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?

Evan’s Spring Plan an Example of Land Use Supporting Smart Transportation

via Virginia Department of Transportation

The upcoming improvements to the Valley View interchange on 581 holds the potential for a whole slew of changes in the vicinity.  The Roanoke Times points out that one of the most important changes is how the new traffic pattern will impact the nearby Evan’s Spring area:

But the project’s greater impact will be in years to come as the full interchange primes for development 150 untouched acres on the opposite side of I-581.

Without a plan, that fallow land could turn into Valley View: The Sequel — ring roads looping together acres upon acres of parking lots and linking chain stores to restaurants and hotels. This, thankfully, is not the vision held by city planners, nearby neighborhood leaders or the land’s current property owners.

In urban areas like the City of Roanoke, providing facilities for bicycles, pedestrians, and even buses – pull-offs at bus stops, for example – is mainly a matter of retrofitting existing roads, or eking out three feet of bike late or striped shoulder here and there.  It’s also a matter of getting people to rethink the use of their streets and the connectivity of a neighborhood – a commuter driving a certain way to work who is interested in biking may need some help reconsidering their route, as they may not be aware that streets they never drive down and are unfamiliar with are actually more suitable for a bike trip.

What can happen in the Evan’s Spring area is a good example of how smart land use decisions can set the right foundation for sustainable transportation choices, making it easier and more obvious that there are multiple ways to move within a neighborhood, or traveling between the neighborhood and the rest of the city.  In particular, the plan’s apparent focus on creating a village center is an important part of building a sustainable transportation infrastructure – all the bike lanes and sidewalks in the world aren’t helpful if you have to travel significantly out of the neighborhood to access basic services.

We applaud the City and the neighbors in the area for their vision, and hope that it is developed as planned.  Meanwhile, if you are a neighbor of Evan’s Spring, we encourage you to get involved.  Talk to city planners regularly and attend public meetings.  We also encourage you to call on RIDE Solutions staff if there’s anything we can do to help!