Indoor shopping malls often are mobbed and their parking lots full during this holiday season, yet the viability of some malls and mall architecture seems in doubt. Recently, The Washington Post reported on plans to eventually demolish the White Flint shopping center on Rockville Pike in Montgomery County and completely redevelop its site. In the past few years, only a couple of large enclosed malls have been proposed in the United States. Meanwhile, many malls and shopping centers are falling on hard times, some of them falling apart.
What explains these trends? Are people’s shopping needs and habits changing? Are national economic conditions or competition from Internet sites the cause? Perhaps national retail chains and retail real estate developers, in an attempt to stimulate market demand, are cooking up alternative design formulas just for the sake of novelty.
In many locations, the enclosed shopping mall seems to be giving way to the popular “town center” concept, which seeks to create a pedestrian-friendly, outdoor environment with animated streetscapes and citylike, street-block patterns. Some town centers, like Bowie Town Center, have been built from scratch, while others have been created through the successful redevelopment of buildings and neighborhoods, including Bethesda Row in Montgomery County and Shirlington in Arlington County.
Larger stores can exist within the fabric of a retail town center, but big-box and department stores must usually remain peripheral, if they are present at all. Town centers also can be made denser and encompass other uses — offices and housing — above or alongside retail uses. Town centers’ parking garages and surface lots are generally embedded within block interiors and behind stores instead of facing streets in front of stores.
Of course, many new town center developments are occupied by the same national chain stores and franchises that are in conventional enclosed malls. Indeed, the town center’s retailing formula generates the same challenge as the old enclosed shopping mall formula: Rents typically are too high and unaffordable for most locally owned, community-oriented shops and stores. This problem also arises when older buildings are repurposed and modernized to include upgraded or new street-facing retail space.
Retail architectural paradigm shifts are not the result of developers and retailers merely deciding to try something different. Rather, these shifts are a response to social, demographic, cultural and geographic changes that are an integral part of changing American history.
After World War II, the enclosed regional shopping mall emerged because of two interdependent American phenomena: construction of the interstate highway system and rapid growth of low-density metropolitan suburbs.
Starting in the early 1950s, residents and many businesses fled cities, populating the expanding outer suburbs. Downtown department stores and smaller shops had ever fewer customers, but suburbanites still needed a place to shop, and the regional shopping center satisfied that need perfectly.