Old Shopping Malls Require Much More Than Cosmetic Surgery

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, February 3, 2007

At the University of Maryland a few years ago, an architecture student undertook an unusual master's thesis project: the functional and aesthetic redesign of a strip shopping area in suburban Maryland.

The goal was to transform a low-density, auto-dominated, formless agglomeration of buildings, roads and parking lots into a more attractive, denser, pedestrian-friendly spot with housing and work space, as well as shopping.

His thesis was timely and relevant because the American suburbs are littered with thousands of generic, aging shopping complexes, large and small, that cry for transformation.

Built decades ago, some are physically run-down, suffering from wear and tear and lack of upkeep. Many are economically unviable, having been configured in ways that no longer meet today's retail needs and design standards.

Others sit in locations that, because of steady population growth or infrastructure improvements over time, have increased greatly in value. These complexes often have the capacity for substantial alteration or expansion incorporating newer, more intense, more diverse uses.

The master's thesis exploration, although hypothetical, was not purely theoretical, as evidenced by recent Washington Post news reports of two older, very different kinds of shopping complexes slated to be transformed -- although the headlines spoke of "overhaul" and "face-lift" rather than transformation.

In the District, a small, partly vacant strip mall at the busy intersection of Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue NE, near the Fort Totten Metro stop, is to get a "face-lift." Actually, "complete do-over" is more appropriate. Plans are to demolish the one-story structure and replace it with a dense, mixed-use, $300 million development -- dubbed the Dakotas -- with 900 apartments, a grocery store and other retailers.

I often drive by the 9 1/2 -acre property, most of which is a parking lot, and I can see that it's time for a redo. The underused site is accessible and visible. Proper redevelopment could serve and further revitalize the nearby Fort Totten neighborhood. If designed well, the Dakotas also could improve the image and scale of the amorphous Riggs-South Dakota intersection.

In her report about the project, Post staff writer Dana Hedgpeth noted that the developers and members of the community have met to discuss project goals, neighborhood needs and plan options. Among the wishes voiced by local citizens were "a more pedestrian-friendly project" and "quality retail," in addition to moderately priced housing.

In contrast, in Virginia, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors just approved plans for the "overhaul" of 38-year-old Tysons Corner Center. This will, in fact, entail adding uses other than retail. Ringing the existing mall will be eight high-rise towers containing as many as 1,400 apartments, office space, and a hotel or two. To be built in several phases, the towers will rise around the shopping center on land now used for parking or open space.

The Tysons Corner Center overhaul will be but one part of the transformation envisioned for much of Tysons Corner's 1,700 acres, which the county would like to make more citylike, more visually coherent and more hospitable for all modes of travel. Indeed, fixing Tysons will be a test with national import, potentially a model for how other large, sprawling, formless "edge cities" can be aesthetically and functionally enhanced.

The county's consultants are forming an entirely new Tysons Corner plan. Other Tysons property owners plan new structures and higher density for their sites. The Metrorail extension through Tysons to Dulles is on the drawing board, along with substantial road network improvements.

Yet with its great size, awkward patterns of land ownership and use, visual dysfunction, and horrendous congestion, successfully transforming Tysons Corner will be difficult. Speculation is already rampant about the traffic chaos likely to ensue when all the construction gets underway. But if Tysons is to become the kind of place it could and should be, if it is to set an example nationally, the challenge must be met.

These two projects are emblematic of increasingly frequent real estate investment and design challenges that lie ahead. Across the country, tens of millions of square feet of shopping center space, in all shapes and sizes, will need to be upgraded, retrofitted, expanded or demolished.

Part of the design challenge is how to deploy more diverse uses and higher densities. New products and merchandising strategies will put new functional demands on architecture, as will the need for more housing for workers. And, of course, patterns of circulation, vehicular mobility and parking will continue to loom.

But part of the design challenge also will be to create more humane, less ugly places to shop, work and dwell, to create architecture and urban environments that do more than satisfy the functional requirements.

For our thesis student attacking these problems hypothetically, this last challenge, transcending functionality, was much of the fun.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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