Inventing a past

These are the facts. Most Detroiters -- three-quarters, roughly -- prefer not to live in the city that gives its name to this sprawling metropolitan area. But that doesn't mean people have abandoned what they remember, or think they remember, about the pleasures of city living.

Not that they want to come back to town exactly. The move historically is in just the opposite direction, with Americans opting for progressively bigger and emptier houses set farther and farther apart in loose, exurban confederations that bear little resemblance to traditional city life. Which means we've come to rely on synthetic solutions to our urban nostalgia, one of the most creative being the civic projects currently going forward in Novi.

By the way, the story is not true about Novi being named for stop No. VI on the old stage coach road, or the milk run, or whatever. Best guess -- according to Lou Martin, the city's public information director -- is that the name is Croatian in origin, there being several Novis in Croatia. The word means "new."

This much is certain: that Novi is launching a new kind of city, based on the creative application of private investment to a public purpose. And what's being invented is something a lot of people, apparently, have shown up wanting. The population increased from 32,998 in 1990 to 40,533 in 1996; in both '96 and '97, there were around 500 single-house building permits issued per year. These numbers make Novi one of the fastest growing communities in the country.

Historically, the village of Novi, which dates back to 1832, was centered around the old "Four Corners," as it was called -- the intersection of Novi and Grand River, just south of the I-96 interchange today. But Novi never did become a storybook kind of town, with a square and a courthouse, shops ringed round the civic plaza. At least not until now. The city government, in cooperation with private developers, is busily inventing a new, synthetic version of a past that Novi never really had. The Novi Town Center is only one part of an integrated plan of private developments that will create a unified, commercial "town" at the old Four Corners.

And what has this collusion of city government and private development produced? What it has not produced -- happily -- is some hermetic, Truman Show version of "new urbanism." Nor has it yielded the pedestrian-hostile, "edge city" environment of Southfield, with its mirrored monoliths and can't-get-there-from-here approach to foot traffic. Instead, the Novi Town Center represents a creative embrace of two apparently contradictory propositions: that Americans enjoy the pedestrian pleasures of old cities; but we want to drive there in our cars, and park right in front.

Novi Town Center accommodates both urges simultaneously and rationally. (It opened in 1986; the architect is Hastings Chivetta. The development comprehends 440,000 square feet of retail space.) This space is neither blimp-hanger, fountain-in-the-middle mall, nor strip-derivative. The architecture is reminiscent in scale of the low-rise stores that used to ring an old downtown, except here they are consolidated into continuous, brick structures that fold back on themselves to create enclosed, internal spaces.

Stores open directly outside, with a covered sidewalk running along in front. And at the center of things is not a square, but the parking lot. Just where it should be, commuting having become our civic purpose. There are books and clothing stores, department stores, service businesses, movies, restaurants, shoe stores -- but not so many as in a mall -- sporting goods, fashions, home furnishings, toys, some 42 different retailers in all, with another 11 around the periphery. Town Center is 99.3 percent leased, with commercial sales per square foot having doubled since 1993. A big success, in other words.

Nevertheless -- some people are not going to like this -- but so what? Enough with the whining about the glory days of pedestrianism. Given a choice, we -- all of us -- have opted for cars. So, you drive yourself out to Novi, stroll the sidewalk, check the stores, buy a Sunday paper, relax on a bench in the afternoon sun, sip your cappuccino, maybe go to a movie later on, or maybe just drive around to the other side of "town" and stroll the sidewalk there. I ask you, what's not to like?

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