New York Times on Rethinking the Mall

The recent economic downturn has sparked a wave of retail bankruptcies, and with it press interest in the phenomenon of distressed shopping malls (as evidenced in the Wall Street Journal piece that mentioned us a few weeks ago, and a recent New York Times blog piece that did the same). Last week the New York times ran a feature on some grand new development/redevelopment ideas debuted at this year’s International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas, which they gave decidedly mixed (to be polite) marks to:

I saw very big, very ambitious projects designed with an eye to ROI more than consumer need/enjoyment, including one from a Japanese architecture firm proposing four and a half acres consisting of ballpark, retail and dining along with an array of “extreme” attractions (exactly what was “extreme” about them was left to the imagination). A Turkish mall project mixed a stadium, tri-level sports lifestyle center, Olympic swimming pool and 25,000 square meters of retail. I was excited by an entry that seemed to propose a new purpose for abandoned big-box retail until I discovered the idea was merely to transform the store into a massive digital billboard — a mediocre solution for say, an abandoned store in Union Square, and a totally inappropriate one for an exurban mall.

Fitzgerald Associates Architects' Wilson Yard
Fitzgerald Associates Architects' Wilson Yard

The article does highlight some large format retail design concepts that the author thought were meritous, including Fitzgerald Associates’ Wilson Yard (pictured above), Retail to the People, and CommArts “Crossroads City.” While some of these ideas do relate to things we’ve seen awhile–large format retail turning back into town centers and away from spaces that are purely self-contained shopping palaces–others do touch on some interesting concepts that I think strike at the heart of why large-scale retail developments are increasingly challenged:

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.” Further, the national sameness we now experience (Gap? Check. Victoria’s Secret? Check.) will morph into something more one-off, more local, more cause-oriented.

Some of this reads a bit too much like a utopian ideal of where malls will go, but I think there’s a core truth here: if you can get all the crap you actually need online, why show up at a mall? For community, connectedness, to see your neighbors and experience your community. In some suburban areas, malls and shopping centers are the best places to do this and it’s something we’ve been losing with the rise of big box centers. If we can find ways to cycle in more uses like these that draw people in and excite them, then there may be a future for large format retail development after all.

If you can’t tell, this is the stuff that gets me really juiced up. I love malls primarily because I grew up with these types of feeling about them, and the thought of them dying makes me sad. I hope we’re able to update their function effectively enough to make them better than they ever were.

Author: Caldor

Jason Damas is a search engine marketing analyst and consultant, and a freelance journalist. Jason graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern University in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a minor in Music Industry. He has regularly contributed to The Boston Globe,, Amplifier Magazine, All Music Guide, and 168 Magazine. In addition, he was a manager for a record store for over two years. Currently, he focuses on helping companies optimize their web sites to maximize search engine visibility, and is responsible for website conversion analysis, which aims to improve conversion rates by making e-commerce websites more user-friendly. He lives in suburban Boston.

27 thoughts on “New York Times on Rethinking the Mall”

  1. I wonder if people will ever get over the “sameness” of some malls though. Usually when people go to the mall, they expect to see stores like Gap, and Bath and Body Works, and Sbarro’s. Local businesses in a mall usually get looked at in a bad light (I’m not talking about the t-shirt panting types either). Like people look at them as not belonging with the other stores and usually when a large number of stores are local; it’ means that the mall is dying or something else that turns people away from shopping there..

    I don’t know if a mall will ever celebrate local shops as a new and fresh idea. People are just used to seeing the chain stores. Anyone agree?

  2. I think we’ll continue to venture out to shop for the same reason that we eat food when an IV drip could give us all the nutrition we need: because there are other pleasures besides the basic acquisition of stuff inherent in shopping in real places. The sites, smells, and sounds–the tactile approach to browsing and touching and seeing what you might buy–cannot be matched by small, two-dimensional photos on a screen at home.

  3. @danroman: I agree with you on that point.

    I understand that there are some success stories about malls with just “rural” stores ie: handmade crafts, mom & pop stores, however this situation does not always mean the mall will survive. In fact, several times a failing mall has been replaced with a big box store such as Target, Walmart, Home Depot, & the like. Is it nice to see just “rural” stores? I believe that is yes and no. While some of us assume that the local malls will have our favourite stores, others are looking for something more than just lifestyle centers, entertainment complexes and what have you. So my main point is, no matter what the future holds, the shopper will want something more, and something less all at the same time. It will be interesting to see how this issue will be addressed.

  4. The “mall” you show in your pictures by Fitzgerald Associates isn’t really a mall. The upper floors will be inhabited by people who have been on the public dole for over twenty years and have never had jobs. This means, for those of you outside of Chicago, gangbangers, drug dealers, and more than likely prostitutes. And it’s all being built with taxpayer money that should be used for the schools in our neighborhood. How successful will this shopping center be? Take a look across the street from this redevelopment and see. Two methodone clinics, empty storefronts, drug dealers, homeless panhandlers, and prostitutes. This lot will be another urban slum before it even leaves the “L” station.

  5. The idea that the mall will become the social center of the future is bizarrely presented as “novel,” when, in fact, for most of us, the local mall was the “town center.” Heck, my parent’s local mall IS CALLED “Boca Town Center.” I think that part of the nostalgia regarding the “traditional” enclosed mall stems from their being the de facto replacement for actual traditional town centers since the 1970s.

    Secondly, it seems that these designs are more about amplified lifestyle centers, or New Urbanist communities, or multi-level urban malls, all of which depend upon density, and which require a populace that has embraced density as a virtue, rather than a vice.

    So, depending upon where one lives, will determine the success or failure of these projects. Building a far-out lifestyle center in the suburbs of Metro Atlanta (outside the perimeter,) will probably not make sense, as that region has some of the lowest densities for a major metropolitan statistical area. They will probably find an audience in the Northeast, particularly in the BosWash urban area, where concentrated populaces exist and are encouraged.

    None of these ideas or designs really address the main issue regarding the retail industry today; recession or otherwise, we grossly overbuilt the amount of retail space in the United States over the last 40 years. Many of the enclosed malls on this site and others would still be in business if not for the arrival of another bigger, “better” enclosed mall, just up the ‘pike (in some cases, two or three.) Look at many of the entries included on this site and you see the pattern:
    1. [Dead or dying mall] was built in some year, and enjoyed growth and profit…
    2. …until [New and improved mall in the region] opened, taking away [dead or dying mall]’s customers.
    3. [Dead or dying mall] tried new decor, or by going discount, only to find their customers lost to [new and improved mall in the region] and the massive Big Box retailers.

    It’s very much akin to the current physical state of the city of Detroit. When the automobile industry was in high gear, a cornucopia of carmakers built huge, vast factories, while their workforce built tons of homes, restaurants, hotels and skyscrapers to house their lives away from the daily grind. When the car industry changed, Detroit was left with a city full of factories they didn’t need, and then later, homes, restaurants, hotels and skyscrapers they didn’t need. They overbuilt the market, and didn’t reuse the spaces.

    That’s basically a microcosm of the retail industry, from malls to lifestyle centers to Big Boxes to Main Street storefronts. We overbuilt the sector, dramatically. Actually, we overbuilt the entire sector a long time ago: when the enclosed malls went up, the traditional downtowns died, because their customers moved out to the ‘burbs, and didn’t need to make the trek downtown once the malls opened.

    In and of itself, that would have been fine for the enclosed malls, but we kept building and building and building them. We now have more enclosed malls than we know what do do with…more shopping space than we know what to do with, in general.

    It’s why some “downtowns” have successfully come back to life, taking back business, usually by going upscale, and, in effect, becoming a “lifestyle center” in genuine clothing. Georgetown is an example of this: you can find a Banana Republic, a Gap, a Zara and an Express in any mid-to-upscale mall, but you can’t find “Georgetown” in any of those places.

    It’s also why some of these downtown revivals are less successful, and why some of the new lifestyle centers are completely devoid of life. We have too much space!!!

    I think, unfortunately, we have to watch the market correct, watch the malls close and shutter, until we hit a point where we don’t have zillions of square feet of shopping space for every damned person in the country. Building a ton of these utopian malls will only result in more of our malls going to ruin. Wait until we have “too little” and then we’ll talk, “visionaries.”

