In 1979, author Joan Didion wrote that shopping malls are “toy garden cities where no one lives but everyone consumes.”

That was when malls — and their role in American culture — were at their pinnacle.

The 1985 blockbuster hit “Back to the Future” repurposed a shopping mall parking lot into a time-travel launch point between past and present. What could be a better symbol of American destiny in the affluent ’80s?

Now, decades later, hundreds of malls nationwide are closing or contracting. Now, as the shelter-in-place orders are being loosened and malls are starting to reopen, it’s clear that a few powerhouse malls in the Twin Cities will continue to evolve and thrive.

Well-located and managed by savvy owners, malls such as Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka and Rosedale Center in Roseville are reinventing themselves as experiential, mixed-use destinations where shopping is just one of many reasons to visit.

“We are way over-retailed when it comes to built space,” said Joan Suko, Ridgedale’s senior general manager, adding that the United States has “more retail square footage per capita than any other country.”

That’s why Suko sees the loss of anchor stores, such as a Sears or a Herberger’s, not as harbingers of doom for brick-and-mortar retail, but as opportunities to reinvent shopping centers for the next generation as community hubs.

Architect Bill Baxley, who heads the Minneapolis office of the international architecture firm Gensler, led the recent conceptual revisioning of Rosedale. Like Suko, he sees department store closings as creating new options for 24-hour activities including health clubs, shared-work spaces, theaters and restaurants.

“We approach it as a planning process in reverse,” Baxley said. Rather than building from the ground up, “we start with an existing property and rethink it to relate back to the community that surrounds it today.”

The former J.C. Penney footprint at Edina’s Southdale, another mall on the remake, has become a 204,000-square-foot Life Time fitness facility, where guests can exercise, play indoor soccer and even work in the shared office environments on-site. Soon, a new Southdale Library will open, connected to the mall.

By the end of this year, Ridgedale will have three major multiunit residential projects right next door. This is the kind of density and mixed uses long advocated by Julie Wischnack, Minnetonka’s director of community development.

The Avidor Minnetonka apartment project is a pioneering example of how Minnesota is rethinking shopping malls. Scheduled to open this fall, the 168-unit Avidor, marketed to ages 55 and over, shows how buildings can bring walkability to places long dominated by the car.

Opening directly onto the new 1.8-acre Ridgedale Park and parkway boulevard, Avidor is a city-scaled building that frames the space around it rather than standing alone. The Ridgedale Library is just across the boulevard and a nearby bike trail will connect to Crane Lake Park (just to the east of Ridgedale) and all the way south to the Minnetonka Mills Park and Minnehaha Creek. New roundabouts and trees will calm traffic and introduce a green buffer on the mall’s southern edge.

Rethinking Rosedale

Built in 1969 as one the original “dales” shopping centers, Rosedale Center is still thriving. It’s also evolving into a walkable village center with outdoor streets, a new grocery store and perhaps even a hotel.

According to plans drawn up in 2019, the center will have a new entry plaza along a curving boulevard. There also will be a pedestrian street slicing through the old Herberger’s, which will essentially create a distinct stand-alone building where Kowalski’s Markets is slated to open. The revamped structure will also house other retail and entertainment businesses on the street level along with apartments and, possibly, a hotel above.

“We are still planning for a green space near restaurant row [the plaza near AMC] and pedestrian connections along the south side of the current mall,” says Lisa Crain, Rosedale’s senior general manager. The improvements are expected to be made in the next three to five years.

In the post-quarantine years, such schedules may change. But a new generation of mixed-use community centers is coming — possibly even more alluring now, as we rediscover the healthfulness and value of being outside.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian who has written for Landscape Architecture magazine, Architecture Minnesota, Fabric Architecture and co-authored a book, “The Simple Home.”