Are the likes of K. Village and Seenspace a sign of urban renewal? Or the death of urban planning? By Amitha Amranand
It’s Saturday night and you’re standing there, waiting for a table at a restaurant with the word “wine” in it. Maybe it’s Wine Connection or Wine I Love You—it doesn’t really matter. The place has an industrial chic décor, affordable bottles and it’s positively packed with elegant, young Bangkokians. Is it in a charming dead-end soi? A leafy avenue? A quiet square? No. It’s in a “community mall,” everyone’s new favorite place to hangout.
Since K Village opened in 2010, Bangkok has seen a veritable explosion of such spaces: Festival Walk, Nawamin City Walk, Rain Hill, Seenspace, Grass Thong Lor, Aree Garden, La Villa, Crystal Design Center, The Nine, The Circle, The Walk, The Crystal, Portico, Park Lane—the list is almost endless. They don’t belong to retail giants The Mall (Paragon, Emporium) or Central. They have outdoor circulation areas. They’re meant to be smaller than your regular mall (although Crystal Design Center is quite the behemoth). And they all provide an experience that shuts them off from their often drab surroundings.
The trend shows no sign of slowing down. If anything, developers seem to be aggressively injecting more community malls into every quarter of our sprawling capital. In February, Index Living Mall Co., Ltd. announced that it planned to invest five billion baht in building five more community malls in the next five years. Pure Sammakorn Development Co., Ltd.’s vision isn’t any less expansive. It will open its third Pure Place Community Mall in May on the booming Ratchapreuk Road, while aiming to unveil two more by next year. Siam Future Development Co., Ltd, whose projects include La Villa, J Avenue and Festival Walk, among others, believes there’s room in Bangkok for at least 150 more community malls—that’s right, 150.
COMMUNITY MALL 101
What exactly is a community mall? No one in Bangkok really agrees on a single definition. To some, what makes a mall a community mall is the kind of services it offers to the surrounding residents. National Artist and president of 49 Group, a multi-disciplinary architecture firm, Nithi Sthapitanonda bases his definition on the USA’s strip malls. For him, these malls, which are usually situated in residential areas, especially in the suburbs, contain all the shops and services that people need in their daily lives.
“Community malls in Thailand are not like that. Some places only have restaurants. When people come in wanting to buy medicine, there’s no pharmacy. If they need their clothes to be dry-cleaned, they can’t do that. The concept is all wrong,” says Nithi.
With the hyper-growth of community malls in recent years, most of us would probably distinguish a community mall from a mega mall by looking at the size and design. Yet, Ariya Aruninta of the Department of Landscape Architecture, Chulalongkorn University, who has written extensively on urban land management, doesn’t differentiate big malls from community malls based on these two criteria.
“It depends on the size of the community. If it’s a community in a city, then a shopping mall is a kind of community mall. Sometimes it can be a mega mall because our city has become a mega city,” Ariya says.
COMMUNITY, WHAT COMMUNITY?
Panida Tosnaitada’s Aree Garden, located in Soi Ari Samphan, is composed of 10 small shops, housed in a sleek and airy black metal structure that encircles a lush courtyard garden. And it has plenty of community cred. Most of the restaurants found in Aree Garden do not belong to a chain. Some of the owners are even Panida’s friends. There’s a nail salon on the upper level owned by people from the neighborhood. Tucked in one corner, Mahuna Books Et Cetera carries obscure Thai titles, handmade cards, and serves as an office for Kiao Klao Pimpakarn, the publishing house of the renowned writer and National Artist Naowarat Pongpaiboon.
“My family all live in this neighborhood. I grew up in the Sukhumvit area, but during the weekends and summer holidays, I came to stay at my grandmas. So I’m familiar with this area…When I was young, we used to cycle around. It was very cool and pleasant, with big trees and few cars. There were never any traffic jams in the soi,” Panida says.
But Aree Garden’s ties to the community and neighborhood are fairly exceptional. The Nine, K. Village and La Villa all have their share of chains, like iStudio, Au Bon Pain or Red Mango. And the shoppers inside sometimes drive a long way to get to them—as their vast parking lots demonstrate.
“Bangkokians assemble in loose groups. They don’t form real communities, unlike in the US or Japan, where cities are divided into different neighborhoods, and where each zone is well planned, with a school, a fire station, a post office,” says Ariya.
Architect Patama Roonrakwit of Community Architects for Shelter and Environment (CASE), who works closely with poor communities in Thailand through a participatory design process, sees the relationship between community and commerce in Bangkok as fairly random.
“It starts with a good location, which then attracts people to settle and form a community. As the community grows, it pulls in commerce. And as commerce grows, it pulls in more people to settle. Bangkok just keeps spreading with no rhyme or reason,” says Patama. The no-nonsense architect is of the same opinion as Ariya, that there are very few real communities remaining in Bangkok, except old communities like Bang Lampu and the slum areas. Community malls serve loose groups of shoppers, a certain demographic perhaps, but not genuine communities.