  6. …or #4, [Dead or dying mall] really started to go downhill when Montgomery Ward closed…

  7. Malls have never functioned as real “town centers” for anyone other than teenagers, demograohic that mall owners (and fellow shoppers) have always viewed with some ambivalence. The development of malls coincided with the decline of “ladies who lunch”, the one other demographic for whom shopping was socializing.

    Malls and the downtowns they largely replaced are/were different animals. In both small towns and big cities, downtowns combined many different functions-government, doctor’s offices, services, office-based employment of all types and sometimes were close to substantial residential areas. all of those different functions and places were accessible on foot and people could work, shop, have lunch, etc. which facilitated many different kinds of interactions. Early plazas and some very early malls included a few functions other than shopping, but over time, malls have become almost entirely retail. Service businesses are largely religated to kiosks where they exist at all. Where downtowns once included everything from pawnshops to upscale retail, malls traverse a much more narrow stretch of price points and this narrowed sharply from the 60s to the 80s with the death of respectable cheap retailers like Thom McAn, Richman Brothers, Petries, et al. The increasing specializiation of malls makes them even less suited to be town centers now than ever. ironically, some of the efforts to save some malls have included efforts to put housing, city halls, and non-retail functions closeby in outparcels (Severance Center in Cleveland famously tried all of these without success). Some malls have become hubs for office complexes as in the case of Tyosn’s Corner in the DC area–but the traffic situation often means that its infeasible to walk and too time consuming to drive from one place to the other and these different functions have little to with each other in the way that commerical and workspaces interacted in old downtowns. You can call a place a “town center” but you can’t make it into one. Most of the concepts that were presented in the NY Times article were fanciful, but frankly shopping center developers will need to think outside the box to come up with sustainable forms for the future.

    Tthe increasing standardization of malls and their tenants over time is probably one of the things that has made them expendable and even less suited to be “town centers” .If your local mall starts to seem shabby or crime ridden, you can find the same stores a few miles down the freeway somewhere else. ironically, the super-regionals survive, in part because they usually have the only branch of some stores in an area. the mega-Tyson’s Corner in the DC area trades specifically on this and it’s the only reason to deal with the mega-traffic that surrounds that mall.

  8. Let me get this straight: we killed our downtowns across the nation in favor of the mall concept. The idea was a climate controlled center where you could purchase clothing, essentials, novelties, and luxury items and services all under one roof without having to drive to multiple locations.

    Apparently we’ve become bored now with malls? So we are now being sold on this idea of “reinventing” a “faux downtown”. Why is it that if we were not satisfied with our downtown areas in the first place, that we’d want to create a fake “town center” with parks and fountains in an area in which NO ONE LIVES? Forget for a moment that in certain areas the climate is nasty in the winter and patrons will soon be bellyaching about their frostbitten, chapped skin.

    I personally detest these town centers. I see areas full of abandoned buildings in another decade or so. You think abandoned malls like Rolling Acres are ugly? Just wait. We’ll all get to see what eyesores these failed “Town Centers” prove to be to our local landscapes.

  9. Some malls have become hubs for office complexes as in the case of Tyson’s Corner in the DC area–but the traffic situation often means that its infeasible to walk and too time consuming to drive from one place to the other and these different functions have little to with each other in the way that commerical and workspaces interacted in old downtowns. You can call a place a “town center” but you can’t make it into one.

    Look at what Arlington Va has done in terms of development. Consentrated & walkable neighborhoods around seven Metro stations with local & chain retail, various housing types from rentals to townhouses to condos. There are several mall type centers included in the retail mix. This includes the Crystal City Underground, where the neighborhood has been going through a transformation from mostly offices to a town center format. They still have a way to go, but they will get there with a foward thinking county government leading the way.

  10. I think the proliferation of these retail developments through the years is evidence of what is truly obvious – many downtown areas are being ignored altogether. Unlike a mall or lifestyle center that can be redeveloped or move to a fresh location with the construction of a new mall, downtowns don’t have that kind of luxury to expand or reinvent itself without some kind of huge investment. Commonly, they’ll resort to simpler techniques such as adding more parking or improving the facades of buildings but it would take a coalition of city officials, numerous business owners etc. to completely redevelop a downtown area into something more successful.

