Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Are Malls Over?

Amy Merrick writes for the New Yorker:

… Victor Gruen [is] the father of the enclosed mall in America, and the subject of a 2004 Profile by Malcolm Gladwell. Sixty years ago, construction began on Gruen’s most famous project: the Southdale Center, in Edina, Minnesota, which ended up serving as the prototype for what has become the traditional mall. As Gladwell explains, Gruen envisioned Southdale at the center of a four-hundred-and-sixty-three-acre development that would include apartment buildings, schools, and a medical center. “Southdale was not a suburban alternative to downtown Minneapolis,” Gladwell wrote. “It was the Minneapolis downtown you would get if you started over and corrected all the mistakes that were made the first time around.” But the rest of the development never materialized. Years later, Gruen said that he was in “severe emotional shock” to see malls stranded in their acres of parking lots.

While this article is US-centric, I can think of two more examples of this ridiculous approach to retail and, consequently, the creation of communities and (sub-) urban environments. The first is the creation of the “power centre” — disparate stores, typically of big box brands, surrounding an enormous parking lot. While there are arguably major advantages for brands like Costco and Best Buy being able to operate warehouse-sized stores for a fraction of the cost of inner-city real estate, they aren’t inviting places to shop. Tumbleweeds don’t feel out of place in the parking lots, which have optimistically been built for Black Friday and are nearly empty most other times.

There was a great article about this recently — and I’ll be damned if I can find it; if you know what I’m talking about, please send me a link — which mentioned that people think they prefer the wide, open spaces of a park, or a city with enormous roads. In reality, though, these spaces make us feel vulnerable; we are much more comfortable in enclosed, tighter spaces, as long as loads of other people are squished into the same space as well. It seems paradoxical, but think of how a tight street full of cafés and pedestrians in Paris is much more comfortable than an eight-lane highway.

The second part of mall-centric planning which is so asinine is the idea that building something will draw others towards it and create a community around it. This doesn’t seem to be the case. A few years ago, a gigantic mall opened just north of Calgary’s city limits. During the development permit stage, the provincial government made plain that the closest irrigation district to the mall was at capacity; undeterred, the developers tapped into the resources of the next-closest district. Then the developers realized that the only bus that would pass the mall was a twice-daily intercity route, so they petitioned the city to drive another bus out there more frequently. This is unsustainable.

Then there’s the case of the New South China Mall. It’s the world’s largest shopping mall, but it has sat nearly entirely empty for its entire existence. Interestingly, it was built in the middle of the economically-flourishing region of Dongguan, surrounded by an existing community. However, it has remained 98% empty. Sam Green and Carrie Lozano put together an excellent film about it for PBS’ “POV” program.

Much of the research into “Millennials” (I guess that’s what “we” are being called) has revealed that we are increasingly interested in a more urban lifestyle. Malls can adapt to this, but they will significantly change their form. In Calgary’s in-development East Village, there’s an area called the “Crossing” which, broadly speaking, takes the form of an outdoor mall, with retail on the ground floor and offices or residencies on upper floors. It’s not an original concept by any means — European cities have been doing this for centuries — but the meshing of retail, office, and residential is perhaps the mall of the future. Maybe the promise of an indoor racetrack layout series of not-dissimilar stores isn’t that exciting, really.

However, another mall in Calgary — Chinook Centre — opened a huge expansion just a couple of years ago. It’s an upscale addition to what was a pretty generic — if fairly large — mall, with Tiffany’s, Burberry, and Apple locations. Come September, it will be home to Canada’s first Nordstrom location, too. But, for the hundreds of Apple Store locations in malls, the company also has a bevy of unique, standalone stores. These are far more considered, architecturally-interesting, and impressive locations. Burberry and Tiffany’s are the same. All of these companies understand the value that a unique, separated location can have.

Are malls dead? I’m not entirely sure they are. They’re just evolving.