By Anne Stadler

Picture an indoor town square, next to a bookstore, ringed with five cafes. People are talking and eating around long library tables, round tables, square tables, some are working at laptop computers.

A giant game of chess draws a crowd at Third Place Commons.

All ages are enjoying themselves: two middle schoolers play chess with large chess pieces set up on the floor; a four year old pushes his train around a small track on the table while waiting for Mom to bring food. Seniors play Mah Jong at several tables. A book club is discussing their latest novel at another. Up on the stage, sound is being adjusted for a flute player, a guitarist, and a drummer who will soon be playing.

This is all the result of a single word: “Yes!” — uttered enthusiastically and often by Ron Sher, the developer who fashioned Third Place Commons from a failing mall in Lake Forest Park, Washington, just north of Seattle, and by Karen True, Executive Director of Friends of Third Place Commons, a civic group that helps support this indoor square.

In 1998 Sher opened Third Place Books, which is attached to a large commons space with a stage and cafes, under the inspiration of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who observed that humans need three places: their home, their workplace, and a common public space where they can be with others.

The once-dreary Lake Forest Park Town Centre mall became a magnet for my family–a comfortable place to watch people, meet friends and colleagues, hold meetings. In Seattle’s rainy winter months, Third Place Commons actually became our “community living room”. One day in February 2000, I was in line to order my lunch, eavesdropping as usual. Next to me a tall slender man with expressive bright eyes was talking animatedly to the Lake Forest Park City Manager. They were discussing the fact that business wasn’t going well. I listened as they commiserated, then I began to realize they must be talking about Third Place Books. So, I introduced myself.

Why not have the community that loves Third Place be involved in supporting and running the Commons?

It turned out he was Ron Sher, a prominent local developer and the owner of Third Place Books. So I launched into a paean of praise for his vision, and explained how crucial Third Place was to the evolution of community here.

“Well, I wish it were as financially successful as it is socially!” he replied.

We parted to sit down to our separate lunch dates. Part way through my lunch meeting, I had an idea: Why not have the community that loves Third Place be involved in supporting and running the Commons? I excused myself for a minute, and went across the Commons to interrupt Ron’s meeting with my question. His eyes lit up and he said “Yes! That’s an interesting idea. What do you have in mind?”

I was later to learn that he greeted almost every idea that matched his vision with the same sort of enthusiasm. At that moment, I had nothing in mind, just the question. But we committed to a date for Ron to meet with a small group of local leaders I’d get together to see if there was any interest in helping make Third Place Commons a community gathering place. That group grew into Friends of Third Place Commons–a new non-profit organization that has become the center of a public/private non-profit partnership that includes the City of Lake Forest Park, several local businesses (including Third Place Books), the Shoreline Lake Forest Park Arts Council, the local King County library, a branch of Shoreline Community College, and a host of non-profit and educational community groups.

Five years later, Karen True is presiding over the organization that features a staggering variety of offerings from community and nearby groups. Every Music and performing arts include offerings from Lake Forest Park Elementary School students, a community band, Northwest Ballet School, Shoreline Community College Jazz Ensemble, and many more. Friday night at “Magic: The Gathering” a group of high school age people take over the Friends Room at the back of the Commons. Community events and partners collaborate in offerings as diverse as a Gardening Fair, a Care Conversation on Intercultural Communication; grandparent support and education; Parent/Caregiver/Child playgroups; Teen Book Club: Pizza and books; Healthcare Fairs, Transportation Fairs, LFP History Project — the list goes on. From June through the end of September, Friends sponsored a Sunday Farmers Market.

This past year, the Mayor of Lake Forest Park and a community task force invited the community to imagine the Lake Forest Park Town Center of the future. Three community meetings were held–with about 200 citizens at each meeting. One striking common thread: When people were asked, “What is essential to the town center?” they replied, “Keep the indoor Commons.”

How a Failing Suburban Mall Became a Beloved Indoor Town Square was last modified: March 8th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces