Thinking through “architecturally ambitious” shopping malls

One writer suggests the shopping malls of the future will need to offer a unique architectural experience:

My version of the mall game would offer more aggressive architectural interventions. Pop the top, and change the air-conditioned, enclosed food court into an open courtyard with a creek running through it. Cover the tan stucco with silvery panels to give it that au courant “industrial” look. Turn one section of the parking lot into a food truck rodeo, local vendors only. Replace the Dillards with a Spa Castle, or a Nitehawk Cinema. The mall of the future is architecturally ambitious, includes plants and water features, judiciously sprinkled with local retailers and food options, and surrounded not by a donut of surface parking lot but with housing, hotels, even educational facilities.

Don’t get me wrong: Malls are still dying. Credit Suisse estimated that 220 to 275 shopping centers, 20 to 25 percent of the current stock, would close within the next five years. We built too many, too cheaply. And it would cost too much to make many of them a worthy destination in 2018.

But even in the age of Amazon, people still leave the house, still shop, still eat. Malls have generated their own version of industrial ruin porn, including video. But when I talked to Erik Pierson, the man behind YouTube channel Retail Archaeology, he freely shared that, while his video of Mesa’s defunct Fiesta Mall may have gone viral, SanTan Village in Gilbert is doing just fine.

In an experience based society, going to the mall needs to be an exciting or satisfying experience compared to shopping at a big box store or purchasing items online.

Three thoughts about this suggestion:

  1. Only certain malls (and in certain areas) will have the resources to try to be architecturally ambitious and not all of them will get it right. My guess is that shopping malls in less well off communities will die off while those in wealthier areas will continue and will be the ones that take more architectural risks.
  2. Shopping malls have been criticized over the decades for their crass commercialism and their fakeness (acting like public spaces when they are really not, simulating other environments). Would more ambitious architecture make them more or less acceptable to critics? Take water features: they may be interesting to patrons but are they authentic design elements or just another symbol of the artificiality of the setting?
  3. What about creating malls that have flexible or changing architecture? Designing malls so that they have regularly changing features – as cited above, the “silvery panels” that provide an industrial look could be swapped out every 6 months with different kinds of panels – could help provide an element of novelty and excitement.

As is suggested in the article, perhaps the real secret is to better embed these ambitious malls in already interesting architectural settings. Instead of having to build a destination in the middle of a suburban parking lot, take advantage of already lively spaces and put an interesting and unique mall there.

Including shopping malls on a list of former unifying institutions

It not news that Americans have less confidence in institutions and participate less in civic and voluntary associations. Yet, can we include shopping malls as part of a list of institutions that used to bring Americans together? Nancy Gibbs, the former editor-in-chief at Time, suggests as much:

For reasons cultural, economic, demographic, psychographic, we are divided as a country perhaps not more, but differently than ever before. What were once unifying institutions are declining—Rotary Clubs, churches, even malls. Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness are shredded by rising tribal furies and passions. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy, it’s a skill.

The best argument I have seen for how shopping malls bring people together is from sociologist Elijah Anderson who argues in The Cosmopolitan Canopy that certain shopping areas can bring together people across race and class lines. Malls in the past and present were places that could encourage contact – at least some proximity – between people of different backgrounds as they hunted for consumer goods or entertainment.

However, shopping malls are not doing well these days. With the rise of big box stores and online shopping, people simply do not go to the mall as much any longer. They may have similar experiences encountering the other in other retail settings – as one professor once told our class, you need to go to Walmart to see the real America – but there is now much freedom to avoid other shoppers all together.

Ultimately, I am a little hesitant to place shopping malls past or present on a list of unifying institutions. This is because much of the activity is driven by consumers seeking out the best deal with themselves and occasionally interacting with or noticing others. Malls are about consumption, not interacting with people. In contrast, traditional markers of civic decline – like political behavior or participating in voluntary organizations – require a higher level of interaction with people. If the shopping mall is the best we can hope for in terms of Americans interacting with each other, we are already in trouble.

Shopping malls continue to be less about shopping

Shopping malls across the United States continue to evolve in order to bring in customers:

Many mall owners are spending billions to add more upscale restaurants and bars, premium movie theaters with dine-in options, bowling alleys and similar amenities. Some have turned swaths of space that previously housed department stores over to health clubs and grocery stores. Others are undergoing no less than a ground-up transformation to make room for office space, hotels and apartments.

