The Riverwoods: A Case Study

From time to time, I’ve criticized the Shops at the Riverwoods, but that’s not because the shopping center is inherently unpleasant. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

But that pleasantness also means the area competes for attention with downtown, which in recent years has re-emerged as a major competitor. With lots of parking, boxy brown buildings, and a measly walk score of 57, the Riverwoods is also inherently less useful, less green, less pretty, and less accessible than downtown. And just imagine if the financial investment that has gone into the Riverwoods (multiple times as different owners try to save it) had gone into downtown; today it’d probably be more profitable and be a better cultural asset for the city.

In any case, the Riverwoods does some things really well and others very poorly. The pictures below go through a few of those successes and failures in an attempt to understand the shortcomings of big, mall-style development.

Lets start with the Riverwoods’ successes. This little alley is quite pleasant and exactly the sort of thing downtown needs: small intimate walking spaces that are both pretty and give people a sense of exploration and discovery. I think this alley succeeds in large part due to the vegetation, as well as the overhead arches. This is the sort of thing that could lead to a better strolling environment.

Downtown Provo could use more public restrooms, as well as signs pointing out the restrooms it does have.

This picture hints at the Riverwoods’ problems. Though this area is pleasant enough, there are almost no people around. This picture was taken on a Saturday between 12:30 and 1 pm. The weather was fantastic. So there should have been more people out strolling. Coincidentally, when I took this picture I had just come from downtown where there was a surprising number of people out.

One of the problems with the Riverwoods — and a likely reason there weren’t more people out — is that the buildings are extremely monotonous. This is a problem with many large developments because it gives places like the Riverwoods sterile, artificial feel. I think people can tell, explicitly or not, that the environment is fabricated.
Consequently, actual strolling in the Riverwoods isn’t pleasant. There’s nothing really to look at, after the first initial (and admittedly impressive) glance at the overall effect. Much like a movie set, there’s a pleasant big picture, but no aesthetic stratification. Everything is controlled.

It also doesn’t help, I think, that the individual buildings at the Riverwoods are all kind of cheap and ugly looking. In downtown, even the ugly buildings are interesting because they’re old, unique, and bear the marks of successive generations. Looking at any single building in the Riverwoods, on the other hand, is boring because they’re all the same and they’re all bland.

This photo illustrates the single biggest problem with the Riverwoods: it’s ringed by a massive parking lot. The parking lot is obviously a concession to the fact that almost no one walks to the shopping center, but it also reiterates the artificiality of the place. The interior of the Riverwoods is designed to mimic a classic downtown or, even better, a European city center. That mimicry might actually work if it wasn’t betrayed by the parking lot, which is obviously absent in the best examples of walkable centers.
It’s also worth pointing out that in the background of this picture there are some condos. The builders of the Riverwoods clearly understood that mixed use development was a good idea. Unfortunately, they forgot that people need more than a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and a Macaroni Grill to survive. This development fails because it lacks the basic amenities — groceries, pharmacies, hardware, etc. — that people need to live and maintain a household.
And of course, residents of the nearby condos have to walk through the massive, unpleasant parking lot to get to most of the shops.

Again, the overall affect is pleasant, but consumers are clearly rejecting the project. This is lunchtime on a spring Saturday. It should be one of the busiest times at the Riverwoods.

This picture is particularly sad because even at a busy time of day, the parking lot remains fairly empty. This is wasted space that the owners are paying for, but are not earning anything from. This picture also shows one of the main problems with parking lots: they’re designed to handle peak usage, but the vast majority of the time simply sit empty.

And finally, one of the most baffling things about the Riverwoods is that despite its name, there is no river and no woods. The river runs nearby, and could have been an incredible asset — as this post on waterfronts indicates.

And yet, the developers chose to separate the main group of shops from the river with… a parking lot. The lack of vision is absolutely astounding.

Overall, the Shops at the Riverwoods is a suburban-style mall that happens to be outdoors. There is a degree of pleasantness but there’s also a lot of unpleasantness resulting from the monotonous architecture, the expansive parking lots and even the overly manicured aesthetic. These pictures also show that the area can’t be doing particularly well financially.

There are ways to fix this, of course: increasing density, allowing more architectural diversity, adding basic amenities, etc. But more than anything else, these pictures show the considerable shortcomings of allowing a single developer to come in and control the vision for an entire place.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Riverwoods: A Case Study

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