In the 1950s, the mall was an innovation that arose from architectural and city-planning idealism. But in the years since, it has been blamed for eroding the life of city centers. In those early days, flight from the cities to the suburbs was helping mall developers find success, and the convenience of mall shopping in turn made life in the suburbs easier.
But today, many malls are struggling and many others are dead. Demographics may be contributing, with Americans, especially younger ones, returning to urban centers and more often staying there. And, of course, the rise of e-commerce and the recent economic slowdown have helped stymie traffic to malls.
The future of the mall could actually be a return to the original idea envisioned by “father of the mall” Victor Gruen. The Viennese architect and planner, who fled the Nazis to the States, envisioned not the boxy, enclosed malls and parking lot seas so prevalent today, but cultural centers that included not just retail but also apartments, gardens, and gathering spaces.
Malls are closing, but many are fine
It's important to note that while “zombie malls” get a lot of attention and are fodder for enterprising photographers, most malls in America are keeping things together. With the economy improving, malls in certain locations are doing well. In many cases, landlords have added service-oriented businesses into the retail mix, like gyms, salons, full-service restaurants, and smaller retail tenants like Forever 21 and H&M to replace ailing department stores. Several other malls nationwide are renovating to provide more outdoor space.
Airports, too, with their “trapped customers,” have essentially evolved into successful malls. Their mix of retail stores and food has gone far beyond the travel accessories and magazine-stand niches of the past.
Today’s successful malls are appealing multi-use centers
Rick Caruso, owner of the Southland shopping center development company, early this year called the American shopping mall a “historical anachronism.” But he didn’t fault e-commerce. He believes that buying online is a lonely endeavor and that people want to shop with other people, gathering together out in the world. His approach closely resembles Gruen's idea of a center catering to a wide variety of cultural, civic, and business activities. Caruso's malls have fountains, a mix of businesses, theaters, outdoor activity, opportunities for dining and music, and a trolley.
Though many decry Caruso's sprawling Grove, one of the highest grossing shopping centers in the country, as a “disnified” attraction, it’s a clear departure from the traditional American mall, and a successful one. Not surprisingly, other mall developers and owners are following suit.
On a smaller scale, pop-ups, kiosks, and carts are also getting more creative, with a greater diversity of products for sale from a wider variety of retailers.
Malls as cultural centers
José de Jesús Legaspi's is another developer who, like Caruso, is creating malls with a mix of enterprises. Plus, Legaspi is giving his 10 projects a decidedly ethnically focused mix to appeal to Hispanics. He has invited retailers based on what products Hispanics buy most, but he doesn’t stop there. There are shops catering to quinceañera celebrations, events geared to feast days like the Day of the Virgin of Guadelupe, religious services, and Sunday sales events scheduled to accommodate anyone going to Sunday services.
"We create one-stop shopping for the entire Hispanic family," Legaspi told Fast Company magazine, "grocery stores, dental care, medical care, immunization, clothes, entertainment, banking, and the DMV."
The mall as a downtown center
While the mall is mostly a suburban phenomenon, cities from San Francisco to New York have embraced “retail complexes” as part of their urban revitalization plans. And many urban planners are looking to mall design to help them make downtown streets more inviting in hopes of luring more retailers there.
Victor Gruen once equated good planning with good business, but most American malls seem to be examples of a sort of architectural mass production. To survive, the American mall may need to return to its early origins as a well-planned center of American life.