  11. @Gary, out of curiosity, what region of the US (or other country, if that’s the case) do you live in? Reason why I ask is because the wholesale health of downtowns seems to vary wildly based on region. In the Northeast and West Coast it seems so many of them have come back that it’s hard to consider downtowns the underdogs anymore. This is much less the case in the midwest, obviously, or in some other regions.

  12. @CoryTJ, I completely agree with you in regards to (some, not all) of these town center projects. And since many include residential components–even condos in some cases–they’re much harder to completely redevelop should they fail down the road.

    Truly innovative ones, however, are pretty neat. I think the best ones Ive seen have been able to knit into an existing urban fabric rather than stand alone in the middle of a sea of parking. Then, the impact of the center could more easily radiate outward to the surrounding neighborhood. I’m thinking, like, Blue Back Square in West Hartford, Conn., Paseo Nuevo in Santa Barbara, Calif., Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek, Calif, and to a somewhat lesser extent Santana Row in San Jose, Calif.

  13. @Gary, but I think one thing that we’ve seen as being a drawback for downtowns for many years is slowly emerging as an asset. The fact that downtowns aren’t single-owner parcels–they’re made up of a jumble of dissimilar buildings with individual landlords with their own agendas–means they’re a bit better positioned to be the kind of 24 hour, vibrant neighborhoods that are so beloved. They can fit in a ton of different uses and local as well as national retailers and restaurants–as well as civic functions like parks, libraries, etc.–that make downtown into a desirable place. Granted, this makes it harder to build up momentum, but it also makes it easier to be truly *special,* rather than just like another downtown (or mall) 15 miles down the road.

  14. Caldor, I live in the northeast, more specifically in a city called Greensburg, which is located about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh. It has a population of about 40,000, but at one time, it was home to two large malls, which wouldn’t be the case in many other cities of its size. Our downtown also happens to be the county seat of Westmoreland County, PA. I think part of the reason that the downtown core has never really died out is because we are the seat, not to mention we have a large collection of cultural and recreational attractions for a city of its size.

    The Pittsburgh area in general is unique compared to other cities in the Northeast due to the fact that our hilly topography and rivers act as a boundary from one area to another and people tend to stay in their areas, shop in their own malls and frequent their downtown areas to do business. There are certain towns in the areas immediately surrounding Pittsburgh that have been distressed for years and have some of the lowest incomes in the entire state of Pennsylvania, and that is contributed to the downfall of the steel industry, although there are former steel mills that have redeveloped into lifestyle centers, residential neighborhoods etc.

  15. @Caldor,

    What about Easton in Columbus OH. Yes have a lot of surface parking, but if nessessary they could be redeveloped into other uses such as offices or housing wich Easton already has plenty.

    Now having said that, Easton has an advantage over most of the newer lifestyle centers that were built over the past few years in that mix usage was built into the project from the beginning. As Easton has expanded, so has that consept. Offices over retail, activity at most hours of the day & all nessessities not far away.

    Looking at a directory I have there are no less than five surface lots that could be developed to densify the center further into a complete neighborhood. To that end Steiner Associates needs to correct a few issues. 1. Walking between some sections of the property is difficult at best outside the retail core. 2. As already stated densification of the center is nessessary to turn it into a complete neighborhood. 3. Better transit access. COTA busses don’t stop at the center directly. A transfer to a shuttle bus is required to reach the heart of the complex. this shuttle travels through the entire Easton area, while COTA busses stop at a terminal on the edge of the property near I-270.

  16. Rich…in South Florida the mall WAS the town center. I got my haircut, played with friends and cousins, while my mother shopped and socialized at Dadeland Mall on a regular basis. I suspect many people from the Sunbelt have this memory: getting in the car with their parents, and going to the mall for a day’s worth of activities.

    Sean…I now live in DC, and this region is kind of an anomaly for the country. For one, the downtowns of the District were never really abandoned. For another, we have Metro and a really great bus transit system. We also have a pretty liberal population, embracing the urban curve. Finally, the region has the density to support New Urban style development, where most regions…even major metros, do not.

