When a mall needs reviving, add residences, mixed-use places, dining, and entertainment

As shopping malls face difficulties, there is now a common script for how to revive them. Aurora, Illinois is discussing what to do to help Fox Valley Mall and the proposed playbook exemplifies the new script:

That plan, unveiled last fall, called the Route 59 corridor “tired.” It noted that two of the four anchor spaces at the mall are vacant, with the departure of Sears and the closing of Carson Pirie Scott. People’s shopping habits have changed, it says, with people buying more of their items online instead of in person.

The plan suggests adding multifamily housing and “Main Street” mixed-use developments, with smaller stores in a pedestrian-friendly environment around the mall. That would beef up the mall’s potential customer base.

Market studies suggest adding more restaurants, particularly high-end ones. Entertainment venues, such as a theater and a public plaza several acres large, could be added.

Build it and they will come! Seriously, though, each of these proposed elements is intended to bring a different element to a flagging mall: more people, a different scale and harkening back to traditional shopping areas, and giving people more reasons to come to shopping areas through food and entertainment. Put these all together and it might create a new kind of synergy around the clock.

Of course, none of these are guarantees. And plenty of other shopping areas are trying this (just a few examples here, here, and here). Perhaps the best thing going for the proposed changes at Fox Valley Mall is its location just west of Naperville and plenty of nearby wealthy residents. While some shopping malls will not be able to be revived with these techniques, the Fox Valley Mall will likely change some and continue to do okay or even thrive.

Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?

Fox Valley Mall “near Naperville” Part 2 – development requirements

A store at Fox Valley Mall prefers to say they are “near Naperville” rather than the actual location in Aurora. How did this shopping center end up across the street from Naperville?

The Urban Investment and Development Corporation (UIDC) started purchasing property for a shopping center in 1966. At this point, Naperville was expanding to the south and southwest at a rapid rate but was nowhere near the size it is today. Similarly, Aurora had an established downtown but there was not a whole lot of development in this area. To help guide its growth, Naperville had developed regulations, particularly in residential subdivisions, to help ensure quality development.

In 1972, UIDC annexed the land they had purchased to Naperville. According to local officials in both communities, the developer chose Aurora in part because of fewer development regulations. Fallout from this choice ensued. Aurora and Naperville signed a boundary agreement to help limit such situations where a developer could play the two communities off of each other. The 1975 Naperville mayoral race included discussion of the loss of the mall. Additionally, the construction of the mall and the loss of status and sales tax money to Aurora helped spur Naperville leaders toward improving the community’s downtown. After the mall opened, Naperville was able to capture some status and money through the opening of stores on the east side of Route 59.

In sum, the developer of the Fox Valley Mall chose to locate in Aurora for some advantages in the early 1970s. Given the path of the two communities since then, I wonder if that developer would choose differently today. On one hand, a Naperville address would convey a certain status. On the other hand, locating just across the street might be the perfect solution: the developers could get benefits from Aurora while always claiming to be “near Naperville.”

Fox Valley Mall “near Naperville” Part 1 – status

I recently heard a radio ad for a store located at Fox Valley Mall which was said to be “near Naperville.” The mall is officially located in Aurora so why would a store there claim to be in the next suburb over? One word: status.

In this particular location, Aurora and Naperville are separated by Illinois Route 59. On the east side, containing a number of stores just across the street from the mall, is Naperville. On the west side, including the mall plus additional stores, is Aurora. Aurora is the bigger community – roughly 200,000 people – but Naperville is the wealthier, higher status community. Some of the figures: Naperville has a median household income of over $110,000 and 4.9% of residents are in poverty. In contrast, Aurora has a median household income of almost $64,000 and 14.0% of residents are in poverty. The communities also differ in race and ethnicity: Aurora is significantly less white (over 30%) and more Latino (35% more) and Black (5% more).

So, when a store says they are “near Naperville,” what are they trying to hint at? They want to associate their store and the shopping experience with a wealthier community rather than Aurora. They want people to think of an upscale and safe place, rather than the diversity of incomes and races/ethnicities of Aurora. Ultimately, they want shoppers to come and spend money like they have Naperville resources.

If it is the case that the store wants to associate with Naperville, why is it located in Aurora? The bigger question: why is the mall in Aurora? To be answered tomorrow.

The possible problems when governments buy dying or dead shopping malls

According to the Wall Street Journal, some local governments are purchasing shopping malls. With plenty of malls in trouble across the United States, this could be an opportunity for many municipalities. Yet, some problems could lie ahead:

  1. Some of this depends on the resources of the municipality. How many resources do they have to purchase the land and develop it? Does it require taking on debt? Would this debt outweigh the negative consequences of leaving the property vacant or leaving it in private hands? Communities with more resources to draw on have a leg-up in this process.
  2. Finding an acceptable use of the land can be a tricky process since the surrounding properties likely were developed under the assumption that the land would be a shopping center for a long time. Working out the zoning issues, particularly if residences are nearby, could prove tricky.
  3. Developing a plan for these sites is not necessarily easy and part of the reasons the malls are dying or dead is because of the attractiveness of the surrounding area to developers. Swapping out a mall for another thriving commercial use – such as entertainment – may be hard to do.
  4. Could this put communities on the hook for properties that are very hard to develop? It could be useful for local leaders to push the blame on developers or outsiders but it may not be so pleasant if the government is viewed as the reason the property is not improved. Such large properties could become albatrosses for local governments.
  5. Perhaps the simplest route for local governments would be to use the buildings or land for government purposes: park districts, schools, and other taxing bodies that do not always have easy access to large parcels. There might still be zoning issues to deal with and the loss of revenue could be tough. However, repurposing the retail space into space that the broader community could utilize could be a winner.

