Will the Death of the Mall Bring Back Downtowns? Maybe, Maybe Not

Malls have been understood as the antithesis of traditional urbanism ever since the inception of the multi-store complexes. Possibly no other type of development quite so embodies the Growth Ponzi Scheme as the shopping mall: it requires massive and costly of up-front public infrastructure, is built to decline, and at the end of its life, it either sits abandoned or receives a second life (usually at additional public expense). Rising to popularity in the 1950s riding a wave of subsidies and new suburban homesteaders, the design embodies the antithesis of so many concepts we push for at Strong Towns—facilities with large parking requirements moving commerce away from downtown cores and toward auto-oriented suburbs.

At the time, though, malls were seen as a shiny, new symbol of wealth. They were anchored by large department stores providing a diverse range of items to shoppers. By the ‘80s, they were cultural symbols of capitalism, teen angst, and American affluence.

This reallocation of resources to these new economic centers is often cited as a key player in the decline of the downtown shopping district. They were the suburban, auto-oriented counterpart to walkable neighborhoods that came to rise at the same time as homeowners were pushing out of the city.

Yet the Austrian architect of the modern mall, Victor Gruen, had something else in mind. His original 1952 design was inspired by the Vienna downtown square and was intended to bring walkability into the suburbs. His first design featured outdoor space, parks, and sculptures. Eventually he envisioned mixed-use amenities like housing and medical care to be included; he wanted to create community for the suburbs, a “third place.”

Unfortunately for Gruen, his design did not ease car use in the suburbs as he intended but magnified it. National chains seized on the idea, and service providers like daycares couldn’t afford the rent to coexist in these complexes. The shopping center promoted walking inside of its facility, but required driving to get to the site. The malls contributed to the ongoing failure of downtown commercial districts with their controlled environment and shiny, new architecture.

Urbanists’ Revenge?

Sears is one major U.S. retailer that has shuttered many stores. (Source: Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr)

Now it is malls that are failing. Mass retail giants that once anchored countless shopping centers are closing stores all across the United States, stores like Sears, Best Buy, Gap, and Toys ‘R’ Us. The malls themselves are closing too. So should urbanists who praise walkable neighborhoods and dense downtowns celebrate the demise?

The giant shopping beacons were costly experiments, but the reasons for their downfall should not necessarily elicit urbanist celebration. The failure of a poor project does not guarantee that the success of a well-designed one will follow. Online sales may have been a culprit, but the rise of online retail and two-day, door-to-door delivery poses just as imminent a threat to many small brick and mortar businesses. Some hypothesize low wages and a lack of spending money may be the true culprit, another grim forecast for downtown revitalization efforts.

Some urban planners think the empty spaces of malls could finally be retrofitted for Gruen’s original purpose—community spaces. It’s true, this has happened on a small scale. But it’s going to require a lot of spending.

A mall in the inner ring suburbs of St. Louis used its large parking lot for well-attended, experimental food truck festivals and free concerts before its eventual demolition. Two years later, a new design has proposed a mixed use building which will even incorporate green space, but will include over 1,700 parking spaces (covered and uncovered) on the site.

The city felt the sales tax deficit from the closed mall: it cut its own personnel by 30% in response to the budget strain. This experience has left them ready to throw money at any large scale development promising revenue. Large projects like these, though they may be well-designed and certainly well-intended, threaten to sink deep into the financial pockets of already cash-strapped suburban cities. The sense of desperation felt by cities to replace a defunct mall on whose revenue they were dependent may result in bad deals for citizens with much still to lose.

Others may imagine the death of the mall will create a return to natural order via a resurgence in downtown commerce. In The View From Flyover Country, writer Sarah Kendzior pushes back on the idea. Her essay “Mourn the Fall of the Mall” casts doubt on a great resurgence in the poorer Midwestern cities because they still lack investment. “We did not ‘choose’ between supporting the mall or the local business, because by the time we came of age there were few local businesses left to support,” she writes.

Moreover, the mall offered a plenitude of low-skill jobs in the already stressed suburbs, which may not  be easily made up in the new online retail landscape. Much like so many post-war strip malls being declared “blight” and redeveloped to the grievance of their tenants and financial detriment of the cities, urbanists didn’t want these projects then and are benefiting even less from the consequences of their failure now.

It remains to be seen whether the death of the American mall will usher in any great downtown revival. But it sure isn’t going to happen on its own. It’s going to take Strong Citizens pushing for incremental design and focusing on traditional patterns that result in a productive tax base.