The trend has been gaining traction as the companies that operate malls look for ways to keep people coming in at a time when Macy’s, Sears and other big department store chains have shuttered hundreds of stores and consumers increasingly opt to shop online…

Carving out space for movie theaters, videogame arcades and food courts isn’t a new strategy. What’s noteworthy is the degree to which mall owners are now counting on tenants that sell experiences, rather than physical goods. The share of space occupied by non-retail tenants at regional shopping malls reached nearly 13 percent last year, according to commercial real estate tracker CoStar. It was 10.5 percent in 2012.

Since 2014, about 90 large U.S. malls have invested more than $8 billion in major renovations, according to a study by commercial real estate firm JLL. Some 41 percent of the malls in the study spruced up their food and beverage offerings with an emphasis on restaurants that serve more varied fare and, in some cases, alcohol.

With these changes, I wonder if at some point the term “shopping mall” will become defunct. We already have one term in the running from recent years: “lifestyle centers.” Could a new term arise that invokes downtowns or community centers or activity nodes?

If this indeed continues the shift away from traditional retail stores, it is worth pondering how many of these centers based on experiences can exist. How much can Americans spend on eating out? (Apparently now more than grocery store purchases.) How many regional centers like this can there be?

Owner wants his shopping mall to be a community space and have a giant monument to The Ten Commandments

Shopping malls are interesting spaces as they are devoted to consumption and yet often operate like public spaces (though they are not). One Texas mall owner has some interesting ideas for his renovated mall near Dallas:

Odessa businessman John Bushman wants to turn the mall into a community space where people can find some “peace and love” in the Ten Commandments, hear some local musicians perform live and take in a giant wave of a 30-foot-by-60-foot American flag outside.

All of Bushman’s other businesses — hotels in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, other shopping centers and a Chickn4U restaurant in Odessa — display the Ten Commandments engraved on 800-lb stone tablets. In Dallas, he owns the MCM Elegante Hotel and Suites on W. Northwest Highway…

He wants Vista Ridge to be a “wholesome family place” and he said, this time of year that includes Santa who will arrive at the mall on Saturday with free family photos to the first 100 customers. The mall has new Christmas decorations…

Bushman agreed it’s unusual for a mall to display religious messages. But he thinks it will work in the big city as well as it does in West Texas.

Only in Texas? Only in America? Perhaps it is fitting to mix essential tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition with America’s other great love: shopping.

More seriously though, shopping malls are going to extra efforts these days to bring in visitors and shoppers. This is one way to go: provide family-friendly entertainment and regularly host community groups and events. The second option is mentioned later in the article by a local detractor (who seems to think this strategy is not one befitting of a nicer suburban area): go for upscale stores and trendy restaurants to create a vibrant and glamorous scene.

If shoppers had the opportunity to go to a mall like this with giant Ten Commandments versus shopping elsewhere, how many will go out of their way (in practice and not just intentions) to go to the mall with the religious objects? How much will this boost sales?

“Epic Fail”: demolishing Charlestowne Mall for housing units

A failing suburban mall is slated to be turned into residential units – and it is has a humorous/sad sign in its empty corridors:

A handful of mall walkers represent the only foot traffic. There are faint signs of music emanating from a fitness center. A poster inside a former store directory sign displays what might be a fitting epitaph: “Epic Fail,” it reads.

The words in the World Wildlife Federation poster are a plea to preserve freshwater sources. Right now, St. Charles officials are more interested in protecting the economy on the east side of the city. It’s been six months since the mall owners provided the public an update on their mission to revive the site.

Mall representatives in May told city officials it’s time to abandon the idea of rejuvenating the mall by attracting new stores. Instead, they’ll keep the movie theater, Von Maur and Carson Pirie Scott. They will demolish all but 150,000 square feet of the structure to make way for 155 townhouses on the north end of the property and 256 apartments on the east end…

Rogina said Krausz would “engage a large, national residential developer” to handle the apartments and townhouses. He declined to name the residential developer since the deal may not yet be complete.

While this could be a good illustration for the overbuilding of retail around the turn of the 21st century (the shopping mall will be gutted even though a number of the surrounding businesses – including Walmart, Target, and numerous restaurants – will live on), it could turn into a good example of retrofitting suburban spaces. Adding residential units to this property could help create a vibrant location where residents can walk to a movie theater, stores, and eateries. Imagine a mixed-use area where once stood a solitary shopping mall surrounded by large parking lots.

At the same time, I could imagine how constructing these housing units could turn out poorly. Two things, in particular, could be problematic. First, the new housing units may be constructed in such a way to be completely disconnected from the existing uses. The opportunity to create a mixed-use, walkable environment could easily be lost. The suburb would end up with a case where walking is inconvenient or even strongly discouraged. If this happens, it is similar to the construction of many other suburban housing units: they exist in private realms. Second, the housing could turn out to be luxury units or expensive housing. St. Charles is a fairly wealthy suburb and the developers may want to make units for young professionals, young families, and empty-nesters or local retirees. Yet, this suburb – like many others – needs more affordable housing and the location near a lot of retail options could be nice for those who do not want to have to rely on cars all the time. (Granted, if they want to get to central St. Charles, a car is needed.)

