By Richard Reep
“I had two rules for Christmas this year:
1. Under 13 years old only;
2. Internet only.”
One of the most distinctive benchmarks of contemporary American life, the classic indoor shopping mall, is now gasping for survival. The two rules expressed above were commonly heard during this shopping season, calling into question whether the 20th century indoor shopping mall will survive in its present form.
Almost since it was born in the early 1950s, the shopping mall has engendered controversy. Few today recall the enthusiasm which greeted the first malls in the Midwest, giving shoppers something they previously lacked: adequate parking closer to a more varied selection of goods. Malls quickly caught on, and developers repeated this success across the country. The so-called regional mall became a new tourism destination, an economic engine powering local economies, and a cultural marker in which our suburban nation, recently empowered by the mass production of the car, took great pride.
Malls, however, were decried by urban thinkers like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. For one thing, they turned the traditional building inside out, with the unlovely backs of the stores facing the exterior. For another, they required huge seas of asphalt to accommodate parking, necessitating long, arduous walks from the car to the mall door.
Perhaps more seriously, however, thinkers criticized malls as dealing a lethal blow to the traditional Main Street. To support the development costs of the regional indoor shopping mall, the leasing prices only let large, national chain stores in, wiping out almost any vestige of local identity. Generally speaking, shoppers overlooked this fault in favor of access to a much greater diversity of goods and essentially deserted Main Street in droves.
Architects and developers quickly gathered empirical evidence about people’s shopping patterns and applied these to the design, so by the 1970s the regional indoor shopping mall was perfected down to a reliable formula that could be applied consistently, with reliable and satisfying economic results to the landowner and his bank. Older malls, such as Lenox Square in Atlanta, underwent drastic renovations to adapt to the formula, increasing visitors and sales, and cementing the place of the regional mall in American culture.
Yet the mall also had one largely overlooked advantage: its ability to deliver a safe, secure environment for its inhabitants. Being private property, the landowner could afford to eject suspicious behavior and deal with theft swiftly, in a way that police in a public setting could not. The mall could be secured in a way impossible for the traditional city street.
Malls grew, finally testing the upper limits at over 4 million square feet in Bloomington, Minnesota. However, like dinosaurs, their great size and their slow speed have now limited their ability to adapt to changing times. Malls began to suffer a decline as early as the 1990s. This decline was due to challenges from big-box retailers, and the even more convenient commercial strip mall. Mall developers fought off these challengers by including both boxes and strips within new development tracts, so a new regional mall such as the Brandon Mall in Tampa, Florida opened in 1994 with a brand-new Target store and brick-façade strips flanking its entry. Shoppers parked at the main mall, shopped, and then parked in front of various strips, shopping their way out of the parking lot.
Yet this model could not rescue malls, so developers started reinventing them as lifestyle centers. Retail was subsidized by dining and entertainment venues, and when the residential boom arrived around 2002 and 2003, condos were thrown in the mix. At the same time, consolidation of mall owners was taking place, and one of the single biggest mall owners, General Growth, was faced with the task of stewarding these giants into the new millennium.
Yet even as “lifestyle centers”, malls have continued to suffer. General Growth and others like them found themselves fighting a defensive action, as per-square-foot sales of malls softened. At one time, they entertained the notion of adding hotels to malls, imagining that malls remained destinations. Shoppers, however, were getting scarcer, and except for Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and the day after Christmas, it was becoming easier and easier to find a parking place in front of your favorite national department store.
This year’s Christmas season has further weakened the malls. E-commerce retail, rising since 2000, accounts now for over $34 billion in retail sales, or 3.1% of total retail sales, for the third quarter of 2008 (source: U. S. Census Bureau). This rise continues to penetrate the physical retail environment, and the mall is the most vulnerable to this new form of commerce. Accompanied by a sudden drop of consumer spending, this trend has turned bad times into a veritable rout.
For companies like General Growth, which has flirted with bankruptcy, tough times are ahead. Adaptive reuse strategies – turning malls back into town centers with residential density – remains one possible strategy. Another may be to retune old-line malls into destinations for fast growing consumer populations such as Hispanics. There are clearly many possibilities.
In this sense malls represent a huge opportunity for a forward-thinking investor, and this building type should be analyzed for its positive features. Aside from the good portion of commercial debt it represents, the mall usually boasts a prime location within existing suburban infrastructure, and typically sits on level land that would ease redevelopment. A mall in east Orlando has already been changed into Mainsail, a private higher education facility. Others have been made into municipal service centers. The redeveloper may preserve the building and land whole or, like ancient Roman coliseums, malls may be disintegrated so that only fragments of the mall’s original development pattern will be noticeable.
No doubt some malls will survive in unique pockets – and they could come to represent the new localism – if they have engrained themselves enough into local culture. This may be particularly true in outer suburbs where there was no Main Street and the mall has remained the focal point for local concourse and rendezvous.
One thing is clear. Given the rise of internet commerce, and perhaps a long-term slowdown in consumer spending, the mall seems destined for a major makeover in the coming decade.
Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.