rumpus room, at least not yet. That’s the target demographic, and it wants a little bit of city, even if it’s manufactured on the spot.
What’s more, CentreVille isn’t all that unusual. A few miles south in Cotati—the kind of place where genuine hippies still amble into the skimpy center of town—The Lofts at Cotati Station advertises "the best elements of contemporary design," which translates to 19-foot ceilings, Grohe fixtures, track lighting, and bamboo floors.
South of San Francisco there’s a large apartment project named Solaire that sits on a barren stretch of El Camino Real (six lanes of not much) across the street from the retaining wall of a subdivision. But it’s stacked three or four stories high, there’s a Trader Joe’s grocery store included, and it’s next to a BART commuter-rail station. That’s enough for the marketing firm to tout Solaire as a perfect spot to "enjoy the downtown lifestyle without the hassles of downtown living."
Ah yes, the hassles. The weird people you encounter on the street. The trash and litter and gridlock. The lack of parking spaces and the abundance of drivers who don’t know what they’re doing. The element of surprise.
That’s the difference that remains—the thing that separates authentic urban culture from what’s being whipped up in the ’burbs.
As lifestyles go, I fully understand the allure of downtown as stage set—a place that encourages you to walk, that doesn’t feel like some hermetically sealed shopping mall. There’s a veneer of sophistication and who knows, you might catch someone’s eye.
What’s missing is the unexpected. Big cities are defined by change; people move to them to make things happen, to carve out a life, to experience the jolt that comes from seeing something new.
John King last wrote for Dwell on suburban urbanism, a far cry Hugh Ferriss's world of sky-scraping charcoal forms. Currently the San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic, King first encountered Farriss's atmospheric imagery in the 1980s, when its sky's-the-limit ethos seemed more archaic than it does today.