Reviving the dead shopping mall with residences, hotels

Efforts to resuscitate dead shopping malls include adding living space:

Four years later, after failing to make that work, owner The Krausz Companies is pitching a new plan that would keep existing anchor stores but demolish vacant Kohl’s and Sears stores and significantly shrink the size of the mall. The concept plan, proposed in April, also calls for building 155 town homes and 256 apartments north and east of the existing mall…

Melaniphy said he thinks there also will be more redevelopments that shrink the amount of space devoted to retail and mix it with residential or hotel development.

That’s already happened at the former Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect. It billed itself as the largest mall in the world when built in 1962 but struggled to keep up as more upscale shopping centers opened nearby. It relaunched as Randhurst Village in 2011, an open-air shopping center with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and hotel.

This sounds a lot like the retrofitting of suburbia suggested by Ellen Dunham-Jones. The key is to have a steady flow of people on the site – people who live there or who are staying at a hotel – rather than relying on people driving to the mall. If all goes well, it might be hard to tell decades from now that these sites were once large shopping malls. (At the same time: (1) these mixed-use developments might stick out in the suburban landscape and (2) the trickiest part of improving these malls might be linking the edges to the surrounding areas. Suburban developments often have fairly impermeable edges.)

A reminder: this does not mean that the traditional shopping mall is dead. There may just be a lot fewer and they will be concentrated in wealthier areas:

“The fancier malls are going to be healthy because there are always folks that want that aspirational lifestyle, but there’s still a lot of money to be made with people who might have more value-oriented customers as their focus,” Trombley said.

While food deserts were all the rage several years ago, we might talk of retail deserts in the future.


Mixing shopping malls and transit centers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong demonstrates a very different model of shopping malls compared to the American suburban mall:

Hong Kong has more than 300 shopping centers, but most of the city’s malls don’t sit on asphalt parking lots; rather, they’re above subway stations or underneath skyscrapers. In my book “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption,” I describe how some are connected to so many towers that they form megastructures—cities in and of themselves that can accommodate tens of thousands of people who live, work and play without ever going outside. Hong Kong also has the world’s tallest vertical malls—“mall skyscrapers” that rise up to 26 levels, with crisscrossing “expresators” that shoot shoppers high up into soaring atriums…

As convenient this urban form may be, it does come with strings attached. In the case of Union Square—as in many other podium-tower developments—the mall is deliberately placed at the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office and transit areas…

For millions of residents and pedestrians, then, entering commercialized areas becomes an inevitability, not a choice. It normalizes a culture of consumerism: Everyday life is played out on the terrain of the mall, and the private shopping atrium takes on the role of the public square. Because Hong Kong’s apartments are small—its summer climate hot and humid—the mall becomes a default gathering place. And why not? There’s plenty of space and the air-conditioning is free. And while you’re there, you might as well browse around the shops and spend some cash…

The Asian hyper-dense urban mall is also making an appearance in American cities. Miami has Brickell City Centre, a five-story mall in the heart of the city. Covering three city blocks, it’s topped by three high-rises (and was built by a Hong Kong developer). New York City is building a seven-story mall attached to two skyscrapers in Hudson Yards, America’s largest private development. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus—the centerpiece of the World Trade Center—has a mall with over 100 stores, with its white-ribbed atrium attracting an army of tourists taking pictures with selfie-sticks. Since the hub connects office buildings with train and subway stations, the stores are also “irrigated” by the 50,000 commuters who pass by each weekday.

American shopping malls tend to get a bad rap: they take up a lot of space with their endless parking lots, they often require a car in order to get to one, and are centers of consumerism. The Hong Kong malls eliminate two of these major issues: they are a more compact use of space and don’t require cars. Indeed, it is clever to combine mass transit space with a mall. However, these integrated malls may present even larger consumption issues since travelers have to go through these spaces rather than choose to go there. Isn’t this the complaint about gift stores in museums, zoos, or amusement parks where you finish an exhibit or ride and then have to go through the items for sale? And mass transit is supposed to be a public good so it may be a bit strange to mix it so closely with private profit-making. (I wonder if the transit facilities/authorities could take a cut of the sales in these transit malls and funnel more money into transit systems. Is this a way to fund necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvement in the United States?)

I’d love to see an analysis of how sales change when people are intentionally funneled through consumption spaces like this.