When they’re Gone, will we Mourn the Malls?

Overhead view of Valley View Mall | via http://blueridgeskyline.com/

Coming down from the recent high some of you may have experienced on Black Friday (myself, I could conceive of no greater punishment than dealing with the traffic and crowds at the shopping malls and other retail outlets), it’s worth some time to reflect on the history behind those massive structures in which many of us left so much money behind.  Back in April, Mark Hinshaw at Better Cities and Town offered this reflection and analysis:

I recently came across a set of recommended standards for commercial development published in 1954, just about the same time [architect Victor] Gruen was crafting his influential shopping center model. Although the authors of the standards likely had no idea they were actually designing the future, they were predicting if not dictating the American we live in today.

Because they were widely published standards, thousands of cities and towns used them as a basis to pass laws that enshrined them for decades. These blueprints of 20th Century America ramble on for more than a dozen pages of fine print with charts and graphs and crude diagrams. They laid out a prescribed pattern of development based almost solely on the parking of automobiles. The authors scolded developers who “underestimated the need for parking spaces or found the land too valuable to be devoted to parking.”

Reading the document is a bit like being in the film Back to the Future. Though almost no big suburban shopping centers yet existed in 1954, the authors drew sketches for prototypes. Every single one of them has been built somewhere since. (As a matter of historic interest, Northgate Mall in Seattle was one of the first, though it was originally open to the air. Its architect, John Graham Jr., made the claim that it was America’s first true shopping center.)

Hinshaw goes on to point out that in the world envisioned by these development standards, nearly 75% of developed land was devoted to parking cars.  “Most predictions of the future have failed,” he says.  “This one, unfortunately, was pretty spot on.”

Demographic and settlement pattern changes seem to be signalling and end to the shopping mall as a major shopping destination, which tracks against another trend we see – the resurgence of downtowns and urban centers, the focusing of development on village centers, the demolishing of antiquated zoning regulations that discourage density and create parking minimums instead of maximums.  We’re seeing new investment in old urban neighborhoods, such as what has been happening in Old Southwest and Mountain View here in Roanoke.  We are increasingly seeing a market that wants to reclaim and renovate, rather than continue to build on the edges.

Some other signs that malls and other huge shopping centers may be on the way out – the growing popularity of Small Business Saturday as a locally-focused response to Black Friday, and the skyrocketing increase in online shopping:

In the latest sign of the growing importance of Internet-based retailing, comScore Inc said Black Friday online sales topped $1 billion for the first time, while IBM said online sales rose 16.9 percent year-over-year on Saturday.

Online sales were still a fraction of total sales, but the percentage of growth in that category far surpassed the increase in in-store sales.

So, the malls may be on the way out, or at least in the process of facing a massive transformation.

The question is, with the internet giving us easy access to the most popular, practical, or just plan generic stuff, and a focus on local businesses for the unique and homegrown, will we actually miss the malls when they’re gone?