An Optimist at Heart

My wife sometimes says that I design shopping malls for a living because she knows that it will irritate me a little and also keep me grounded. But I have never really struggled to reconcile my social conscience with my practice in commercial architecture. Recently, I’ve had the occasion to reflect on my career, most of it involved in retail, entertainment, and public space design. The current state-of-the-art has vastly improved since the 1980s. All of the lessons of authenticity, accessibility, and dignity that I learned in college now apply to the design of successful retail and mixed-use centers.

In college, we celebrated connecting design to an authentic and meaningful sense of place. We studied theorists such as Christian Norberg-Schulz and his book, Genius Loci, as well as practitioners such as Charles Moore and my professor Donlyn Lyndon. We disdained postmodernism for its shallow characterization of historic architecture and preferred, instead, to rely on a sense of local place and vernacular for our design cues.

We also loved cities and the study of public spaces, spending hours deconstructing the use of our favorite streets and plazas. I still find my tattered copy of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities relevant. Sustainable design, arising from the 1970s oil crisis, was also at the forefront of our education, and has been reinvigorated and greatly expanded by a new generation of designers and researchers.    

Malls have been demonized, and I have heard the refrain that “the mall is dead” for my entire career. While many malls do not deserve to persist and won’t, many more malls are or can be the center of their communities and a true financial success as well. Many aging retail centers are being rebranded and repositioned through the updating of retail environments and the addition of new uses. Customers are drawn to authentic, unique places that are active, varied, and comfortable. They resist national retailers and traditional marketing, and may find a farmers market as alluring as Nordstrom, although using actual spending as a gauge, traditional retailers remain the big gorilla.

People are abandoning long commutes to distant suburbs and are seeking an improved balance of work and life, leading to robust inner-suburb and urban housing and office markets that have contributed to the creation of new and lively mixed-use districts. Retail and entertainment are the glue that shape and hold the social life and energy of our cities together.

The recession has been separating the chaff from the wheat. While a select number of properties will thrive exclusively as traditional retail malls, due to long-established customer loyalty and good demographics, there are many properties whose fate is uncertain. For these centers, integration with their surroundings through redevelopment and the addition of new uses may lead the way to success. For some properties, there is no future. One of the outcomes of this recent prolonged recession is that inflexible malls without any relationship to place or customers are no longer viable, so that land is now available for more appropriate uses.

Thoughtful urban design can overcome the tendency for multiple projects to collectively fall into lowest-common-denominator solutions. One positive example is Church Street Plaza in Evanston, Illinois. The three-block mixed-use development revolutionized the city, reversing decades of decline after original retail uses left the small downtown. The underlying concept for the development was that each parcel would have a primary leading use—retail, office, hotel, residential—that could answer market demand and be financed independently. Too many projects are burdened, some to the point of failing, by overly integrated designs that tie multiple uses and financing together in an inflexible way. Retail uses can tie the environment together at the street while the uses above remain independent of each other.

Sunnyvale Town Center Mall in Sunnyvale, California, is another example. It was originally built in the late 1970s in an attempt to compete with new malls on the outskirts of town, replacing nine blocks of downtown with an enclosed shopping mall and leaving only a single block of traditional street retail space. Over the decades, it fell into decline until all the stores were empty except for a Macy’s.

The city commissioned a downtown design plan with input from stakeholders and residents at public meetings. In 2002, the mall’s owners declared bankruptcy. Now new owners are redeveloping the site and reconnecting the city street grid to create an open-air, mixed-use district with a central boulevard lined with housing and offices over retail shops. Illustrating the value of independent but coordinated projects, a downtown that was meant to be led by retail at its inception is now, without disrupting the plan, being driven by demand for office uses close to transit and amenities.

In Austin, Texas, the redevelopment of a former municipal airport into a mixed-use urban village called Mueller is emphasizing an atmosphere of organic growth, lending a local and authentic feel to the whole development. The goal is to create a small downtown that is as Austin-inspired as possible while maintaining a plan that will support both local and national tenants. It includes parcels that can be sold and financed separately to meet market demands. So while the plan includes provisions for national retail and cinema tenants and hotel flags, it also includes the Austin Children’s Museum, a local playhouse, an emphasis on local restaurateurs and, at a slight remove, the Dell Children’s Hospital, medical office buildings, and University of Texas facilities.

The issue of the automobile and its financial and environmental expense is tied to the mall’s future.  Public transit needs to reach existing and new centers. Structured parking is also key to the future of mall redevelopment. Some form of public sector participation in funding structured parking is usually necessary for the projects to pencil out and get built. This will be more difficult moving forward, particularly in California, where redevelopment agencies have been eliminated to fill the gaps in the state general fund.

Looking farther to the future, I think the answer will be paid parking tied to the financing of structured parking. Today, paid parking is a competitive disadvantage for retailers. Guests are often irritated to have to pay for what they are used to getting for free while navigating various and frustrating payment systems. I believe a revolution will take place as cars are equipped with electronic identities that communicate automatically with parking structure software. As with bridge and toll way roads already in operation, guests will be able to park with no interruptions and will receive a monthly bill for their parking. Ultimately, cities will likely have broad parking districts and dynamic fee structures that cover multiple garages and parking meters as well. Until then, in the absence of public assistance, the economic friction of structured parking will stop many projects in their tracks.

Compared to the state of the shopping mall industry when I first left college, conditions have demonstratively improved. The vision and aspirations we cultivated in the 1970s and early 1980s, and found to be somewhat irrelevant to the marketplace when we first entered the workforce, are now mainstream. There is a vibrant and unforgiving democracy to retail and public space design—it either works or it doesn’t, and there is no place to hide. Public expectations for thoughtful planning, authentic places, and sustainable design keep increasing, and designers and developers have been rising to the challenge.  An optimist at heart, I believe that over time, our collective good values are leading to better and more livable cities and great places.

Posted In: Architecture, Blog, Urban Design