Q&A: Time for a mall reinvention

  • Article by: JILL BURCUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2010 - 8:51 PM

This week's announcement of Brookdale Center's virtual closure -- Sears is the only retail store still open -- felt a lot like hearing that a terminally ill friend had died.

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Empty space at Brookdale.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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This week's week's announcement of Brookdale Center's virtual closure -- Sears is the only retail store still open -- felt a lot like hearing that a terminally ill friend had died. You knew it was coming, but it was still sad. For longtime residents of the northern suburbs like me, it's been a shock in recent years even to drive by the 47-year-old Brooklyn Center mall, off Hwy. 100. The parking lots, with their cheery animal placards to help shoppers remember where they parked, have long been devoid of cars. Inside, it was worse, especially for someone who remembers the bustling Brookdale of the 1980s. ¶ So why do malls die? Brookdale certainly isn't the first; websites like deadmalls.com have obituaries for hundreds of others. Should we mourn their passage? Is the Age of Malls over? Retail anthropologist Paco Underhill, an internationally known consultant and author of "Call of the Mall" and the forthcoming "What Women Want," weighed in. Here are excerpts of the conversation:

Q What's struck me about mall closures is the emotional reaction so many people have. Myself included. Why does this happen?

A First of all, most shopping malls in the U.S. are more than 25 years old. They were butt-ugly the day they opened and haven't gotten any prettier. Most were put up with a minimum of government regulations or zoning regulations. They were thrown up because they were throwing up malls to serve brand new areas. ... They were a product of the suburbanization of American culture, and they were an important antidote to suburban isolation.

Because of that, there are many of us under age 50 who came of age in the shopping mall. For so many kids in Generation X and Y, and the trailing edge of the boomers, malls were the first place where they got to spend their own money, where Mom often dropped you off because the mall was perceived as a safe place. You got to interact with the world beyond your neighborhood or church or temple. It was the one of the first places where you got to think about who you were ... where you interacted with a world only seen on TV. Therefore, that mall experience is very much part of our DNA.

Q What are the forces that have made malls struggle or have led to their closure?

A Part of what we're seeing over the past 25 years is (when new malls are built), they're not built to serve to a new market; it's to steal somebody else's business. Malls built in 1970s have been superseded by malls built 10 years later ... which are bigger and better and have better tenant mixes and a more progressive set of amenities. ... From my desk in New York City, there are 24 shopping malls within 30 minutes.

Q Do we have too many stores and malls to support all of them?

A We are overstored as a culture. ... One of the historic issues that we are having now is that almost all major retail companies are publicly owned, and one of the challenges for them is are they answerable to customers or answerable to shareholders? Wall Street has been looking at retail companies and basing [its] assessment on growth ... and part of that is based on the number of doors (the number of stores open). ... For most American chains, they would be eminently healthier if they shed unhealthy properties. And many of them will be forced to do it. Starbucks and Wal-Mart ... they aren't expanding at the rate that they were seven years ago.

Q Is the Age of Malls over?

A Malls as we know them are not going to disappear. As a shopping forum, it will reinvent itself. The strong ones will survive and prosper, and the weak ones will die and get plowed under.

Q What can be done with old mall sites?

A Some malls are actually sitting on really valuable land, and often much of that land is covered in asphalt. The ultimate solution is going to be radical redevelopment. Maybe it's a mall built in the 1950s where basically the city expanded beyond it and it now sits at a confluence of highways. Maybe it could be linked into a light-rail system and redeveloped with more dense housing. Many of us are baby boomers ... who are trying to plan the last third of our lives. While some of us may move into cities and some of us may move to further exurban settings, many are trying to get beyond our lifestyles to something we feel better about.

Q What do malls need to do to survive?

A The shopping mall industry needs to stop being landlords and start being placemakers. The malls that are succeeding across the United States, they are succeeding in part because they are places -- places that somebody wants to go, and there are reasons to go there beyond that somebody wants to buy a little black dress. There's a place to eat, places to entertain your kids, places to meet and ... accomplish a broad range of tasks.

One of the challenges we face as result of shopping malls is that we need a better sense of cooperation between public and private interests. ... We need visionary public servants to imagine what the future could be and a developer willing to cooperate and do some planning. That's asking for a lot but ... it is starting to happen. ... One of the ongoing issues we're seeing here is that the process often takes time, and within the structure of American democracy, very few people are willing to take on this planning process when they may not be around to take credit for it when it happens.

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