Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas is still being experienced at hundreds of malls, and thousands of photos taken with Santa. But even before the latest economic blows, malls were under serious assault by Big Box developments, chiefly Wal-Marts. After decades when not a single regional mall failed, many began to fade, and some (like Greengate) were demolished. Now retail sales so far in this Christmas shopping season are plummeting, and some retail companies are endangered. One mall developer (General Growth) already faces bankruptcy.

But all is not lost for those with mall nostalgia. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than a dozen abandoned malls are being transformed into mixed-use projects, with housing, parks and public services as well as retail. Many malls with empty storefronts typically turn to recreation and public services to fill the space, and White Flint mall near Bethesda, Maryland used community-oriented events and organizations (the local Academy of Performing Arts) to increase traffic, and in the process revived itself as a retail destination. One key event was a Christmas celebration. Christmas magic, it seems, does not require total concentration on consumerism.

But will future generations remember instead a beloved Big Box Christmas? There are many reasons why is this unlikely, but the short answer is: maybe—but not quite yet. Some who rhapsodized Greengate castigated the Wal-Mart and related shops that replaced it. One called it “a soul-less development that could be in Anywhere, USA.” That of course is what used to be said of malls.

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