The other day I read Mark Hinshaw’s recent Crosscut article on the folly of America’s 60-year love affair with the indoor shopping mall. As a suburban teenager in the 1980s and a college student in the early 1990s, I spent a decent chunk of my youth in and around shopping malls, either working (my very first “real” job was in a mall – at a library, of all things) or participating in suburban teenage society … which back then meant hanging around the food court smoking cigarettes.
As an adult, I have no love for the shopping mall. Inside, they’re boring and homogeneous. The ubiquitous chain stores aren’t really part of the local economy, since they send their profits back to the home office, wherever that is. Outside, the wasteful expanses of parking makes my blood boil, and not just from the heat radiating from the blacktop (the most uncomfortable place to be on a summer day in Florida is a mall parking lot). They’re a blight, just like their stunted cousins, the Big Box stores. I avoid them when I can, which is often … but not always.
Hinshaw does a pretty solid job of explaining why the era of the big regional shopping mall is at an end; I’ve seen others say more or less the same thing about the big box store, though I can’t say I’m convinced of that just yet. He points out how there are almost no big regional malls under construction anywhere in the country (one source tells me that the last one was built in 2006, but that article is itself three years old), and that many of those that remain are empty husks or close to it.
It was that segment of Hinshaw’s piece that got me thinking. What do we do with these things once they close?
The mall where I had my very first job – Eastlake Square Mall in Tampa, Florida – hasn’t existed for well over a decade. It wasn’t a great mall by any stretch of the imagination, but it hung on because it was the closest mall to the fast-growing suburb of Brandon. Once the Brandon Town Center opened, the writing was on the wall, and Eastlake closed in 1998.
Eastlake could very easily have stayed empty and shuttered for a long while, eventually becoming an eyesore and acting as a drag on surrounding property values. But it didn’t. Instead, it was quickly repurposed into a commercial center called netp@rk Tampa Bay. Another local mall, Tampa Bay Center, didn’t have such a productive afterlife ahead of it. It’s now a parking lot, resting fallow for most of the year between Tampa Bay Buccaneers headquarters and Raymond James Stadium, where the team plays about ten times per year. The parking lot is full on those ten days, but completely empty the other 355.
As more and more malls fail and close their doors, I’m afraid more of them will become parking lots than anything else. This isn’t a new concern: people have been thinking about repurposing dead malls since at least the 1980s, and there have been some very creative and successful mall re-imaginings over the years. Most of them have involved transforming the built environment in such a way that permits commerce to return and thrive. But that won’t work every time. A dead mall isn’t just the result of enclosed malls going out of fashion. Each dead mall represents a huge amount of commerce that has moved somewhere else. It’s another question entirely as to whether a re-imagining will bring it back; that’s a question that can really only be answered on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it will. Sometimes, it won’t.
When a redevelopment won’t bring the shoppers back, I think green space is the way to go. We need more usable green space than we do another shopping center. The spatial context of the mall being re-imagined would determine what the finished product would look like. Abandoned malls in towns or cities could become landscaped parks, complete with public art and community spaces like squares or amphitheaters. Dead malls on the exurban fringe could be turned into areas for recreation, with bike trails and footpaths, or they could be turned into nature preserves.
The question, of course, is how we can know when a redesigned mall will be successful and when it won’t. I don’t believe it’s as tricky as all that. Developers have their own algorithms and formulas that tell them whether or not they can expect a new shopping center to be successful or not; there’s no reason why those can’t be applied in these cases as well. Sometimes there are underlying economic forces that would prevent a mall from succeeding in that particular location. Sometimes these same forces would prevent any new mall from succeeding anywhere in the area. It happens, especially in an economy that has suffered from weak demand for years.
Shopping malls are ugly, anti-environment, and drains on local economies. Fortunately, there’s an entire generation of architects and designers who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past when it comes to designing and building our retail spaces. Hopefully they’ll be just as careful about breaking through the mindset that says more shopping is automatically a good and desirable thing.