Thursday, April 02, 2009

Sustainable Doom

Once again, the shopping mall is doomed. The death knell has been sounded periodically since the 1980s, even before The Malling of America was first published. Now the sudden and still continuing destruction/reinvention of the financial system and the severe downturn in the American and world economy--the Great Recession--seems to make it certain.

Time Magazine hangs its obituary on the bad timing of Xanadu, the megamall-amusement complex under construction in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. It seems made to order: huge and--by several accounts, including New Jersey's governor--garish and ugly--it is so badly timed that if it did open this year, it would be the only major new mall to do so. (But it won't--the opening has been pushed into 2010.)

Meanwhile, Time quotes predictions that up to 3,000 other malls could close this year, as well as 73,000 retail stores before summer. Another obit in The Week adds more numbers: more than 400 of the 2,000 largest malls have closed in the past two years, and a new one hasn't opened since 2006.

So are they right? Is the shopping mall doomed? Not necessarily, but then I've always taken a different view of what the mall essentially is. As the kind of dominant retail hubs that shopping malls were in the 1980s, they've been fighting a losing battle to the Big Boxes for at least a decade. As new large retail developments that can be plopped down at any highway intersection, clearly those days have been over for awhile. What could be malled in America, mostly has been malled.

What the Great Recession does seem to signal is the end of the kind of psychotic consumerism that gripped this society with increasing frenzy over the past several decades. So as centers of retail that generate huge profits, malls may well be gone with the wind. But the Big Box complexes that have replaced malls in many places aren't going to find the going so easy either.

Many of these changes have been happening for awhile, and some malls have responded to them. The Mall of America in Minnesota--which itself got started during a downturn--merged retail with destination entertainment, which was one new trend, and also self-consciously became a more diversified hub for a community it in part defined. Its proposed expansion was largely non-retail.

But that's not exactly the model for the future either. Malls are malleable--they can adapt. The trends some were slowly adapting to are now likely to accelerate: namely the move away from highway dependence, and a new balance between retail and everything else, including low-profit or non-profit public services. Malls as nothing but artifice, artificially sustained, right down to plants in their gardens that didn't actually grow, are probably over. Malls, like everything else, will have to become sustainable.

Sooner or later, communities and perhaps companies are going to realize that they can do better by retrofitting their dead malls instead of abandoning them, or even better, transforming them while they are still alive. They will have to become part of the green economy, and not simply market rain forest awareness and recycling somewhere else.

And there probably still will be a place for a Xanadu--which is well-located in the New York metro area, and accessible by a new train line. After a few stutters, entertainment is flourishing, as it did in the Great Depression. That doesn't guarantee Xanadu will survive even long enough to open. But it has a chance.

So do malls all over America, if the degree of imagination is applied that the shopping mall's pioneers demonstrated when they began, and again when they went downtown. Probably new models of finance as well as new models of what a mall can be will be necessary. For all the reasons I wrote about in The Malling of America, malls served the needs of people, better than other places, despite their deficiencies. Malls always had a social reason to exist, and not just an economic one.

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