Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Disbelief at the Mall

Sunday's Times featured an op-ed graphic detailing the demise of the shopping mall. Turns out that sales have dropped sharply from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009. Once mighty heavyweights like J.C. Penny, Macy's, and Dillards have seen their sales drop 5.9%, 9.5%, and 12% respectively. High-end retailer Saks suffered a 28.7% loss, and Abercrombie & Fitch tumbled 23.5%. Not surprisingly, budget shops like Kohl's and Wal-Mart have dropped by 0.4% and 0.7% respectively. In fact, the only stores to experience gains are Burger King at 1%, Radio Shack at 5.6%, Cinemark at 6.2%, Family Dollar at 8.7%, and CVS at 9.7%.

When the only thing going at the mall is a cheap electronics store, a pharmacy, a dollar store, and a fast-food joint, it's not surprising to see that mall movie sales have risen. To the long list of woes people are trying to forget in a bucket of popcorn and a dark movie theatre we can now add the demise of the mall. People must suspend their disbelief somehow. It used to be that malls suspended our disbelief that our main streets had lost their retail. Malls were our fantasylands.

Over at OKC Talk, there's a thread that's almost a year old about the "End of Crossroads Mall," the once formidable shopper's paradise between Oklahoma City and Norman. In the past year the mall has lost all its major tenants (Macy's, JC Penny, and Steve and Barry's...Steven and Barry's? That's a "major" tenant?) and is just barely hanging on. In tones ranging from nostalgic to defiant to downright silly, contributors to the discussion thread have been suggesting alternative uses for the property when it inevitably folds. Suggestions run the gamut from outrageous (world's greatest indoor paintball facility, OKC Talk headquarters, a prison) to respectable (an educational center) to promising (mixed use development based on Denver's Southglenn) to the inspiring (a stop on a future interurban rail line).

Who knows what Crossroads fate is, but an op-ed from today's Times might provide a clue. In "Rethinking the Mall" Allison Arieff talks about her experience serving as a juror in the Future Image Architecture Competition for the mall of the future, sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers:

Surely, I thought, the entries will reflect the extent to which business as usual — i.e., massive anchor retail tenants surrounded by thousands (even millions) of square feet of specialized yet mass retail, in settings only accessible by car — cannot possibly continue....Despite near-non-existent consumer spending, the declining popularity of shopping as America’s favorite pastime and the chilling effect foreclosed homes in housing developments are surely having on nearby malls, most entries in the ICSC competition responded less to the future of the shopping mall than to the glory days to which we’ve recently bid adieu. I was struck by how little attention entrants paid to things like sustainable architecture, alternative transit or changing consumer attitudes about consumption.

Arieff did find a few bright spots, though. According to her, the best entries--Wilson Yard by Fitzgerald Associates Architects; Retail to the People; and FutuRetail 2020 by CommArts--all revolve around what Arieff calls a "walkable, mixed-use community"--a sustainable vision of stores distributed throughout neighborhoods and accessable by foot, rail, and bike, instead of being set apart from them and accessable only by car. CommArts' "Crossroads City" will be a "social center" that will not only sell stuff, but will also grow stuff, make stuff, produce energy, and train and teach people.

In other words, the mall of the future won't be a mall. The mall of the future will resemble the main streets of yesteryear. That's a future I'd like to see.

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