Suburban Soul Man

Ron Sher thought he could build a community around an ugly, failing shopping mall. Is he nuts?

By Juliette Guilbert January 22, 2009 Published in the February 2009 issue of Seattle Met

This is a suburban mall? Ron Sher gave a homey touch to Crossroads with an antique French fountain.

In 1988, when developer Ron Sher took over the faded Crossroads Shopping Center, a quarter of it stood empty. One arm of its 1962-vintage concourse was called “Death Valley” because nine of its 10 stores were vacant. Surrounding Crossroads was a hardscrabble neighborhood of low-rent apartments, where immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia had begun settling in the 1970s and ’80s. The City of Bellevue was not prepared to provide the services they needed, and crime and gangs started to plague the neighborhood—a nasty shock to longtime residents of adjacent subdivisions. Young people gravitated to what had been the only gathering place in the Crossroads neighborhood: the mall, where some tagged the buildings and drag-raced in the parking lot.

The neighborhood was “going downhill fast,” recalls Nan Campbell, who was Bellevue’s mayor when Sher bought Crossroads. “The mall owner had not reinvested and had not done anything to stimulate the economy there, and the concentration of the City’s attention was on [downtown], after they passed the central business district plan in 1981.” Bellevue Square’s developer, Kemper Freeman Jr., remembers eyebrows rising in local real estate circles when Sher proposed to turn Crossroads around: “When he bought the center, experts said, ‘Gosh, what’s he ever going to do to make that center work?’”

Sher, a lanky, bearded 66-year-old with a gently professorial manner, was no starry-eyed neophyte; he had already made plenty of money running the largest retail leasing brokerage in the country with his siblings. And he could see that the prospects were not encouraging. “Crossroads was not by a freeway,” he says, ticking off its disadvantages. “It was in what some people considered the questionable area of Bellevue, where most of the multifamily [housing] was. It wasn’t a regional mall, but it was somewhat large for a neighborhood center”—500,000 square feet. “So it was really hard to attract tenants, and we knew we had to do something to distinguish ourselves.”

That something proved to be a little social experimentation. Sher, a committed environmentalist with a PhD in agricultural economics from Washington State University, wondered: What if, rather than attempting to sort shoppers according to purchasing power, Crossroads simply welcomed all comers, from the prosperous to those with little or nothing to spend? Rather than beginning with the retail and letting everything else grow up around it, Sher decided to start with the idea of community.

As he went along, he drew further inspiration from the ideas of the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, whose book The Great Good Place argues the importance of the “third place,” a public space outside work and home—the pub, the market, the café—where people gather to rub elbows with those outside their social groups. That was it: He would recast the mall as a public space, leveraging the ethnic melting pot that East Bellevue had become and turning a seeming liability into an asset.

{page break}

Crossroads “had the only interesting urban energy in Bellevue, and we felt that that was a plus,” Sher explains. “We felt that if we could just become a fun community gathering place, a place for everybody to hang out and visit—the concept of the public market—it would really give us an identity and it would give people a reason to come here.” To that end, he programmed free events such as live music every Friday and Saturday night. Years before ethnic food courts became ubiquitous, he founded one with independent eateries rather than mall chains. He brought in civic institutions: a King County Library branch, a police substation, and a satellite city hall with services in nine foreign languages.

More counterintuitively, Sher actively encouraged people to use the mall for noncommercial activities, organized and ad hoc. One end of the food court became a kind of public living room, anchored by a giant chess set. A passerby might encounter half a dozen multinational chess matches, a free ESL class for food-court workers, a crocheting circle, or a meeting of Bikers Against Child Abuse. Aficionados show up for a Dungeons and Dragons club, a farmers market, Sahaja Yoga Meditation, and Mandarin Story Time at the library. All this activity has helped bring business to tenants that now include Michael’s, Old Navy, and Bed Bath and Beyond. Equally important for Sher, it has made the neighborhood a more vital, cohesive place.

“You create connections,” he explains. The thought behind the free events is, “How do you make a community work better for everybody in it, and how do you make it stronger? If you do that, people get it, they know whether you’re sincere. And it acts as the glue that brings the place together, and it promotes the retail, and it does it in a way that is not predatory.”

Not that other shopping centers are “predatory,” Sher hastens to add. But Ethan Kent, a vice president at the New York–based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces (on whose board Sher sits), notes that there is a clear difference in the ways Crossroads and more traditional malls like -Bellevue Square engage the public: Most mall developers understandably start with the retail, even when they incorporate all the latest hyphenated urbanist concepts: mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented, human-scaled. “Many are moving toward lifestyle centers, which try to mimic downtowns but are still very controlled and private and retail-driven,” Kent says. “The luxury retail model has definitely dominated a lot of mixed-use, upscale development. Where Crossroads is inspiring is that it’s a viable retail model that can appeal to a diverse population…. It starts with the public spaces.”

