The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why no one likes indoor malls any more

Photo courtesy of Flickr user <a href="">Brett Levin</a> , under a Creative Commons license.

There is nothing more photogenic and metaphorical than a dead mall — all those hushed escalators, abandoned mannequins and empty parking lots veined with weeds. The New York Times had a lovely slideshow of just such scenes over the weekend, accompanying another story (of which there are now many) on the demise of the suburban shopping mecca.

The lesson in these images invariably has to do with decay: Look at all that wasted land and the dried-up commerce. As the Times writes, mall trends reflect American income inequality: high-end retail hubs are thriving, while places that once catered to the middle class are closing down. Demographics and technology are implicated in the decline, too. Baby boomers in the suburbs no longer have teens who want to hang out in shopping malls. And physical stores have, supposedly, lost their allure to the Internet.

But there's also a promising trend here that has less to do with economics or technology than with the kinds of places where Americans now want to spend their time (and money). Today, malls that are doing well aren't simply those that cater to the wealthy; they're outdoor "town centers" and "lifestyle centers" that much more closely resemble the old urban downtowns — community centers with sidewalks, public spaces, outdoor restaurants — that the original indoor mall decades ago helped kill.

The mall that's dying is, in fact, a specific kind of mall: It's enclosed, with an anonymous, windowless exterior, wrapped in yards of parking, located off a highway interchange. It's the kind of place where you easily lose track of time and all connection to the outside world, where you could once go to experience air conditioning if you didn't have it at home.

The mall that's viable now is different in some notable ways that go beyond the quality of its brands: It's open-air instead of hermetically sealed, its stores turn outward instead of in, it has restaurants below and apartments above, which means that some people don't even need to drive there. In place of the giant mega-block wrapped in parking, it has its own compact street grid with pedestrian plazas. It feels almost like a neighborhood. It has room for a skating rink.

The death of old-fashioned indoor malls is also the rebirth of shopping hubs that feel more like Main Street. That's a slightly different story — one about the design of retail space rather than the economics behind it — from the death of malls as we often tell it. For decades cities mangled themselves trying to replicate suburban retail downtown, razing buildings for parking garages and highways. Now the reverse is happening: Suburban malls are evolving to feel more like downtowns. Which is vindication if you're an urban planner or someone who never liked malls in the first place.