Wheaton’s walkable shopping center…surrounded by parking lots

Renovations are coming to the Town Square Wheaton shopping center yet the picture of the complex shows it may just be as auto dependent as any shopping center:

It features 160,000 square feet of retail space, much of it filled with chain stores such as Banana Republic, Gap, Joseph A. Bank, Starbucks, Yankee Candle and Talbot’s. The property also includes two professional buildings that house medical offices.

Tucker Development plans to enhance the seven buildings arranged in a walkable loop primarily through signage and facade improvements.

Town Square Wheaton, a shopping center on the south side of the city, recently was sold for nearly $57.3 million. The new owner, Tucker Development, has plans for $1 million in renovations.

This shopping center embodies a lot of the features of newer lifestyle centers or New Urbanism-inspired shopping centers: it features a central plaza with a walkable loop around it, the scale is not huge, there are office spaces on the second floor plus numerous eateries (mixed uses), and it borrows from a local architectural style (Prairie School).

Yet, the overhead view highlights one of the problems that plagues numerous New Urbanist developments: they are often plopped right into car-dependent areas so that even if they are pleasantly walkable, one needs to drive there first. Walking or biking there is not easy; there are apartments adjacent to the center but there is not a permeable boundary between the spaces. You could walk or bike to the center from several nearby single-family home subdivisions (I was just biking near here recently) but that typically requires traveling along and/or crossing busy Naperville Road which funnels a lot of commuter traffic through south Wheaton (the primary path to Naperville and I-88) and isn’t exactly lined with beautiful structures.

Hence, just another shopping center surrounded by parking lots…

The reasons behind a collection of dead shopping malls in the Chicago suburbs

Another shopping mall in the Chicago suburbs closes, joining several other “dead” malls:

Last week, it was announced that Lincoln Mall in suburban Matteson would close after the holiday season, due to its operator’s inability to keep the mall properly maintained and staffed. However, the 700,000 square foot shopping center is not alone, as it joins a growing list of dead malls in the greater Chicagoland area. Chicago photographer Katherine Hodges has been documenting so-called dead malls and other abandoned sites for several years, and has visited numerous shopping centers throughout the Midwest that have either completely shuttered, or are on the verge of closing for good.

Hodges shoots many other sites beyond malls that are on death row, however the images of humungous vacant shopping centers speak for themselves. One mall that Hodges has highlighted — The Plaza in Evergreen Park — was the first modern shopping mall in the Chicago area, having originally opened in 1952. It closed last summer. The Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, another mall featured in Hodges’ series, is currently the focus of a major redevelopment effort that could potentially revive the shopping center.

With big empty spaces comes big problems. Some shopping centers have been successful in turning things around, and others — not so much (Lincoln Mall for example). However, with these vacant spaces come new opportunities, and in the case of Lincoln Mall, there have already been some ideas floated for a possible redevelopment of the property. It’s still a bit early to speculate exactly what will happen to the site, but at least for now, it’s certain that the mall will join the area’s growing shopping center dead pool.

There are a variety of forces at work with these shopping malls – and I’ll throw out some speculative ideas as well:

1. The economic crisis of recent years did not help: consumer spending slowed and stores simply couldn’t have locations all over the place.

2. Population shifts can contribute. Malls are often built in thriving suburban areas but there are no guarantees that the communities around the malls will continue to thrive.

3. Big box stores can locate right next to malls but probably compete for customers. Outside of department stores, malls feature a variety of smaller, niche stores. But, a Walmart or a Target can sell a bunch of goods in one location.

4. How much has the Internet hurt malls? This would include actual sales but might also include less need for a physical social gathering spot (which can now happen online).

5. Malls themselves have changed design over the years. The old model was to construct a large facility of stores with lots of surrounding parking lots. More malls today have added other uses, particularly sit-down restaurants, in order to attract people to the mall and keep them there longer. Malls are not just for shopping; they are now often lifestyle centers.

It may be difficult to imagine but suburban shopping malls don’t have to exist in the future.

The difficulties of giving an old shopping mall a new Main Street

Randhurst Mall, the first enclosed mall in the Chicago area, has received a facelift in recent years but it hasn’t gone perfectly:

By the time Casto bought Randhurst in 2007, the shopping center had long ago ceded primacy to larger, highwayside competition such as Schaumburg’s Woodfield Mall. Casto’s revamp, designed by the Beame Architectural Partnership of Coral Gables, Fla. and 505 Design of Boulder, Colo., removed the dome and the rest of the original mall’s core and replaced them with a traditional Main Street lined by an AMC movie theater, a Hampton Inn hotel, shops, restaurants and offices. A similar street leads in from the perimeter, creating a roughly T-shaped intersection with Main Street.The Main Street area — which Conroy said accounts for all the mall’s unleased space — gets the design basics right. Buildings, two to four stories high, frame both sides of the streets, creating the equivalent of an outdoor room. Benches, trellises and plant boxes add human scale. There’s synergy between the uses, and a link to the outdoors that some shoppers enjoy despite the obligatory piped-in music…

The many minuses begin with confusing internal roads, a predicament partly caused by big-box stores that don’t want their vast parking lots interrupted. In contrast to the modernist unity of Gruen’s design, the center’s outer buildings are an architectural mishmash. The postmodern Main Street buildings, clad in brick and metal, strain to achieve a sense of variety but offer little enticing detail. The street’s directory signs look cheap. The absence of apartments, either above the stores or in free-standing buildings, denies the merchants built-in customers who would drive activity 24/7…

Here’s hoping the signs breathe more life into Main Street and lead Randhurst to a future of greater density, a richer mix of uses and better connections to nearby neighborhoods. For now, its Main Street is essentially a lifestyle center in the middle of a mall — an urban fragment surrounded by the same old suburbia.

