In a Sarasota Herald Tribune article titled “Trend could spell trouble for malls,” the appropriately-named Devona Walker writes a lede that makes you go “Hmmm…”

The American mall, with its department store anchors, culinarily challenged food courts, concrete shells and native denizen, “the mall rat,” is becoming an endangered species.

One anchor mall is being built in 2007 and none are planned for 2008.

What is being built in massive quantities are “off-the-mall” retail and urban-friendly, largely upscale, open-air lifestyle and mixed-use retail centers.

Yes, the trend is old news by now. Still, I was unaware that it had reached the terminal point. Instead of endangered species, a better term (at least as regards new construction) may be extinct.

Enclosed malls and their department store anchor tenants are going down the tubes:

“A lot of malls are dead, and a number are dying. Those developers are redeveloping them,” Davidowitz said. “The largest retail centers are off the mall, and that’s what’s being built.”

The world’s leading retailers — think Wal-Mart, Kroger and Home Depot — are not in the mall, while traditional department anchors are fighting mostly losing battles to reinvent themselves, Davidowitz said.

Open-air-oriented lifestyle center and mixed-use retail centers — a concept still in its infancy — are dominating the retail market right now.

Developers also are frequently “tweaking” the two concepts, creating hybrids.

This quote is interesting. It says a lot about fashionable trends on an ever-shortening treadmill cycle of decline and re-adaptation:

“Shoppers hate that. They hate having to walk the mall just to get to the store they want,” Davidowitz said. “And with these lifestyle centers, they don’t have to.”

Shoppers hate threading through an internal maze of concourses and escalators to get to the store they want. And yet, shoppers willingly stroll through the streets and blocks of traditional and neotraditional shopping districts, lingering over window displays, people watching, and other in-town behaviors.

It’s worth speculating what accounts for the difference. When Victor Gruen and others proposed the mall concept, it was supposed to include all the attractions of the traditional shopping district, with the added benefits of climate control, separation from streets, and a clean modernist aesthetic. Why have those so-called added benefits been rejected by the market (or at least have reached a saturation point)?

Some mall innovations have been carried over to lifestyle, power and neotraditional shopping centers: centralized management, large floor plates, national chains, excessive parking, meticulous planning, social control of privatized space.

Now malls and neotraditional shopping districts are competing for the same customers — those not in a hurry, with some free time to linger, and interested in unique, upscale or boutique goods. Power centers have drained off a lot of the former mall customers who are primarily interested in a short, cheap, convenient shopping run.

Personally I find the interiors of malls not only inconvenient, but also oppressive. I like weather, sky and wind. I feel less surveilled in a neotraditional shopping district, even though that may well be an illusion.

What other reasons explain why people are abandoning malls?

When I say that shoppers willingly stroll through streets and blocks, I’m not basing that on any article. I’m basing it on observation, not only of historical commercial districts, but also of new urban and even hybrid commercial districts that have pedestrian traffic all the time and are absolutely thronging with crowds in good weather, at night and on weekends.

People seem hungry for the civic space, sidewalks and spatial definition of urbanism, but less so when it is transplanted into enclosed malls. Why?

Further Resources

International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) — List of Mall Openings

The Shopping Center and Its Industry of Tomorrow — A survey of ICSC members about the future of shopping. These are the top three forecasts: Shopping centers will 1) be increasingly a part of mixed-use development; 2) be integrated more with the surrounding community; and 3) use more sustainable energy sources and be more eco-friendly.

The Concept and Drivers of Mixed-Use Development — Includes another ICSC survey; the top three reasons cited for the popularity of mixed use development were: 1) the live-work-play environment as a single location is convenient; 2) rising land prices are making more density necessary; and 3) the format is being encouraged by local public agencies. Overwhelmingly, the respondents felt that the mixed-use concept would continue to grow as a share of future development over the next five years.

CNU: The Greyfields Mall Project includes three publications about the redevelopment of dead malls. Greyfield Mall Study (2001); Greyfields into Goldfields: Dead Malls Become Living Neighborhoods (2002), Malls Into Main Streets (2005).

Dover Kohl & Partners: Making Town Centers from Old Malls