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December 30, 2007

Richard Florida

Dead Malls

« Music Models | Main | City of the Future »

The Economist says that America's mid-20th century suburban consumption machine is in decline.

By the early 1980s indoor shopping centres were woven tightly into American culture. New cuisines (the term is perhaps too grand) emerged in them, thanks to chains like Cinnabon and Panda Express, which did not exist outside malls. They began to swell to the point of absurdity. Canada's West Edmonton Mall, which opened in 1982, has an ice-skating rink, a pool with sea-lions and an indoor bungee jump. The Mall of America, in Minnesota, has three rollercoasters and more than 500 shops arranged in “streets” designed to appeal to different age groups. Every morning it opens early to accommodate a group of “mall walkers” who trudge around its 0.57-mile perimeter for exercise.

Artists and urban anthropologists began to note the appearance of mall-based tribes. Most celebrated—and lampooned—were the Valley girls who congregated in California's Glendale Galleria. Frank Zappa's then-teenage daughter, Moon Unit, wrote a hit song that captured their argot (“ohmigod!”, “no biggie”, “grody to the max”, “total space cadet”) and praised the Galleria for having “like, all these, like, really great shoe stores”. Mall-oriented films followed, spreading the Valley girls' culture like spores in the wind.

Just as the onward march of malls began to seem unstoppable, though, things began to go wrong. In just a few years they turned from temples of consumption to receptacles for social problems. The changing attitude to shopping malls can be seen in two films, both of which, appropriately, are to cinema what Panda Express is to the Chinese culinary tradition.

Urban designer, David Lewis, has long said finding ways to reuse "dead malls" will end up being a much bigger revitalization project then rebuilding urban centers.

Do you have a dead mall story you'd like to share?

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Comments

Sean Galbraith

NetPark Tampa is a former mall that seems to be much more successful now than it ever was. Here are some links:
http://www.netparktampabay.com/
http://tinyurl.com/2mg4po (google aerial. Look at all the cars!)
From Wikipedia: East Lake Square Mall was a shopping mall located within the area. It was opened in 1976 and operated until 1998, when sales and customer volume declined sharply after the opening of the Brandon Town Center in nearby Brandon. The mall featured several major retailers and a branch library, which moved its operations to nearby Mango after the mall's closing [1]. The mall was quickly converted to a commercial complex called Netpark.
More info:
http://sickmalls.wordpress.com/2005/04/01/this-place-has-really-gone-downhill/

J P McLaughlin

My "big" theory is that any ecosystem--whether an Amazonian rain forest or the local mall--thrives on diversity and slowly dies without it. American malls completely lack diversity: they all have the same shops owned by an ever smaller group of holding companies. No matter how you dress it up people cannot help but notice that every mall is just like the next one.

Years ago I lived across the street from Crossroads Mall in Bellevue, Washington. At the time it was about 80% EMPTY. Death was around the corner. But the owner/manager started a farmer's market and offered space for near zero rent plus a percentage of sales. It filled up and prospered because it opened the door to local businesses looking for a niche. Today it has morphed back into a collection of big-box and mall-centric shops but for a time it was a great example that a local, diverse ecosystem could recover and thrive.

I see little hope for our seemingly limitless quantity of decaying malls. Some of the New Urbanist re-creations have been inspiring but ultimately I think the lack of diversity between malls will kill off most of them.

Scott

Richard:

I'm sure you may remember East Hills mall here in Pittsburgh. That and Eastland Mall were two in the suburbs that have never recovered. They are (and have been for twenty or so years) big abandoned complexes. Every now and then someone tries to have a go at getting them up and running. Instead we got two things:

1.) Bigger stuff like Pittsburgh Mills which is a huge mall-plex in the middle of nowhere

2.) The creation of so-called town centres in the parking lots of older malls.

Of course, Pittsburgh is about ten years behind the times so I guess we'll go through a lot of other abandoned solutions before we get to anything useful.

Scott

Ben

The ultimate dead mall story would have to be the original Dawn of the Dead:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077402/

Zoe B

Our town has at least 3 moribund malls. I wondered for years why spaces stayed empty for (up to 10) years. All of these malls are owned by out-of-town real-estate corporations. Surely the owners would lower rental prices - since ANY tenant is better than none. How could the owners not go bankrupt?

Recently I learned WHY this happens. The previous tenants (which were chain stores) signed multi-year leases. As long as the parent corporation exists, it must pay rent for that space until the lease runs out. The owner apparently has insufficient incentive to find a new renter (or perhaps permit a sublet arrangement) as long as the money still is flowing in. Out-of-town owners may neither notice nor care what the persistently empty storefront does to the neighborhood. They do not invest to spruce up the worn space so that it can compete with newer malls that have opened near a new highway entrance. If the whole mall loses money for them, maybe it offsets profits from some other property they own - such tax benefits can encourage the owner to neglect its outmoded malls.

It also happens that (for other reasons) our town lacks inexpensive space for local start-up businesses. We have just begun to think about whether it is possible to use the dead mall space for this. Can we make a workable business model? How to get the owners to agree? We don't know yet.


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