What to do with a dead shopping mall

August 19, 2008 at 2:00 am 6 comments

The average Mum and Dad is already starting to cut expenses to cope with rising interest rates and increased costs of fuel and food. And so we’re not shopping as much as we used to. I used to like going to shopping malls. They were a big part of teenage culture in the 1950s when I was growing up (mmmm….well not that long ago, but shopping malls took off in popularity in the post-WWII period). As a teenager, I did hang around shopping centres after school with my friends (how sad!).

But since declaring myself Anti-Brand, I have consciously stayed away from shopping malls – that was hard in Hong Kong and Dubai let me tell you! As shoppers browse and buy less, shops in malls are bound to go belly up affecting the long term viability of The Mall. The Economist carried a very interesting article a few months back about the rise and demise of shopping centres.

Did you know that the concept of a shopping mecca showcasing shops was dreamt up by a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria? Nope, me either. Victor Gruen was a Jewish immigrant and Socialist who created Southdale in Minnesota in 1956, the world’s first shopping mall complete with fountains, food courts and atriums. The design of a mall is simple: avenues with bright, eye-level display windows to lure shoppers. Kids tagging along? No problem – send them off to the games area. Hungry? Head to the food courts and the dizzying array of food. Such a simple concept that has lured generations of us into buying items we probably don’t need and wasting hours browsing.

There’s also some clever designing going on – multi-level carparks mean shoppers can enter a Mall at a number of levels and look up or down to see what other shops are in the Mall. Some Malls I’ve seen in the US have elaborate balconies and even old-fashioned street lights – reminding one of home or a cosy street.

Southdale was built in 1956 and quaintly, the airconditioning, which was designed to keep the Mall at a constant, comfortable 24°C/75°F, was referred to as “Eternal Spring”. Ironically, Gruen wanted shoppers to be able to have coffee and chat, evoking the atmosphere of the piazzas and coffee houses of Europe.

But now the shopping mall is in trouble for all sorts of reasons I think: economic downturn, the ease of Internet shopping, demographics of suburbs changing. A mall-aise has set in (sorry!). If you check out Deadmalls.com, you will find stories and images of shopping malls that are kaput. There’s a whole cultural history here that I’m very interested in not the least of which is the spread of an American concept. So if you look for example at one of the stories (about Amsterdam Mall in Amsterdam, NYC) you can read people’s recollections of shops that once existed or the cultural rituals that were common in malls.

I well remember St Ives Shopping Centre (now Shopping Village I think) and the milk bar that used to exist where an optician now exists. It was the thing to go after school with your boyfriend to the milk bar. On the website, there are some fascinating stories about people receiving marriage proposals or working in their first job at Cinnabon (loved Cinnabon when I was in the US!).

The Malls of America blog has some fascinating photos of vanished shopping centres from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and this site details US shopping mall history. Apparently, a dead mall is also known as a greyfield.

But when a shopping mall dies, what the heck do you do with massive vacant space? There must be some great opportunities here to turn the defunct Mall into a community space. New Urbanism, an approach to learning lessons from the past about how we built neighbourhoods and urban areas, has helped to turn The Crossings (a 1960s shopping centre) into a vibrant inter-connected neighbourhood with homes, a daycare centre, parks, small shops and railway station. All are just minutes walk away for the resident or a quick bicycle ride. A walkable community has replaced a behemoth shopping centre.

Personally, I can see huge malls turned into a giant agricultural farm for a community: the outdoor carparks could be used to plant vegetables or fruit trees, the roof of the carpark or Mall could be used for electricity generation. The possibilities would be endless.

The Factoria Mall in Bellevue US is being turned into a marketplace that will include apartments, pedestrian walkways and outdoor dining areas. Here’s a photo of the current mall and the redesign proposal:

(Photo credits: The Sledgehammer; Kimco Redevelopment Group; WorldChanging Seattle)

I’m not sure if the New Urbanism trend has hit Australia yet. Sure would like it to though. How would you redesign a silent, abandoned behemoth of a shopping centre?

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Entry filed under: Future trends, Social problems, Society. Tags: , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. creativespark  |  August 19, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Hi Kim

    I think the success of shopping malls is really closely linked to our need for a town square, piazza, courtyard or whatever urban planners would call that “heart” of the community, but they’ve always been a proxy in a way, and not necessarily the best substitute for a real community meeting place. Developers have tried their best… incorporating playgrounds, libraries etc, but ultimately its a capitalist /retail substitute for something that a town’s planning and architecture should have provided. With the explosion in franchising in the past 10 years, they’ve become increasingly homogenous and maybe that’s contributed to their decline. A mall that looks and feels much like any other mall is not much of a place for giving a community a “unique and vibrant town centre”.

    Some big errors in city planning and architecture have left many communities without much of an alternative, so New Urbanism seems like a really important movement to me. Urban planning is an established and well researched and developed science. It’s not like we are clueless about what makes spaces work or not work. It’s just that at some point someone decided cars, or corporate interests, were more important than people.

    To answer your last question… I’d remove the financial imperative in some way, so that developers/mall-managers didn’t have to maximise their ROI on every square inch of space. It seems to me that this has led to aggressive franchises spreading like viruses and shopping centres becoming soulless. Mix retail with government services, social organisations, theatre and arts. Evaluate the tenant mix according to their usefulness or potential contribution to the community rather than how much they are willing to pay for a space. Set space aside for young entrepreneurs and local artist galleries, which might not be able to pay full retail prices. Consider groups in the community like theosophical societies, meditation centres, youth groups etc that might have trouble finding appropriate space elsewhere.

    I really like Jaime Lerner at Ted http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jaime_lerner_sings_of_the_city.html talking about spaces that don’t need to hold special events or advertise to pull people in because they just naturally attract people and truly are a heart for the community. James Kunster http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_suburbia.html is a bit harder to listen to, but he does drive home some good points about why our city environments are rejecting us and pushing us to the malls.

    Or perhaps just bulldoze them and start again, with something that combines nature, community, a sense of place, human scale, etc? That might be easier.

    =) Marc

    Reply
  • 2. Herman Krieger  |  August 19, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    For the real mall-aise, see “Mall-aise”
    at http://www.efn.org/~hkrieger/mallaise.htm

    Reply
  • 3. Brian Lutz  |  August 19, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for the link to my site. I thought I might point out a followup I wrote to the original Worldchanging article:

    http://thesledgehammer.wordpress.com/2008/08/08/in-defense-of-the-traditional-shopping-mall-part-1/

    Although this deals mostly with the malls in the Seattle area (since the original article was posted to a Seattle-specific site,) the point I’m trying to make is that even though some individual malls may falter and fail, the traditional shopping mall isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I also tend to be just a bit skeptical of the whole urban village concept, but that’t another article I haven’t written yet.

    Thanks again
    -Brian
    thesledgehammer.wordpress.com

    Reply
  • 4. thinkingshift  |  August 20, 2008 at 6:49 am

    Thx Marc for your insightful comments and the link to Jaime Lerner & James Kunster. Will follow up.
    Thx too Brian for the follow up article!
    Kim

    Reply
  • 5. creativespark  |  August 22, 2008 at 10:18 am

    I just read something I thought you might like…
    http://www.psfk.com/2008/08/living-in-the-mall.html

    Reply
  • 6. thinkingshift  |  August 22, 2008 at 10:25 am

    surreal, living in a mall! thx Marc, I’ll follow this up!

    Reply

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