28 April 2009

The Phenomenon of Dying Malls

American malls have been around for less than a century, but their influence on our culture has been amazing. However, even in prosperous times, distressed malls have been a persistent problem, as well as a point of intrigue in the suburban landscape. The current economic slump has magnified the problems that ailing malls have been battling for years, or even decades.

The rapid development of North American suburbs resulted in a rush to build malls. Most developers assumed that if their mall was newer and larger than the competition then they would make money, and for the most part they did. But what many developers failed to consider or neglected to care about was what happens to their project when the next mall is built. The blight that is left behind when one fails is a weight on the community. Lost tax revenue and jobs, increased vandalism and crime and lower property values are just a few of the problems a dead mall creates.

While dying malls are not a new phenomenon, their sustainability is something developers should consider. The dominance of the fashion, food-court and family-focused mall is ending. The good news is that no new enclosed malls have opened in the U.S. since 2006.

Vacant malls, strip center shopping centers and big box stores have already been redeveloped into more sustainable, less auto-dependent places more in sync with today’s demographics. Depending on the specifics of each site, we can expect to see future failed malls re-inhabited, re-greened, or retrofitted. Essentially malls can be repositioned into what a community needs. When a mall dies, many options are on the table. Redevelopment into a more sustainable mixed use center is often a good solution if the real estate is valuable. They have the advantages of an already existing infrastructure and usually are located on major transportation routes. They should be regarded as a potential asset, much as you would look at well-located unimproved land, or a deserted warehouse or office district in a city center.

This kind of recycling will be particularly useful in suburbs, as they develop more “urban’ amenities” — like interesting restaurants, live music and local festivals. By redoing the mall, this can be accomplished without urban “densification” and retain low-density environments of single-family homes preferred by the vast majority of Americans. Sometimes dead malls find new life as colleges, government buildings, branch libraries, spaces for nonprofit arts groups, places of worship, car dealerships and community centers that can host a variety of events. Most times, if the building is cheaply constructed, and neglected for years, the only viable option is demolition. In some of the more dense communities, this will provide an opportunity to repair the regional landscape by turning them back to open space

What should never be an option is to allow the building to sit neglected for years. Although it may be sad to see a place with so many memories bulldozed, there isn’t much future for an abandoned generic suburban shopping mall. The current crop of dying malls are by no means the end of the shopping mall. Retail and shopping are too integral a part of American life.

The biggest long-term challenge to malls isn’t economic. It’s environmental. Right now, consumers can’t afford all the stuff we used to buy. But in the long run, the planet can’t afford all the stuff we do buy. So finding a business model that’s economically viable and environmentally sensitive shold be a goal for all new (and repurposing) mall developers.

So going forward, developers and mall operators need to recognize that the shopping mall of the future can’t simply be a nucleus of stores surrounded by a sea of asphalt with a ring of highway around it. They need to hire talented suburban planners, architects, and landscape architects whom will encourage developing and/or transforming shopping centers into dynamic destinations that are woven into the fabric of the community. Developers should also strive to create malls that offer a place for people to socialize, not simply to buy. While no one likes to see businesses fail, dead malls provide great opportunities for communities to redevelop in healthy ways. Now is the time for them to remove the regulatory obstacles to retrofitting.

Here are some examples fo successful re-use.
Belmar in Lakewood, Colo.

Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Fla.

Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Photos courtesy of:
Chris Pixel
Some text courtesy of:

1 comment:

  1. From a NY Times article: Malls will not only generate sales, they will “grow food, create crafts, manufacture products, generate energy, and provide education.” As an antidote to time spent online, argue the CommArts folks, the mall becomes a social center, a “spectacle of hands-on demos, lectures, performances, classes, tastings, parties, and shows.”