On the whole, there is a lot of potential for innovation when it comes to local governments and shopping malls. Yet, there are numerous ways this could go poorly for local governments, particularly those with limited resources.

The declining value of shopping mall real estate

The declining shopping mall has led to a drop in value for these properties:

“It’s a tough environment. I don’t think anybody really anticipated the decline of the department store to happen as quickly as it did,” said Joe Coradino, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns 21 malls in the Mid-Atlantic region. “The sellers are clearly on their knees.”

The Philadelphia-based REIT has sold 17 bottom-tier malls since 2013. The last deal, completed in September, was a $33.2 million transaction for the Logan Valley Mall in Altoona, Pennsylvania, anchored by Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears stores. If those same properties were on the market today, prices would be substantially lower, Coradino said…

Not long ago, some of the biggest names in private equity, such as KKR & Co. and Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group, were laying out substantial sums to snap up retail properties. In 2012 and 2013, Starwood purchased a combined $2.6 billion of malls from Westfield, followed less than a year later by a $1.4 billion deal to buy seven malls from Taubman Centers Inc. From 2012 to 2014, KKR bought four regional malls for about $502 million, Real Capital data show. That demand has all but evaporated as timing a wager on American malls becomes increasingly treacherous…

It’s easy to understand their reluctance to sell now. Prices for malls fell 14 percent in the past 12 months, even as values for other types of commercial properties, such as warehouses and office buildings, rose or held steady, according to Green Street Advisors LLC. At least four properties have been pulled from the market in recent months because the bids were too low, Dobrowski said.

Even with efforts to save some shopping malls, from adding restaurants and entertainment options, housing, and community spaces, a good number will simply not survive. They will not be desirable enough for retail activity nor prime spots for redevelopment. They may sit empty for much longer than communities desire or can bear. I suspect we will see a lot of potential creative solutions to these dead shopping malls as land owners, developers, and communities try to turn them into sites that again contribute to the surrounding area.

Perhaps the most interesting question here is how low prices will get before they interest someone who will buy them. Are we headed for the equivalent of $1 homes for shopping malls? Perhaps they will become subject to blight and renewal programs? Will the price be low enough for neighbors or communities to buy them simply to raze them? Perhaps they will be the dystopian spaces featured in films like Gone Girl?

Jane Jacobs, self-driving cars, and smartphone walking lanes

Fining distracted pedestrians who are paying attention to their smartphones is one option for communities. Here is another: a Chinese shopping center in Xi’an has a clearly marked lane for smartphone-using walkers.

Colorfully painted paths outside the Bairui Plaza shopping mall have been designated for walkers who cannot be bothered to look up from their devices…

Instead, messages painted along the lane cajole walkers to look up and pay attention.

“Please don’t look down for the rest of your life,” one message reads. “Path for the special use of the heads-down tribe,” another says…

Xi’an is not the first city to experiment with special areas for mobile phone use. In 2014, a street in the southwestern city of Chongqing was divided into two sections. On one side, phone use was prohibited, and on the other walkers were allowed to use their phones “at your own risk.”

The German city of Augsburg in 2016 embedded traffic lights on the surface of the street to prevent texting pedestrians from walking into traffic.

This will be a difficult issue to tackle for many communities. Here are two more additional ideas that may (or may not) help address these concerns:

  1. In reading multiple stories about distracted pedestrians on sidewalks, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on lively sidewalk life. She argued that a lively street scene full of mixed uses will promote a thriving social scene. Could it be that sidewalks need to be more lively to keep the attention of pedestrians? If someone is walking down a bland block or through a shopping mall that does not really look any different than other shopping malls, it can be easier to pull out a smartphone. Of course, users might be so familiar with the walking area or their thoughts are elsewhere such that no level of liveliness would keep them from their smartphone.
  2. Perhaps some of the technology already being rolled out in cars and destined for significant use in driverless cars that helps cars sense other objects and respond accordingly could be implemented in cell phones. Imagine using your smartphone while walking and all of the sudden a radar screen pops up that indicates you are about to run into something. Or, perhaps it could have lights on different edges that could provide indications that objects are on that side. This is where Google Glass could be very useful: a display of nearby objects could always be within a user’s vision. Maybe technology will soon advance to a point where we have “bubbles” around us displaying information and nearby pedestrians or other objects could trigger some sort of alarm.

Separate walking lanes as well as punishments may not be enough. Given our reliance on technology to solve problems, I would not be surprised if new technology ends up as a substantial part of the solution proposed for problems posed by earlier technology. At the same time, this may be less about technology and more about the changing nature of public life.