It sounds like the issue may be that the mall is trying to mix two styles that don’t necessarily go together: keeping big box anchors while also trying to create denser areas (that still are highly dependent on people driving to). Would it have been better to get rid of most or all of the old mall and start over with the lifestyle center rather than trying to mix the two? While this assessment focuses mainly on the design, there are also costs to keep in mind including keeping some parts of the mall open during renovation.

Perhaps things will change once the new Main Street area is leased. Perhaps there is a longer-term plan in the works that will better combine the two areas. But, I would suggest that even that carrying out the design of the new section perfectly doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good outcome for a suburban shopping mall.

Replacing the Chicago suburbs’ first shopping mall with a lifestyle center

A number of older shopping malls have not aged well. Randhurst Village in Mount Prospect now stands where the Chicago suburbs’ first shopping mall once stood:

When Randhurst first opened in 1962, carved from a farm at Rand and Elmhurst roads in Mount Prospect, it announced that the Northwest suburbs had arrived, said Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Mount Prospect Historical Society and author of “Randhurst: Suburban Chicago’s Grandest Shopping Center.”

Peerbolte emphasized the importance of the mall in the development of the suburbs. “Randhurst didn’t open the floodgates; Randhurst was the floodgate,” he said…

By 2007, the village of Mount Prospect felt something drastic had to be done. Randhurst had already had several “makeovers,” and the village’s leadership felt another one would be ineffective. Officials worried for their sales tax receipts, which are key to having the money to run the village’s public services.

The village partnered with Casto Development and took a bold shot — tear it down, and start over.

The new structure seems to represent the new wave of mall development: it is a “lifestyle center” with a variety of uses that helps guarantee a steady flow of visitors. Such a move might help visitors drop older ideas about malls, sterile buildings surrounded by acres of parking lots, and start seeing them as vibrant places that may even double as “community centers.”

The article suggests that Mount Prospect was unusual in taking the step of completely tearing down the old structure and starting anew. Since previous revitalization efforts had failed, perhaps this was the only move remaining. At the same time, it seems like a community would have to be pretty confident or secure in order to make this move.

The recent fate of suburban “lifestyle centers”

In sprawling suburbia, there can often be a lack of central spaces where people come together. One recent solution proposed by developers is to build “lifestyle centers,” basically walkable outdoor shopping areas where people can park and spend a day. Here is an update on how these facilities have fared in recent years:

All forms of real estate were punished by the financial crisis, but among the hardest hit was the category that includes the Arboretum. Known as lifestyle centers, they are upscale suburban and exurban developments fashioned as instant downtowns, replete with lush landscaping, communal gathering spaces and a faux Main Street vibe. Eschewing traditional anchors and recession-proof tenants such as grocery stores, the centers promote traffic-building events such as wine tasting, concerts and exhibitions.

Nationally, lifestyle vacancy rates grew faster than any other retail segment, and rents declined the most, an average of $7.38 per square foot, during the last three years, according to CoStar…

Across the Chicago market, shopping center vacancy rates have made slow progress, dropping to 8.6 percent in the first quarter from a high of 9 percent last year, according to the CoStar Retail Report. In 2007, prerecession vacancy rates were below 7 percent…

The lifestyle center blueprint is generally credited to Poag & McEwen, a Tennessee-based developer that pioneered the concept outside Memphis in 1987. The firm has since built more than a dozen centers nationwide, including the north suburban Deer Park Town Center, which opened in 2000 as the area’s first…

I’ve been to a few of these facilities in the Chicago area and the experience is fascinating . I haven’t seen any sociological research on these relatively new spaces but here are some interesting facets:

1. This article suggests these centers can be “instant downtowns.” It would be interesting to see whether these facilities are typically built in places that already have downtowns (so they are competition or supplementary if the community is quite large, like the center at the northwest corner of Route 59 and 95th Street in Naperville) versus being built in suburban communities that never had downtowns (so these facilities are more like replacements). I would also imagine that many suburbanites also have a different image of downtown, more similar to a “Main Street” commonly found in small towns (and enshrined at Disneyworld). But perhaps “a faux Main Street vibe” is good enough for suburbanites. What would it take for one of these facilities to really catch on in a suburban community and replicate some of the functions of a downtown?

2. Can these really be “public spaces”? Do people actually come here regularly to sit and interact with others or are they more like outdoor shopping malls? It seems like there needs to be a critical mass of people who would visit these facilities and would also commit to them before they would be more than shopping malls. These places are a long way from the neighborhood life suggested by people like Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (I also wonder how much of these facilities are actually private property versus public property.)

3. How many of these facilities are accessible by anything other than cars? It is one thing to push New Urbanist concepts (walkability, denser spaces, more traditional architecture) but another to plop New Urbanist designs in the middle of typical auto-centric communities.

4. What sort of lifestyles are promoted by such centers? It is likely the typical American consumerism of middle and upper-class suburbia that one can find elsewhere with perhaps a few events or activities might to provide a touch of color and attract people (wine tastings, exhibitions, etc.).

5. Is an investment in a facility like this better than an investment in strip malls or more conventional shopping centers? I imagine communities might find them more visually attractive but do they generate more sales tax revenue?