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America's foolish detour into shopping malls

These land-devouring, car-dependent malls were invented 60 years ago, with Seattle among the pioneers. Now they are in terminal decline. There was a better idea in Kansas City, but unfortunately it was eclipsed by our mania for malls.

Northgate Mall, around the time of its opening in 1950.

Northgate Mall, around the time of its opening in 1950.

Country Club Plaza in Kansas City: a neglected prototype.

Country Club Plaza in Kansas City: a neglected prototype. Wikipedia

This spring, as the sun reappears, we might want to reflect upon the 60th anniversary of an event that profoundly changed the face of America. That event changed how we travel, how we spend our leisure time, and how we spend our money. I might be talking here about the beginning of commercial jet travel, which did start in the spring of 1952. (Actually, commercial jet service in the U.S. did not begin until a few years later.) But nope. I’m talking about something even more dramatic in its long-lasting impact.

Almost exactly six decades ago the enclosed suburban shopping mall was invented.  It was a wholly new form of development, never seen previously anytime in history. A B-list architect by the name of Victor Gruen, previously known mainly for designing retail shops and department stores, wrote a treatise on this building type. When his manifesto was published in Progressive Architecture magazine it fired up the imaginations of both developers and city officials. Since then, many hundreds of malls have been built on thousands of acres in virtually every part of the country. All of them followed Gruen’s simple but compelling model: two or three department stores anchoring the ends of parallel rows of smaller stores that face towards an interior, covered passageway.

As far back as the late 1800s, shopping galleries were built in London, Paris, Milan, and other cities. Several big cities in the U.S., such as Cleveland, even had them.  But Gruen’s singularly stunning contribution was surrounding the buildings with a vast sea of surface parking. That is the template has been followed right up until today. But now we have reached the saturation point if not exceeded it. 

Several of the initial large centers were built before the freeway system was complete. But along with a national network of highways, there was a perfect storm of subsidies that encouraged people to live ever further out. Vast subdivisions were fueled by cheap VA loans and the federal government allowed deduction of interest on home mortgages from income taxes. Malls were always the hallmark of the outer edge of urban areas. They were the big, beefy, armored attack vehicles driven into farmlands, forest lands, and wetlands.

Despite the factors that have long fueled this outward expansion, recent census data indicates a sharp slowdown in the growth of outer suburbs. According to AP writer Hope Yen, for the first time in decades growth in urban areas has exceeded that of exurbs. A major factor is demographic changes.  Families with children are a fraction of the numbers they once were. Younger people are delaying marriage and childbirth, while older people are now choosing to live in locations that are walkable and close in to urban centers. This shift is likely to last for several decades.

Yen’s article quotes Robert Shiller, widely known for the Case-Shiller index, which carefully tracks home values and real estate trends throughout the country.  “The heyday of the exurbs may well be behind us,” Schiller says. “Suburban housing prices may not recover in our lifetime.”

Yen  also quotes William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute, who analyzes census data for sweeping social changes. Frey notes that recent explosive increase in foreclosures, short sales, and personal bankruptcies “may very well put the damper on the long-held view among young families and new immigrants that building a home in the outer suburbs is a quick way to achieve the American dream.”  My own research in the Seattle region has suggested a similar effect here: "Sick suburbs and expiring exurbs."  The effects observed by Shiller and Frey may have been even more severely felt here, had we not had the state’s Growth Management Act, a law that has put the brakes on outward movement.

Throughout the country, edge development has slowed dramatically. In some places the slowdown preceded the recession, but the great recession has certainly hastened the slowdown. By some counts, we have a sufficient supply of single family housing stock already built to last us at least a decade.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

The author writes, "The faux small town America offered by Disneyland is crass and cartoonish, compared with this authentic and home-grown townscape." This isn't authentic - Kansas City isn't in Spain, and J.C. Nichols wasn't Spanish. It's a themed environment, no different than any other themed tourist trap. Like Disney at it's best, the theming is outstanding and it creates a sense of being in another place or another time, but don't think that it's authentic because it was built in 1922.

(It's interesting to me that Walt Disney started his animation business in Kansas City the same year that J. C. Nichols opened his shopping center. I can easily picture the Country Club Plaza planting a seed in Walt's head.)

The Plaza was built for a very well-heeled clientele. That area was like Medina at the time, and the original mix of stores targeted the same audience that the Bravern targets in Bellevue. Most of the residents of Kansas City would not have been welcome there. Comparing the themed environment of the Plaza with a common suburban shopping mall is like comparing a Bentley to a Toyota. And, even today, most of the people in the area shop at their local mall or big box retailer.

