Lileks: The Mall of America was feeling a bit small lately

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2014 - 1:00 AM

The expansion of the Mall of America has begun, and it’s about time. How often have you taken someone to visit the place, and after two hours they turn to you with a puzzled expression and say, “That’s it?”

It’s not just more MOA; it’ll be spiffed. They’ll overhaul the glum and rather oppressive main entrance, which currently says Come ye into the Cave of Mammon and give unto Him thine gold! It’s an underwhelming entry — but they’re all underwhelming, with all the character of an airport terminal.

If you hired 100 people to mill around the entrances pulling suitcases on wheels, people would suffer a moment of panic because they don’t even remember taking their shoes off.

I thought it was supposed to be bigger. I thought they were doubling the size. They could have built a duplicate MOA with the same stores, but no merchandise, just a table with computers, so people could shop online.

Turns out this is just the first phase of the inevitable doubling of the MOA. They have rights to 5.6 million square feet; when it’s done, the complex will not only cross the highway but stretch to Edina to absorb Southdale, which will be converted to restrooms.

There will be 47 miles of corridors, which will present a challenge for the seniors who like to do a few laps in the morning. But you’ll be able to take the light rail to the airport, which will have commuter flights to the other end of the MOA every half-hour.

By the time they’re done, it will have 15,234 stores — just about the time Nicollet Mall will announce another renovation, with a news release that insists the addition of 48 trees and interactive street art will lead to a retail renaissance.

Speaking of which, I hope no one thinks that the Nicollet overhaul will bring in people who’d otherwise go to the Dales or MOA. Stop with that. No one is going to pay for parking to shop downtown. Downtown is supposed to have 70,000 residents by 2025; that’s the market.

If you can’t support retail with the population of Fargo, N.D., circa 1990 — which had a mall the size of Southdale AND a downtown — then consider whether people are taking the light rail to MOA, and should be dragged off the trains and had their heads shaved while the crowd denounces them as collaborators.

Anyway. In an era when shopping malls are supposedly dying, the MOA expansion is a remarkable sign of confidence. It’s not like movie theaters responding to TV with 3-D or Cinerama, a desperate act of a beast in its death throes. We like our malls.

Is that OK to say? As the story goes, Victor Gruen, the architect of Southdale, was dismayed by how it all turned out. He’d envisioned a new city rising on the plain, a place with apartment buildings, hospitals, libraries and parks. But that’s what happened, eventually. You may not like the urban model of mixed-use sprawl with a smattering of density, but the simple solution to this problem is not to live there. I mean, I drive past the apartment buildings, and I don’t see desperate faces pressed up to the window silently mouthing HELP.

Malls are a resilient model if the communities that surround them are healthy; if not, malls are just the first major organ to fail.

Me, I prefer downtowns. There’s history and architectural diversity and the vistas of the towers above. I don’t pretend that malls are somehow inauthentic because there’s a roof over your head when you walk between stores.

But MOA might be missing an opportunity as it expands ever outward. How about open-air areas with different types of building facades? Small theaters with neon marquees of the great old downtown theaters — the Gopher, the World — instead of the dark warren of the Multiplex?

They could consult old photographs to rebuild the lovely old structures where retail lived downtown before great swaths were nuked. A functional museum of urban history that’s also a profitable retail center. Otherwise it’s just a mall. The biggest, the greatest, the most spectacular mall ever, sure — but in the end, just a mall of the sort Victor Gruen decried.

For now, we can only wonder what new stores will fill the new wing. Perhaps the “As Seen on TV!” store will be complemented by “As Heard on the Radio!” They will sell gold (it’s a great time to buy!) blinds, nutritional supplements made out of crushed ants and cherry pits and “natural Viagra,” which is actually just Popsicle sticks and some duct tape.

Another candle store? No: a place that sells handmade artisanal matches with imported fair-trade Himalayan sulfur, perhaps.

A store called “Nothin’ but Bees!”

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