Faux Town Squares: Do ‘Suburban Lifestyle Centers’ Create an Authentic ‘Sense of Place?’

Is Southlake Town Square the exception or the rule?

Long-suffering Denton residents have heard this before. Golden Triangle Mall has new ownership. The long-troubled shopping center is going to get yet another renovation. This time the city of Denton itself had to kick in $9.5 million to make it happen.

The news reminded me of something that came up during my recent breakfast with Ray Washburne, he of the MCrowd Restaurants and owner of Highland Park Village. We mostly talked about all the changes coming to the Village, but something that didn’t make it into the published article were his comments about Denton.

MCrowd had a deal in place to put a Mi Cocina location into the Rayzor Ranch development in Denton, but with that planned mixed-use project having slowed down due to economic factors, it hasn’t happened. “It was going to be the classic suburban lifestyle center,” Washburne said. “As a college town, I think a small Mi Cocina or Taco Diner would do well up there.” Then he added:

“Denton doesn’t have a sense of place.  That’s what these lifestyle centers have done – like up in Allen – is create a sense of place.”

Obviously, I disagree. But I’m from Denton. Washburne is a Dallas/Park Cities guy through and through, so I get it. To him Denton is just another faceless suburb, devoid of its own personality. Can’t say I don’t feel the same way myself about Richardson or Garland or Duncanville, or any of the other cities I don’t know well.

But the notion that a “suburban lifestyle center,” which is bound to be chock-a-block with franchised restaurants and chain retail shops, being the way to bring a “sense of place” to a city?  Does that work?

Maybe in Southlake at its Town Square? (Then again, maybe I’m drawing a false correlation between “sense of place” and financial success.)  What about Washburne’s own example, Watters Creek in Allen? Or Frisco Square? I know that Flower Mound’s Parker Square hasn’t worked out quite as well as was initially hoped.

The thing about Denton is, though, it doesn’t need to create a faux town square. It’s already got a real one.


  • What do you think of Arlington Highlands sense of place? Does Arlington Highlands get an exception to the rule?

  • K’

    The fake town squares are so easy to spot and they’re really a bad attempt at deceit. They feel less like historical squares and more like amusement parks or movie sets. When I can walk behind a store in Southlake’s “town center” and see that the back of the building looks like the back of a Target while the front wants me to think I’m in Copley Square, the illusion is not only lost, but it’s also sort of insulting.

    Sure, you can use a Chili’s and a Gap in your “historical town square strategically placed along a modern high-travel route” and achieve a sense of place.

    A sense of a place being exactly like the place you’ve already been to and weren’t that impressed by to begin with.

  • James H.

    Denton doesn’t have a sense of place? Has he never made it far enough from the dust bowl that is Rayzor Ranch to reach the square? “Suburban lifestyle centers” are what a town needs to have a sense of place?

    Is it April Fools?

  • Bailey

    As a North Texas student, I think if Denton’s square would just add a movie theater it would be perfect. It’s authentic and “Dentonites” love it. If we want a chain or something commercialized we head out to 288.

    As a current resident and someone born and raised in Arlington, I think half of the Highlands are kind of sad looking. It needs to be filled up! It DOES kind of look like a janky movie set on one side. As for the night life… let’s just say I head to Dallas or Fort Worth.

  • Gordon Keith

    Denton would love to have a MiCocina. Rayzor ranch is on life support

  • Ellen

    Denton’s town square is so much cooler and authentic than Southlake’s. The one in Southlake is so FAKE.

  • smeyers

    The Southlake town square has worked so well b/c Southlake doesnt have a Main Street area. Also it works so well as a faux town square b/c the parking gargages are hidden so well and it makes the area more walkable. I think that would be so awesome if the Golden Triangle mall was redeveloped in a town square format, they could more public transportation in there also.

  • smeyers

    Arlington Highlands is ok, but, at the same time, kinda sucks b/c when you walk around you have to avoid the substantial traffic, especially on weekends. It feels like the walkers and the cars are competing for space. Its somewhat upscale but still has the strip mall feel.

  • Steve

    Wow. Even with Fry Street in ashes Denton has more “sense of place” than all of these fake ‘burbs combined. Are you certain he didn’t say I “sense a place” to ruin with some generic chain restaurants?

  • towski

    Golden triangle. Heh heh heh.

