As it once sucked the life out of Main Street, the suburban mall is being reconsidered – or torn down – as towns move back to the concept of a multiuse town center.
June 30, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California
Few here have forgotten the Villa Italia, the hulking, whitewashed mall that once spilled across the skyline of central Lakewood. Unveiled in 1966, the Villa was the largest indoor shopping center west of the Mississippi River and east of California. The gaudy main hall – ornamented to evoke the charms of old-world Europe – played host to hundreds of after-prom parties, first dates, and all-day festivals. In its heyday, in the 1970s and ’80s, the Villa anchored this large, affluent Denver suburb, which never had a Main Street to call its own.
Then in the ’90s, like hundreds of malls nationwide, the Villa began to lose its luster. First went the jewelry stores and the luxury-goods boutiques. By 2001, destination department stores such as Montgomery Ward and JCPenney had vanished, too, and with them, most of the foot traffic. The kids who hung out in the food court decamped for more vibrant locales; the corridors grew hushed. The once-great mall became a cemetery of dollar stores and a glorified walking track for senior citizens. In 2003, it was mercifully reduced to a pile of rubble.
For at least a decade, Americans have been regularly reminded that the indoor mall was hurtling toward obscurity. The causes were manifold: the rise of Internet shopping, the sharp spikes of an ailing economy, the success of Wal-Mart and its big-box kin, the fading relevance of mall culture.
Welcome to 2009, the year that the mall, the staple of so many childhood memories and a longstanding pillar of suburban commerce, could finally and truly go bust. From west to east, shopping centers stand darkened, the hulks of Circuit Citys boarded up, the parking lots of Linens ‘n Things deserted. Malls are posting the highest vacancy rates in a decade, and retail rental rates are plummeting, according to Reis, a New York firm that studies trends in commercial real estate. And the slope is precipitous: Last month, General Growth Properties, one of the biggest mall operators in the country, declared bankruptcy.
But here in Lakewood, a successful revitalization effort provides a modicum of hope for city planners nationwide. Beginning in 2002, Villa’s 103-acre plot was rezoned and restructured, setting the stage for Belmar, a vibrant new downtown area, part residential, part retail, and part office park.
In form, Belmar resembles a scaled-down city center, with a maze of sidewalks; a grid system of streets; and residential, retail, and office units stacked tightly atop one another. The multiuse district has attracted home buyers and renters, and generated millions of dollars for Lakewood.
Some experts are touting this transformation – from dead mall to sustainable community – as a solution to the so-called “ghost box” syndrome. And developers are paying attention. In Cathedral City, Calif., for instance, a decaying strip mall has been reborn as a tree-lined boulevard, with increased pedestrian access and improved public transportation. In Mashpee, Mass., planners have partially demolished a shopping center and are working to incorporate a “walkable village.” In Boca Raton, Fla., a mall was razed to make way for a multiuse area featuring both retail and housing.
“Retrofits,” as they’re called, take a variety of forms, from “raze it all and start anew” to creative adaptation of an existing space, such as the Food Lion supermarket in Denton, Texas, that became a public library. Each process shares common goals: reduce the blight, scale down sprawl, cut car traffic, amp up foot and bicycle access, and eliminate barriers between residential and retail space.
“Historically, there were two options for developers who wanted to revitalize a dying mall,” says June Williamson, an architect and coauthor of an influential new book, “Retrofitting Suburbia.” “The first was going downscale into a power center, with Wal-Marts or Kmarts. Alternatively, developers would go upmarket into a lifestyle center – take off the roof, add the high-end restaurants, spruce it up. But we’re seeing [planners] start to approach things from a very different angle – pulling in the retail, and then pulling in other uses as well. They’re really thinking about sustainability [and a] long-term strategy.”
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Thanks to Evan Johnson