The De-Malling of America

Abandoned mall, Johnson County, Kansas, 2007

Quietly and unexpectedly, a dominant species in our country has become endangered. Some say Mallus americanis -- the American shopping mall -- is a victim of its own success, a classic example of a life-form exceeding an ecosystem’s finite carrying capacity. Others argue that pure Darwinian competition is responsible. But no one disputes the numbers.

“In 2006 there was only one new enclosed mall built in this country,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s archi­tecture program. “That’s a dramatic drop.” As recently as the 1990s, she says, new malls were going up at a rate of 140 a year. Now, 19 percent of the country’s 2,000 biggest regional malls are failing, and thousands of other malls of all sizes are dead or dying, mortally wounded by the proliferation of big-box stores like Costco and Wal-Mart. Each year 5 percent of the nation’s 50,000 malls need to be rebuilt or rehabilitated.

Even the very force that gave birth to malls -- urban sprawl -- has turned on its offspring. “With the completion of the interstate highway system, every exit became an ideal shopping mall site,” says Dunham-Jones. “But those prime sites have run out. Retail is always cannibalizing; the next mall is always farther out and will rob market share from the one that is closer in.”

In any ecosystem, species either evolve or vanish. And in some parts of the country, shuttered malls are mutating into developments rarely seen in suburbia: compact, well-planned, walkable communities with a dense mix of homes and small businesses. Ironically enough, malls, icons of a car-centric, fossil-fueled culture, could become the sites for smarter, greener places to live and work.

One such transformation is well under way in a Denver suburb. The Villa Italia mall in Lakewood, Colorado, was the largest mall west of Chicago when it opened in 1966. But by the late 1990s the 106-acre behemoth was floundering. As retailers fled the mall, the city tried in vain to lure new occupants. Lakewood’s mayor and city council eventually hit on the idea of converting the forsaken property into a genuine downtown, which the city lacked even though it was the fourth-largest municipality in the state.

A local development firm was hired to demolish the Villa Italia and build a 23-square-block urban space that by 2017 will have 200 homes and town houses, 1,300 apartments, nine acres of parks and plazas, and more than a million square feet of retail space. Rechristened as Belmar, the transformed mall is about two-thirds complete and has al­ready morphed into a lively urban center for all of Lakewood. Besides a daily influx of visiting shoppers, Belmar also has some 2,000 permanent residents who have easy access to Denver via bus lines and light rail.

About a dozen projects like Belmar now exist around the country, and the greening of more abandoned malls would do much to reverse the past 50 years of suburban expansion, which has eaten land eight times faster than the nation’s population has grown.

Conventional suburban development, with single-family homes and large yards, isn’t sustainable. Nor is the drive-everywhere lifestyle that goes with it. Since 1980 the number of miles driven by Americans has increased about seven times faster than the population. Even if more fuel-efficient vehicles become mandatory, emissions and gasoline consumption will continue to climb. Those trends won’t be reversed until most of us start living and working in communities where we can walk more and drive less.

Most zoning laws, however, discourage smart growth, says Christopher Leinberger, an urban policy specialist at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. The country’s zoning laws were developed early in the twentieth century to separate polluting industries and noisy, crowded markets from the places where people lived. While the landscape of postindustrial America has changed, for the most part the antiquated zoning laws have not. “Unfortunately our laws are a reflection of the previous reality,” Leinberger says. “It’s illegal in most places to develop mixed-use, high-density projects. You have to change zoning, and that takes a lot of time and money.”

Despite such obstacles, Leinberger believes that the real es­tate market and the rising cost of fossil fuels will make communities like Belmar increasingly desirable.

“We can’t subsidize suburban growth forever,” he says. “Gas prices will make it uneconomical. But most importantly the market has changed. My generation was raised on Ozzie and Harriet, but the Gen Xers and the twenty-somethings have a different concept of how they want to live. They’re willing to trade off large-lot, single-family homes and expensive commutes for what I refer to as walkable urban living. These walkable places are now the most expen­sive places on a price-per-square-foot basis, and that is a reflection of pent-up demand. Right now the demand is outpacing the real estate industry’s ability to provide this kind of product. It might take nearly a generation to catch up, but I’m more positive than I’ve ever been in my 30 years in this business, and it’s because the market wants it.”

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