In case you haven't heard, suburban malls are on the way out (sorry Paul Blart). Some have become abandoned wastelands popular for ruin porn. Others have been torn down and turned into industrial sites.
According to Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architect and professor at Georgia Tech, there are about 1,200 enclosed malls in the United States, and about one-third of them are dead or dying. That's because developers rapidly overbuilt malls in the 20th century, she said: The U.S. has twice as much square footage in shopping centers per capita than the rest of the world, and six times as much as countries in Europe.
As anchor brands such as JC Penney, Sears, and Macy's close stores and Americans show a preference for shopping online or in walkable urban centers, more malls are expected to close.
A few problems with this. Google around and you’ll find different predictions, from half of all malls closing in 20 years to the same number shuttering within a decade. We’ll see.
Second: as for developers “rapidly overbuilding malls in the 20th century," hard to see which other century they could have done it. And it was only the second half they built them.
Third, the European comparison isn’t useful. Europe has significantly less retail, but is that a good thing? By Europe do we mean southern Italy or southern England? Poland or Portugal?
Fourth: “Americans show a preference for shopping online or in walkable urban centers, more malls are expected to close.” Big difference between shopping online or “walkable urban centers.” And it’s not some Americans, or many Americans, but Americans, period? Wrong. Americans en masse have decided we want to shop in walkable urban centers? Tell that to the MOA.
It’s wishful thinking, based on a dislike of cars and suburbs. Now, you can make the case that walkable urban environments have their own advantages, and I like them fine. B ut they’re an additional option, not a replacement. In the New Urbanist’s dream, people might take the streetcar to Trader Joe’s to pick up a bag of salad, but they’re not going to do it when they want a case of Three Buck Chuck and two sacks of groceries.
Malls do not die because the shoppers think “I have tired of driving to an enclosed retail space, and prefer to take mass transit to a suddenly vibrant downtown.” They die because a better opportunity opens up elsewhere AND the demographics around the old mall shift. When an area gets poorer, the stores close, to state the obvious.
You could say that the preference for retail environments has changed, and people now like open-air retail centers that mimic pre-mall environments; no doubt true for some. But then we’re saying that the Mall is dying because it has as roof
As they say: location, location, location. During the Mall’s heyday downtowns across America attempted to compete by building their own enclosed retail structures, and even though suburban malls continued to make money, the downtown versions withered and died. When I was growing up in Fargo they built a small enclosed mall on the north side of town; it closed less than a decade later. The first mall in the area, in Moorhead, had a Target - but it closed and died as well. Downtown had two malls, Elm Tree Square in the hollowed out Sears building, and Block 6, in a vacated department store. Both perished. No one could compete with West Acres, the ur-Seventies mall on the edge of town. Fargo’s downtown has revived, thanks to NoDak prosperity, student housing, and a marvelous sense of pride in the town’s old bones. But West Acres is thriving, because it is surrounded by people with disposable income and cars.
But not all malls will die, and the story has some interesting examples of new use. They’ll always look like malls, though. And someone will always drive past and remember when it was new, and they went there as a teen, and life was pretty good. Without the mall, they’d have had no town square at all.