A recent ABAC poll reveals that 71.6 percent of the people surveyed go to community malls to eat, while 41.3 percent see them as a place to meet and hang out with their friends. More than half of the people surveyed choose to go to community malls because of the proximity to their homes, while 46.9 percent find that community malls offer a full range of services and products. Ariya conducted another survey in 2009 to find out how city dwellers like to spend their free time. Shopping ranked first as Bangkokians’ favorite activity outside their homes.
“Why are community malls being built? It’s not because people need them. They’re being built because developers conduct market research to gauge the possible business to be made in a given area. Do they ask people whether they want it or not? No. They don’t care. They only look at people’s spending power and what the area is like, based on the market research,” Ariya says. “But I also think there are more advantages than disadvantages to community malls.”
Another landscape architect, Arrak Ouiyamaphan, admits there is growing emphasis on atmosphere and open space and that the new generation of community malls pays more attention to the landscape design. More focus on the design of the outdoor space usually translates to more trees. One of the city’s very first community malls, J Avenue is a fitting example of what Arrak is talking about. There, cars are protected from the sun beneath the shade of frangipani. A magnificent ancient tree hovers above the mall’s frontage. And a thick, tall row of greenery makes it difficult to see part of J Avenue’s façade. Aree Garden, too, considered the landscape design before the structure, according to Panida.
FILLING GAPS IN THE CITY
Community malls are also filling a void left by the city’s poor urban planning, and even architecture. Ashley Sutton, who is behind the famed bar Iron Fairies (Soi Thong Lor) opened his next two bars in community malls: Fat Gut’z (in Grass, Thong Lor) and Clouds (in Seenspace Thonglor Soi 13). He also designed Five, which just opened at K Village. Sutton actually prefers the atmosphere and benefits of community malls to shophouses, such as the one where he built Iron Fairies.
“The shophouses are absolutely disgusting architecture,” says Sutton who has had to face crumbling walls, an old and dirty sewer system, an outdated electrical system and disgruntled neighbors with Iron Fairies. “With community malls, you get a more solid shell to work with, whereas with a shophouse, you get a lot of problems,” Sutton confirms.
Owned and run by Seenspace Co., Ltd., an imported furniture distributor, Seenspace 13 caters to a young and hip crowd. The stylish structure is home to independent restaurants and accessories shops rather than well-known brands. But while Sutton’s bar has done well, on the mall’s uppermost level a space still sits empty, waiting to be rented. In the afternoon, the shops are open, but the mall is practically deserted. The space picks up at night, and Seenspace Co. Ltd. tells us that the business is so far a success.
Sutton, too, believes that for a community mall to succeed, it should have restaurants, banks, and a small supermarket to generate traffic during the day. Seenspace may stand apart from some of Thonglor’s community malls, with its refusal to rent out its spaces to chain stores, but like many community malls in Bangkok, it lacks diversity and the services needed in people’s day-to-day lives.
There are also those who disagree with the community mall model. A resident of the Ari neighborhood, Antika Teparak of Salt restaurant finds little appeal in community malls. “In community malls, there are restrictions on closing and opening hours. And we don’t want to share the space with other shops, where each one has its own target customer. I see community mall shoppers as people who don’t know what they want. They go to see what’s available, then they choose. When people go to a standalone restaurant, they have a real intention to go there,” says Antika, who is now opening a second restaurant across from Salt.
But Antika is also quick to admit that La Villa, across the road from her soi, is a success and has brought convenience to Ari’s residents. She even says that without the opening of the community mall, she might have hesitated longer before deciding to invest in a standalone restaurant in this area. She also sees benefits, like good parking and better customer traffic, to running a business in a community mall. In fact, one community mall is offering her an enticing space that allows for relative isolation from the hubbub and the creative freedom with respect to the design. The restaurateur is certainly keeping her options open.
Community malls may not be perfect, they fit into a city that’s growing even further from urbanism ideals—particularly when it comes to walkability. Six-lane avenues like Silom, Phaya Thai, Sathorn, Rama IV, Phetburi or Sukhumvit are at times impossible to cross on foot. Sidewalks are potholed, lack any shade and are overrun with motorcycles. Available retail space is in dilapidated shophouses with cranky landlords. The reality is that community malls are not wrecking perfect little streets since these only exist in our imaginations. On the contrary, community malls are a manifestation of Bangkok’s rapid growth, its lack of community and the absence of urban planning. Long-standing communities naturally develop the shops, restaurants and services needed for them to function. But when the neighborhood is made of mushrooming moo ban (gated communities) and condos, it seems the best you can hope for is a community mall to open next door.