The Country Club Plaza is wonderful and I'd love to see something like that here. But if someone were to try to build a themed shopping environment these days they'd be accused of trying to create a Disneyfied sham with no authenticity.

talisker

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

A couple of corrections:

Kitsap Mall was built in Silverdale in 1985. In 1995, The SuperMall of the Great Northwest was built in Auburn near the junction of SR-167 and SR-18. Both of these malls were built on wetlands, and at least one stream appears to have been existed near the southwest corner of the Kitsap mall, because for 3 or 4 years after the mall was built chum salmon tried to enter a pipe that now encases this stream underneath the mall. A beautiful remnant spruce/cedar swamp lies just east the Kitsap Mall. This wetland and the downstream end of Clear Creak are fragments of what likely was a much larger expanse of aquatic habitat where the mall now stands. The Auburn Supermall was also built on wetlands, presumably with a modicum of mitigation in the form of "enhancement" of a nearby existing wetland.

As gas becomes increasingly expensive and people continue to shop online, it is possible that our love affair with malls will wither away. In the mid-1980s I saw several decrepit, abandoned small ghost malls (perhaps best described as glorified strip malls) in South Florida with horsetails pushing up through their asphalt parking lots. A few years ago I wandered through a forlorn, partly vacant, struggling mall in Redding, California that seemed to house as many social service agencies and non-profits as it did retail stores.

As mentioned here...

http://www.redding.com/news/2012/mar/29/best-buy-to-close-50-storesincrease-mobile/

...big box stores such as Best Buy, K Mart and Sears which serve as major or anchors or junior anchors of many malls throughout the United Staes are planning to close large numbers of stores. This could be a sign of people's disenchantment with a consumption-based lifestyle that revolves around driving to malls to saddle ourselves with stuff that we can't afford, may not have space for and ultimately makes us unhappy.

Maybe it's time to unstuff ourselves:

http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-stuff/

Mud Baby

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Good point about Tacoma mall being the source of many of the problems from which Tacoma has only recently begun to recover. In my ideal world, the whole thing would be leveled and turned into Puget Sound Prairie Park. That could do wonders for encouraging smarter, more humane, more transit friendly development in not just downtown Tacoma, but cool old neighborhood centers like 56th and South Tacoma Way and the Lincoln District.

pika

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

talisker is not the first to connect Walt Disney to the history of American urban planning. The idea has been around at least since the 1970's. Disney's environment looks backwards to walled cities,gated communities and steam engines and forward to modern transportation systems such as the Monorail, another feature shared with Seattle.

MJH

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

It should be noted that although the Tacoma Mall nearly killed the Broadway retail district, the final nail was put in the coffin by the city itself, by converting the street into the 1970s icon of misguided development, a "Pedestrian Mall." (Pedestrian shopping areas can work when you already have a lot of people being crowded out by cars; they're death to an area in decline.) With customers deprived of easy access to the few stores that remained, most of the ones that had been holding on finally moved or folded, the last ones to leave the sinking retail ship being Sears, Pay Less and Ted Brown Music. Only LeRoy Jewlers remained, and amazingly it survived long enough to see Broadway show its first glimmers of recovery.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Kansas City, Missouri and Seville, Spain are sister cities and the Country Club Plaza does have a Spanish flair. The Plaza has always been sacred ground in Kansas City and enjoyed some protection from bad behavior and bad publicity. Yet, the suburban Johnson County, Kansas, offers multiple malls and shopping centers for the 550,000 residents. Best of both worlds in a multi-county metro area of almost 2,000,000 divided by rivers and a long State Line Road separating the states of Missouri and Kansas.

animalal

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 2:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately, Tacoma has not learned its lesson very well. Ignoring the recommendation of its Planning Commission which wanted to cap parking at 2.5 spaces per thousand in the downtown area's 256 acres the City Council recently took off any cap allowing developers to provide as much parking as they want and not requiring that it be enclosed. This misguided idea that more parking would revitalize downtown or bring back the next Russell Investments or Weyerhauser is a real setback for Tacoma and its beginning to emerge image as a progressive city. Apparently, they hired economic consultants from Houston to advise them.

A more current shopping center prototype here on the West Coast, is Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, designed by the noted architect/historian Charles Moore. It is an open air mall with some shops at stree level but the majority face onto a multilevel series of interior courtyards and roof terraces. Escalators and stairways connect the various levels.

knute000

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 7:24 p.m. Inappropriate

...This could be a sign of people's disenchantment with a consumption-based lifestyle that revolves around driving to malls to saddle ourselves with stuff that we can't afford, may not have space for and ultimately makes us unhappy...

Or it could be the result of mergers between several big-box retailers and the demise of others that sold all the same stuff as everyone else (at the same margin-free prices).

orino

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 9:15 p.m. Inappropriate

The oral history I have heard is that South Center was also built on a wet lands and prime duck hunting land. To wit I was told by those who did it that every so often someone needed to go under the place and jack it up as it slowly sunk into the wet lands. Good planning? Great story anyhow when sitting around a campfire.

Posted Tue, Apr 10, 7:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Mark, good Step One acknowledgment piece. As you know, many are thinking retrofit and implementation of a better way, capturing some of the lessons learned which you identify. Some are taking retail strategies forward. There's much written on this, and e.g. I came across this yesterday:

http://placeshakers.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/designing-regional-urban-retail-centers-lessons-from-the-mall-and-beyond/

Posted Tue, Apr 10, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

You can see that South Center Mall is in an ex-wetland because there is a this pond at near surface level just South of it. http://g.co/maps/zk3km

GaryP

Posted Wed, Apr 11, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

"Duck hunting in the South lands" Sure the old name for that land wasn't "Duckwilla?"