    Having said that, there are places where the concept is making an impact, most notably my former home of South Florida, where the ‘Glades and the ocean have created enough density to support these faux town centers, although most of them are going full New Urban, so its not a stage set in a parking lot, but a faux downtown with shopping, living and dining.

    And I have to say…I love the fake downtowns tat you can live in. At some point, they’ll become real…and how awesome is that?!?

  17. The concept of “downtown” can vary widely from place to place. When I came down to Bloomington/Normal IL in 1993, both downtowns areas were in pretty rough shape. Bloomington was “bar town” for the only things there were pubs, lawyers, and county jail. Normal was catered for student at Illinois State. Over the years both towns have tried to improve the downtown areas.

    Bloomington has tried to make downtown a retail center, but that concept has failed. However many of the older buildings have been rehabed and turned into loft apartments. Bars and restaruants are still the dominate business, especially after the new arena was built. Bloomington’s downtown fate is still in the air as the town decides what downtown should be.

    Normal has taken a more aggresive approach. They have tried to turn downtown into a true center of town. Downtown had its name changed to “Uptown Normal”. However this has lead to many buildings being torn down. Upscale businesses have been brought in, leaving a snootier-than-thou attitude. College bars have been forced to become upscale pubs. Student catered businesses have been closed, even Subway was forced out. Some large-scale projects have been completed (new Mariott hotel) while have been caught in the economic downturn. Currently Uptown Normal is a wreck full of road construction, half-finished projects, and vacant lots where grandious dreams may or may not become reality.

  18. @SEAN, Easton is nice as an outdoor mall, and it does have some apartments, but that’s really it. That project would’ve been much more inspiring had it been built in the center of downtown Columbus–which needs some help–across some large blocks that are either mostly derelict or have lots of surface parking. Then the impact of the development could radiate out to surrounding blocks. As it stands, Easton is an island with a single land owner. It’s a mall, not a village. PF Changs and Maggianos do not pass as diversity or culture.

  19. @Caldor,

    True, but I’m talking about developing a real downtown as you said. With services of all sorts including governmental, medical, finantial, grocery or what have you.

    I can understand the single ownership problum that you have with this issue, but you have to start somewhere. Perhaps you could sell or lease some land parcels to other developers to creat a more diverse community. The key is walkability & less auto dependents as oil prices rise.

  20. @Aaron,

    I have been studying new urbanism & transit oriented development over the last few years as part of my job. As someone who is transit dependent I look at the impacts of suburban sprawl. Also I look at how some communities as Arlington VA & Bethesda MD said no to falling into the sprawl trap.

    In the case of Arlington you have lifestyle centers above several Metro Stations creating compact villages wich are flanked by office buildings & housing of all types & sizes.

    All retail for daily living is just a short walk from any point within those villages. Bethesda’s downtown follows the same principle but on a different scale.

    Both areas are vibrent at all times of day, & a “Smartrip” card is all you need to get around. As a DC resident you already new that.

  21. “Why is it that if we were not satisfied with our downtown areas in the first place, that we’d want to create a fake “town center” with parks and fountains in an area in which NO ONE LIVES?”

    I can think of a reason: The fake downtown might be free of crime, panhandlers, trash, decay, and a generally unsafe feeling that permeates some downtowns.

    And maybe this thing is cyclical, going from the downtown to the mall to the (fake) downtown, the latter of which had to be built because the real downtown had one or all of the problems I described above. (And the fake downtown is likely to have free parking as well.)

    Now it’s still possible to revitalize an actual downtown, but it takes a special effort to do so (my favorite of these places is the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont).

  22. @Chip,

    Is what you are describing Normal in Normal? LOL Sorry Chip, I couldn’t resist

  23. @Aaron,

    If you go to the website of Arlington County you will find a video on how the development program based around Metrorail almost was for lack of a better term derailed by pro-sprawl intrests. They did this by tieing Metrorail funding to the construction of I-66. At that time Arlington was losing population to Fairfax & other counties in the area.

    The video is about 50 minutes in length.

  24. @SEAN,
    Already watched it. It’s brilliant. As is the parody “Arlington Rap” on Youtube.

  25. @Aaron,

    Saw the Arlington Rap video about an hour ago, oy vey that is insane!

    Anybody in the mood for Whole Foods? LOL

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