  • DesignBoy

    If you want the perfect downtown square, visit McKinney, Texas. It’s void of national retailers and has slowly grown into a great and artful mix of shopping, services, and restaurants. I live in Oak Cliff but make a somewhat regular trek up there. I’m not sure if it captures the true essence of McKinney but it certainly raises its status and gives it a personality, one that this urbanite can appreciate.

  • Julie

    I think he’s just trying to make himself feel better by saying these fake “downtowns” create a sense of place. When you stand in front of one of these “lifestyle centers,” and they have a Gap, a Barnes and Nobles and a Starbucks, you could be in Seattle or Birmingham or Detroit. Nothing tells you where you are.

    When you stand on the Square in Denton, you know where you are–one of a kind shops and mom and pops are what built this country, not chains and big boxes. I say we kidnap him, bring him to Denton for a cup of joe at Jupiter House, followed by a rocking night of indie music at Dan’s, Hailey’s,Andy’s (or fill in the blank). Oh, and make him ride the train to get here.

  • Chris Flemmons


    I actually like these faux urban centers and I don’t mind the backlot parking garages. It’s an improvement over pasture-cut box store installations and big-ass parking lots. If I didn’t live in a town (Denton) that already has the real deal I would hope one was being built because new urbanism anywhere in a sprawling place like Texas is a good thing. Indeed Denton has a “sense of place” but it sure could still stand to have a “sense of teeth” about what it lets developers do in the older, center area — even since the Fry Street debacle. We don’t need anymore beds downtown unless they are above retail.

    Nice post.

  • Julie

    You started it 🙂

  • CollinBabs

    Leave Denton alone! Faux town centers attract faux people with faux values and everyone/everything is the same. YUK.

  • Ray Washburne thinks Denton doesn’t have a sense of place? Have he been to the Square? Either Campus? University Drive? Oak Street?
    Get real – Denton has the most ‘sense of place’, in that you can’t mistake where you are for anywhere else, of any of the ex-urbs mentioned in this piece.
    And a Taco Diner? Won’t improve on that.

  • Patrick

    I do love me some Mi Cocina and some Taco Diner, but I’m a little disappointed that Mr. Washburne doesn’t think Denton has a sense of place. It doesn’t sound like he’s ever been into Denton proper, just around the Loop.

    When he ventures into Denton proper, he’ll see that we have a much clearer sense of place than any location that requires a lifestyle center. “Place” in those areas is manufactured; ours is 100% authentic.

    I’d like to personally invite him to come to the Little Dipper some evening and I’ll give him a tour of The Square, off The Square, East Hickory, and Industrial St.

    If he’s still interested in setting up shop in Denton, let’s talk about a Taco Diner or Mi Cocina in some of the spaces on East Hickory!

  • chuck voellinger

    I’ve lived in Denton for 24 years so, I may have different POV than the writer. It almost seems like a bait in a way. Now, building a development is all well and good, and maybe after *time* it will create its own sense of place. Denton has had this for decades…

  • FM

    The only sense that I get when at/near a town square in Southlake, FM, Allen, Fairview, Frisco, etc is that I’m stuck in another nameless, faceless DFW suburb.

    It reminds me of the Season 1 theme song video from “Weeds”


  • David

    Here’s the deal,
    I’ll start with a question. What makes a town square real? I think the fact that its there and people actually use it. The reason Southlake’s Town Square was developed in that fashion is because Southlake lacked a civic center as well as a commercial center. The anchor of that project is the Southlake Courthouse as I recall. There are several options as to whether chains are allowed to occur in a development or not. These decisions, however, are left up to the developer. Interestingly enough, Southlake’s Town Square is based on the historic precedent of Lake Forest, Chicago. This is actually an old urbanist project that introduced something completely new to the region. Many accept it as authentic now, but it may have recieved similar criticism when it was first constructed. This project in fact was anchored by a Marshall Field’s Where the Southlake Courthouse would be. My opinion is that these developments are an alternative to you’re typical auto-centric strip malls. Nobody believes they are fooling you into thinking they are old, but I do believe they provide an authentic sense of place. Over time, chains can be replaced by local businesses because the infrastructure is flexible enough to allow several types of activity to occur within the building types.

  • David

    By the way, I just want to clarify. I believe that Denton does have a sense of place, but the reality is if someone wants to develop a project its likely that its going to happen. Would you rather a typical strip mall or the “Faux Town Square” as you call it? Also Arlington Highlands seem to have gone halfway on addressing the pedestrian. They probably needed to do a little more homework.