GaryP

Posted Fri, Apr 13, 5:29 p.m. Inappropriate

knute000; Horton Plaza does sort of look like it might have been designed by Charles Moore but the architect of record is Jon Jerde.

kieth

Posted Sun, Apr 15, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

“New Car Warning label”

WARNING: Driving can kill you.
WARNING: This vehicle can harm and kill
your passengers, pedestrians, other motorists, yourself.
WARNING: A collision during pregnancy can harm your fetus.
Driving less: Can reduce serious risks to your health.

Wells

Posted Sun, Apr 15, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Shopping malls led to 60 years of unprecedented prosperity. The fact that about twice as much retail space was built in the property bubble than we really need and that we need to move on to adapt to a changing world doesn't mean that we need to disown the past. Americans should be proud of their shopping malls

Posted Sun, Apr 15, 1:52 p.m. Inappropriate

So, if it's not malls, what is next? Our public transportation system is mediocre at best so I don't see people abandoning cars and taking a bus urban centers (at least not for many years). So, if people continue to drive cars they will likely choose to shop at places where they can park nearby.

I can see a few possible outcomes. One would be the recurrance of main streets, like California Ave in West Seattle or Market Street in Ballard. Both are packed with shops facing the street but have huge amounts of parking on the back sides. In some ways, a lot like a mall, but with a working street in between.

Another possiblity would be the development of large parking structures along major public transportation routes. This would allow people in outer areas to drive part of the way, park, and take transit to urban centers. I don't particularly like this, but I suspect it will happen as it is not practical to provide good public transpo to all the outlying areas.

A third possibility alluded to by others is that people might shop less and buy more online. That means the need for fewer shops. But it doens't change the need for highways and parking except that the need would be smaller.

Any other projections?

pragmatic

Posted Mon, Apr 16, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

What this piece totally misses is that the land that malls get built upon is typically farmland. The Supermall and the Kitsap Mall are both built upon soils identified by the USDA as Prime Farmland. Those same soils often have wetlands associated with them, but are still suitable for some kinds of farming. In Kitsap we suffered a double loss. The mall killed downtown Bremerton and we paves over some of the best dirt for farming and growing food in the county. To add insult to injury, we used conservation futures (designed to protect farmland) to purchase the Schold Farm north of the mall, and then they used it for wetland migation, removing yet more farmland from cultivation. Now, in the 70s when we were doing all this small scale farming wasn't profitable, the owners of those farms were aging, and developers were offering a "retirement plan" so one can see why they embraced the transition, but it is a pity we lacked the vision and will to do things differently!

FarmGirl

Posted Mon, Apr 16, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The history of the modern shopping mall should, IMO, mention both General Robert E. Wood (CEO of Sears Robuck in the 40s and 50s) and Marshall Field, the eponymous guy from the Chicago store who launched Old Orchard Mall in Skokie and created the suburban land rush.

Posted Tue, Apr 17, 2:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Good piece but you mixed some stuff up/didn't make key points.

1. Regional malls are dying yes, but at the same time there is a thinning out, certain malls are becoming stronger and will remain successful. E.g., in the DC region, Tysons Corner Center and Montgomery Mall keep getting larger, even as other malls fail. I presume that this same phenomenon is happening across the country.

2. You mentioned Gruen was trying to help cities. Like with the Tacoma Mall example of a mall built in a city (which has happened in many places, and I don't think there are any successful long term examples, although non-revitalization initiated malls have been built successfully in San Francisco and Manhattan).

That's only partially true with some of his commissions. Even his earliest commissions with Northland Mall in Southfield (along with his general work for the J.L Hudson Company, the developer of that center) were mostly for suburban placements, and they were for department store companies, not cities/towns.

3. You could have mentioned, to make the example more contemporary, that one could argue that Country Club Plaza is a proto example of a "lifestyle" center, which is the newer and more successful successor to the mall format, although even most lifestyle centers are located in suburban locations and in seas of parking, not parking structures.

4. But in any case, lifestyle centers are being built, even if malls aren't, and they are still mostly shopping-dedicated spaces. Some are even being built with department stores.

5. A separate and real issue is that department stores have problems of their own and have for decades, as in the 1970s especially local department store groups mostly went out of business, which significantly damaged downtown and town shopping districts.

Nationally, companies have mostly consolidated into the Macy's brand, and many regional department store chains not part of the Macy's amalgamation have shuttered, although some companies still persist in the Southeast--Belk, Bealls; Midwest--Von Mauer; East (Boscovs) and on a broader footprint such as the Bon Ton group in smaller markets, or Dillards.

6. Structured parking provision like at Country Club Plaza is a function of land value. "Urban" (defined as integrated into extant urban places) lifestyle centers, like Bethesda Row in Bethesda Maryland, typically have structured parking. Most lifestyle centers as mentioned are in suburban locations drawing on automobile-based consumers.

rllayman

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