The Shopping Mall Isn't Dead Yet

Public Domain. Victor Gruen Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Victor Gruen might have liked what is happening to them as they become more like cities.

When Victor Gruen designed the USA's first shopping malls in the early 1950s, he thought of them as complete communities. He said they were supposed to “provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.”

When he designed Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, it was supposed to be more than stores; according to Marni Epstein-Mervis of Curbed, "Gruen's initial plans for the compound called for actual apartments, business and medical offices, civic and religious buildings, auditoriums, and utilities." (It was also supposed to be nuclear bomb-proof but that's another story.)

Of course, none of this happened to his malls, and he came to hate them. Emily Badger writes in Citylab:

But the property value around Southdale quickly went up. And instead of developing the full 500-acre site, Dayton’s sold off chunks of it for what would become the kind of "anonymous mass housing" Gruen detested, and precisely more of the commercial sprawl he wanted to eradicate. Repeatedly, his plans did not turn out as he had imagined them, and later in life he bitterly lamented that Americans had debased his ideas.
southdale Mall interior

Victor Gruen Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming/Public Domain

But it now appears that the world is catching up with Victor Gruen. Brookfield, which recently bought 125 American malls, is planning to densify them, bringing in the hotels and residences that Gruen envisaged. Sandeep Mathrani, head of retail for Brookfield, discusses what happens when a mall is intensified:

First, we're seeing that the tenant demand from the retailers has increased [after redevelopment]; they view residential and hotel components to be a source of incremental shoppers... We're seeing sales uplift where we are putting in the condominiums or the residential... Second, the retail infrastructure in the base of a building is increasing the sales value or the rental value of the residential projects... Now we're seeing an uplift on the retail based upon the fact that they're becoming mixed-use developments.

So by making malls more like cities, it increases the value of both the retail and the residential. It also means more customers come on foot and fewer by car, and that some of the parking might go underground to make room for streets and buildings. It sounds a lot like what Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, told Badger:

"You’ve got to get a mix of uses, but the connectivity is probably even more important," Dunham-Jones says. "The uses will come and go over time, but if you can establish a walkable network of streets, that’s when you’re really going to establish a ripple effect in changing suburban patterns."

And while dead mall porn is a staple on the internet, Brookfield doesn't believe they are going away; according to CEO Brian Kingston, the good ones will survive.

Five years from now, what you will find is that the retailers who are still around will be the ones who figured out how to integrate those two things [online vs bricks and mortar], because the store-front really is the last mile of distribution that we so often talk about in some other sectors. And so, if you've got assets like we have that are located in densely populated areas, that are convenient, that are on the way home from work, they will continue to be in demand.
Brookdfield shopping malls

© Brookfield Properties

In fact, according to Kingston, there are four types of malls: the successful ones where land is relatively cheap, which will be expanded; successful ones on expensive urban property, which will be densified; lousy malls on valuable land which will be redeveloped; and all the other lousy malls on cheap land, which fortunately his company doesn't own.

So perhaps Amazon isn't taking over the world, and the shopping centers that remain open will be the ones that are not just accessible by cars and that can become truly part of the community.

Victor Gruen hated cars and said, "Their threat to human life and health is just as great as the exposed sewer." Anne Quinto quotes him in Quartz:

I am often called the father of the shopping mall. I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.

Perhaps as the worst offenders get closed and redeveloped, and the better ones densified, it might be more like his original vision.