The Enclosed Mall Goes Extinct

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

5 responses to “The Enclosed Mall Goes Extinct

  1. Donal Fagan

    I wish it were otherwise, but what I see replacing malls are not “urban-friendly, largely upscale, open-air lifestyle and mixed-use retail centers” but auto-oriented shopping plazas. There’s a new one in my old city with Barnes & Noble, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, Boscov’s, Best Buy, Giant Eagle, Petco, Staples, all those sorts of big Box stores and Chilis and Panera restaurants, too. When we walk out of a store, usually Barnes and Noble, we’re momentarily not sure if we’re in Connecticut, Maryland or Pennsylvania because much the same thing has been in the last three places we’ve lived.

  2. James R. Horne

    So the new “outdoor” malls are becoming more popular than the “enclosed” malls.

    Isn’t the real reason that people don’t have to walk as far? Instead of having to WALK long distances in an enclosed mall, they now can DRIVE from store to store.

    Is this GOOD news?

  3. Laurence Aurbach Post author

    Less walking is at least a partial explanation of why the power center format has supplanted the enclosed mall format. With no indoor common space, they are also cheaper and easier to operate. Enclosed malls provide at least a facsimile of civic space while power centers only provide parking lots. But in sum, I think both formats contribute more or less equally to suburban sprawl.

    The drive to minimize walking doesn’t explain why neotraditional town centers are so popular. When mixed use areas are built to the human scale, when they are designed for pleasant walking and animated civic spaces in time-tested configurations, people want to walk more.

  4. Shar Valleau

    Another part of this equation is worth considering. What if the new mixed-use retail centers are not the result of a public rebelling against the mall and clamoring for air? What it they are actually a new source of revenue for big construction companies and developers who grew tired of twiddling their thumbs while their wives took the kids to the mall for a safe supervised activity? What if those newly built centers are just another way to siphon a lot of tax dollars from the people who were perfectly content to go spend their money at a mall and redirect those dollars to big business people who wouldn’t be caught dead shopping a superstore for their own Nikes?
    What if we’ve just stopped asking enough of the pertinent questions?

  5. Laurence Aurbach Post author

    It’s always a good thing to re-examine one’s assumptions and verify that questions are pertinent. I’m not entirely sure what you are suggesting, but maybe you are saying new town centers are beating enclosed malls only because they are subsidized by tax dollars.

    First, I’m not convinced that is true. Some town centers get subsidies, but then so do a lot of regular malls, power centers and big boxes in the form of subsidized infrastructure, tax breaks, and even eminent domain takings in some cases. Other town center developments get no subsidies at all. I’ve seen no evidence that town centers are more subsidized than other comparable retail formats, but I’d be interested to see it if it exists.

    Second, even if town centers are disproportionally subsidized, how does that explain the decline in popularity of enclosed malls? If people still wanted to shop at enclosed malls they would do so regardless of the competition. But the market for new enclosed malls has vanished and many existing malls are failing and going vacant.

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