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America’s foolish detour into shopping malls

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

As for big regional shopping malls, almost no new malls are being built any more anywhere in the country. In fact there are scores of malls that are dead and abandoned. Many others are on life-support and are close to being boarded up or redeveloped into more productive use. Here in Puget Sound, the last regional mall built was Silverdale, almost 20 years ago — even though the central Puget Sound population has grown by more than 2 million people in that same time!  (I am not counting outlet malls as they do not fill the same role as regional malls anchored by major department stores.)

As the originator of the big enclosed mall concept 60 years ago, Gruen was taken with the vision of the future shown to the public in the New York World’s Fair in April 1939. The captivating vision, presented in a ride called “Futurama” in the General Motors pavilion, promoted elevated, high-speed expressways crisscrossing both cities and countryside. Streamlined office towers. Heliports. Vast tracts of land scattered with houses and factories. And huge retail complexes. The excited narrator extols, with an almost a Soviet-style revolutionary tone, “See great sectors of residential, commerce, and industry — each separated from the other!”

Gruen virtually dedicated his life to seeing that the future embodied in that ride was realized. To be fair, Gruen saw his model as saving cities and towns, instead of draining their downtowns of life, though that's what happened more often than not. In our region, Tacoma was the poster child for that phenomenon. It's taken decades for that city to recover from its retail disembowelment by Tacoma Mall.

I recently came across a set of recommended standards for commercial development published in 1954, just about the same time Gruen was crafting his influential shopping center model. Although the authors of the standards likely had no idea they were actually designing the future, they were predicting if not dictating the American we live in today.

Because they were widely published standards, thousands of cities and towns used them as a basis to pass laws that enshrined them for decades. These blueprints of 20th Century America ramble on for more than a dozen pages of fine print with charts and graphs and crude diagrams. They laid out a prescribed pattern of development based almost solely on the parking of automobiles. The authors scolded developers who “underestimated the need for parking spaces or found the land too valuable to be devoted to parking.” 

Reading the document is a bit like being in the film Back to the Future. Though almost no big suburban shopping centers yet existed in 1954, the authors drew sketches for prototypes. Every single one of them has been built somewhere since. (As a matter of historic interest, Northgate Mall in Seattle was one of the first, though it was originally open to the air. Its architect, John Graham Jr., made the claim that it was America's first true shopping center.)

The authors insisted that the minimum parking ratio be 10 spaces per 1,000 square feet of retail space.  They even did a convenient calculation for the reader about what that implied. For every square foot devoted to human activity within buildings, three additional square feet would be devoted to parking cars. In their idealized future — which when you think about it, is now — more than 75 percent of developed land is covered in asphalt. Most predictions of the future have failed. This one, unfortunately, was pretty spot on.

But here’s the thing. Back before Victor Gruen emigrated from Vienna, before World War II, even before the Great Depression, we were offered another model. One that was not just theoretical but was actually built.  In the 1920s, an enterprising developer by the name of Jessie Clyde (“J.C.”) Nichols designed and built a large shopping center. It was the first retail center intended to attract to it customers carried by automobiles. Nichols was Kansas City’s counterpart to Seattle’s Frederick Anhalt, who designed and built many charming, solid apartment buildings that are today designated as landmarks.

As a developer, Nichols operated on a vastly larger scale than Anhalt, building whole neighborhoods. In 1927, he built a vast new shopping complex called Country Club Plaza. Shortly after it opened, the stock market crashed and later Nichol’s company went bankrupt.

But Country Club Plaza still exists today. Known affectionately by locals as simply “The Plaza,” it shines in its utter brilliance. Rather than the vast parking lots envisioned by Gruen in the 50s, Nichols placed all of the parking in multilevel garages, wrapped with small shops and whimsically-designed facades. Every single store, large or small, faces a street. Large trees and wide sidewalks, along with elegant light fixtures, faintly echo the grand boulevards of Paris.

Instead of one massive parcel containing dozens of contiguous acres, The Plaza is divided into blocks, only barely bigger than those seen in surrounding neighborhoods. Today The Plaza thrives as never before. Every storefront is filled, some with national brands, others local. There are fine restaurants, hotels, and even high rise housing — most rendered in the late Deco style. Nichols created a uniquely fascinating version of Moorish-style architecture, clad with solid brick and creamy terra-cotta trim,  topped with towers, and packed with fanciful street-level details.

I’ve occasionally stayed at the elegant old Raphael Hotel that overlooks The Plaza. During the Thanksgiving/Christmas shopping season, every parapet is lined with tiny twinkling lights. The faux small town America offered by Disneyland is crass and cartoonish, compared with this authentic and home-grown townscape. 

Unfortunately for us all, 15 years of Depression and war erased this model from the books. By the time returning GI’s were fully settled into their tract homes, buying new television sets and putting their kids in grade school, Gruen’s shopping mall model had a solid foothold.

Where it has been ever since. Until now.

We are, finally, at the end of an era that has completely run its course. Most remaining shopping malls are rapidly remaking themselves into something that better fits these times. 

Anyone care to celebrate Victor Gruen Week? A parade in downtown Tacoma, perhaps?

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