However much sprawled-out suburbs crave third places, Kent says, the place-making business has focused instead on urban cores such as downtown Bellevue and Redmond Town Center. But while these renovated downtowns may look more like “real cities” than Crossroads (whose physical plant is still, inescapably, a hulking old-school mall), Crossroads in many ways functions more like a city—a place of cultural and class mixing, perhaps even social and aesthetic surprise. Where else on the Eastside can you see Sikhs enjoying bluegrass or whimsical public art such as an electrical transformer painted to look like a cow that moos when you pass and a cement-encased VW bug erupting from a sidewalk?

{page break}

The new suburban downtowns have many virtues: parks and cultural facilities, more residential density and transit, pedestrian access to shopping and services. But they strive for polished predictability and uniformity just as the old suburbs did. “We offer a resort setting,” explains Bellevue Square owner Freeman; you might also call it a facsimile city stripped of messiness and chaos. Freeman’s own stab at public space, a couch-decked rustic atrium called the Lodge tucked between Starbucks and P. F. Chang’s, has become a lively gathering place in its own right. But it was explicitly conceived to serve shopping: “The longer people stay, the more they buy,” Freeman told The Seattle Times when the Lodge opened in 2001. “We like to make it easy for them to stay.”

It’s easy to stay at Crossroads without buying much of anything. And once you acclimate to the pageant of languages, skin tones, and national costumes, other, subtler forms of diversity emerge. Blue collar types mix with blue bloods from Medina. Old people—some extremely old—push their walkers and play cards with friends. Visibly disabled people, and an assortment of the acutely eccentric, find a place here. There are babies from many lands, office workers on their lunch breaks, even a smattering of urban hipsters who come for the free music and cheap ethnic eats. Pam Toelle, a longtime resident active in nearby neighborhood groups, attributes the diversity to one thing: “It’s free. …Families that have little money can walk over and bring their children and have a night out.”

Walking around Bellevue Square is also a time-honored tradition. And the past decade has brought many changes to Bellevue’s downtown: major arts institutions, ongoing efforts to create open space and a pedestrian-friendly streetscape (i.e., a greenbelt linking downtown to Meydenbauer Bay). The city’s once-sterile core has grown far more welcoming. But though Sher acknowledges that downtown is “working well for a lot of people,” he doesn’t spend much time there: “It’s not my favorite place to go.”

Indeed, though both are too polite to say so, Ron Sher and Kemper Freeman are like Bizarro World versions of each other. Both are the mall developer sons of mall developers. Sher lives in Medina and Freeman just outside it. Both prefer two-wheeled vehicles, though Freeman rides Harleys while Sher clocks 3,500 miles a year on his bicycle. Freeman was an outspoken opponent of Sound Transit’s light rail plan and spent $4 million trying to defeat it; Sher is a transit booster who makes his food-court tenants use nondisposable china and flatware. Freeman recently embarked on a $40 million renovation of Bellevue Square with Italian limestone floors and an “urban garden” ambience; Sher recycles the same old midcentury mall parts. “I’m sort of a tinkerer,” he admits. “I’d be more likely to spend money on public art than on marble floors. It’s more about how you are in the space than the awe of the space.”

That approach has worked for Sher in other spaces as well. In 1998, once he had Crossroads on a solid footing, he embarked on a similar transformation of the derelict Lake Forest Park Town Centre. He installed the expansive Third Place Books, which has the feel of a well-worn independent bookstore and sells new and used volumes together, along with a small food court on the eclectic Crossroads model. In autumn of 2007 he bought Bremerton’s abandoned J. C. Penney store, which he plans to turn into a mixed-use social and commercial hub for a long-neglected downtown. That same year he helped devise an updated Crossroads subarea plan that envisions multifamily housing at the mall. But he says he probably won’t undertake the development himself: “That may be for the person who works on it after me. It’s a huge job.”

{page break}

No less an Eastside observer than Kemper Freeman salutes what Sher’s achieved: “He has done an incredible job of making Crossroads an extension of the community and a place where people feel at home.” In the Eastside’s far-flung workaday neighborhoods, other leftovers from the golden age of malls are still struggling to reinvent themselves. But the Project for Public Spaces’ Ethan Kent doubts that many other redevelopers will follow Sher’s example. “We always say that any great public-space project can be traced back to a zealous nut. You have to be a little crazy to do these things.” Still, facing obsolete properties and fierce competition for high-end shoppers, some may emulate Sher’s practicality, if not his “nuttiness.” “I really care about the civility and the sense of community,” he says. “But I don’t think there was any other way to do it at Crossroads. It had to bootstrap up.”

Filed under