Opposing gentrified suburban strip malls in order to give immigrants and others cheaper business opportunities

Plenty of suburban critics detest strip malls for their ugliness, auto-dependence, and effect on traditional shopping districts. But, Kaid Benfield argues they may need to be protected from gentrifiers as they offer cheap real estate that can be taken advantage of by immigrants and others.

And yet:  As these properties have declined, so have their rents, making them affordable to small, often entrepreneurial businesses.  Particularly as immigrants have settled in inner suburbs (where many of these fading commercial strips are), businesses owned and patronized by the immigrant population have occupied many of these spaces, in some cases alongside small start-ups owned by longtime community residents as well.

The risk is that, as we reshape these old properties with new buildings and concepts, the replacement properties will be much more valuable than their predecessors; indeed, that’s why new development is appealing to investors and how it is made possible.  Overall, that’s a good thing.  But small businesses either go under, unable to afford new rents, or relocate as a result.  The logical place to relocate in many cases will be vacant storefronts in other strip malls in locations less attractive to the businesses’ clienteles.  What to do?…

According to Ritchey’s article, Asheville’s strip malls offer a setting for synergies to develop and help connect entreprenurial businesses to each other:  for example, establishments offering diverse but complementary products and services can share a customer base, trade ideas, and cross-promote.  This strikes me as analogous in some ways to synergies available to start-ups in more urban “business incubators.”

It makes a lot of sense to me and, in many parts of the country, it is newer Americans who are benefitting the most from these opportunities.  For them, a successful business in a strip mall is the American Dream at work.  Three years ago, Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) and I wrote separate articles about a sort of organic economic revitalization being initiated by immigrants within the existing fabric of our older suburbs.

Interesting argument. Three quick thoughts:

1. Does this mean strip malls might be viewed differently in the future by suburban critics? While they might prefer strip malls are not built in the first place, this does seem like a good use of resources.

2. When people argue that small businesses are really important to the American economy, how many of these small businesses are in strip malls? Could the humble strip mall be one of the backbones of the American economy?

3. This is tied to larger issues about redevelopment in mature suburbs. In American metropolitan areas, many suburbs are built-out and have no large land parcels for new development. There is a lot of potential then for utilizing existing structures or knocking them down and doing something new. If people don’t like strip malls, what would replace them? How much density are suburban residents willing to accept in their neighborhoods or nearby?

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