Shopping Town, USA: How Developers Trick People Into Moving to Dressed-Up Malls
Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose’s Santana Row covers 42 acres. Its dense, high-end retailing, residences, restaurants and offices create a city within a city. The architecture, with urban row houses finished with earth tones and pastel stucco, overtly evokes Old Europe, and developers brought in antique metalwork, pottery and stone fountains to further instill a sense of history (one store even imported the faÃ§ade of a 19th-century building from France).
Meet the shopping mall’s hipper, New Urbanist cousin: the “lifestyle center.”
The form is becoming more and more popular among developers and shoppers. But while lifestyle centers are promoted as a 21st-century, community-oriented alternative to the soulless shopping mall, their purported Main Street “authenticity” is perhaps a new style of retail faÃ§ade.
A Mall or Not?
Lifestyle centers are defined by the International Council of Shopping Centers as a “specialized center” that has “upscale national-chain specialty stores with dining and entertainment in an outdoor setting.” The ICSC further describes them as a “multi-purpose leisure-time destination, including restaurants, entertainment, and design ambiance and amenities such as fountains and street furniture that are conducive to casual browsing.”
It’s a description that sounds an awfully lot like a mall. But there are noticeable differences. Whereas a mall is traditionally anchored by department stores (Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Sears), lifestyle centers are anchored by large specialty stores (Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma) or movie theaters. While a regional mall averages 800,000 square feet in retail space, a lifestyle center is smaller, around 320,000.
The centers have been popping up in affluent suburbs across the country for the last 15 years, and they are often mixed-use developments, bringing apartments, condos, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores—even hotels—to the mall’s historically singular retail focus.
The ICSC estimates that 412 lifestyle centers are open in the United States today (which only comprises a little under 2% of the total number of shopping centers). Meanwhile, some malls, like the Biltmore Square Mall in Asheville, NC, have even taken the radical step of ripping off their roofs to “de-mall.”
Attention to Detail
Michael Beyard of the Urban Land Institute sees the design of lifestyle centers as a shift from “‘wow’ architecture” to the “architecture of comfort.” According to Beyard, developers are trading the mall’s soaring atrium or the Mall of America’s roller-coasters for the lifestyle center’s attention to detail: cobblestone sidewalks, cast-iron lighting or Art Deco-inspired neon signs.
At Market Common Clarendon in Arlington, Virginia, completed in 2001, the developers spent more on details like signage, pavement, facades, plantings, fountains and sidewalks. However, the price-tag for the extras came out as a wash: the developers saved significant resources by not having to build a roof.
The architecture at lifestyle centers is purposefully “eclectic,” so as to feel “legitimate,” explains Robert Koup of Jacobs engineering. He says that developers either ask an architect to respond to a certain period of architecture or they use multiple architects on one project. For instance, BAR Architects of San Francisco, which worked on two blocks of Santana Row, described the “arcaded loft and retail buildings…modeled on turn-of-the-century industrial structures” – all designed to “recall historic shopping venues.”
By incorporating elements from history into retail projects, “lifestyle centers are designed specifically to make it look like it all evolved over time,” Koup says.
The mix of buildings also provides a solution to another criticism about malls: their homogeneity in both form and retailing. It’s an eclectic antidote to complaints about the sterility and sameness of chain stores. Indeed, as the lifestyle centers are dominated by chain stores (like their mall brethren before them) the quirky styles of the stores make them seem more unique, local and un-chain-like.
It’s one of the lifestyle center's great conceits: it wants to look like a town’s perfectly preserved, picturesque Main Street from yesteryear, yet it’s all being created from scratch. Of course, some might see an irony in manufactured authenticity.
Victor Gruen’s Vision Fulfilled?
In many respects, lifestyle centers seek to fulfill the ambitious ideas of 1950s shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen. Gruen, a Jewish architect from Vienna who emigrated to Beverly Hills, promised that the shopping mall would bring urbanity to the “phony respectability and genuine boredom” of postwar suburbia
In the shopping center, Gruen saw a means to bring what he termed “community” to soulless suburbs, a place where people could gather, stroll and socialize. His ideal mall would include community theaters, libraries, daycare, bomb shelters (it was the Cold War, after all), jazz concerts and art shows. “By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities,” Gruen argued in his 1960 book Shopping Towns USA, “shopping centers can fill an existing void.”
While it’s difficult to imagine now, when suburban shopping malls first opened in the 1950s, contemporary observers compared them to the best-known retail experience of their time: downtown. In Gruen’s first mall – the Southdale Center, completed in 1956 in the suburbs of Minneapolis – most thought Gruen had succeeded in bringing downtown to the suburbs. Southdale was “more like downtown than downtown itself,” claimed the Architectural Record.
The main appeals of the mall were its commercial density, pedestrian spaces, cafes and artwork (faux as they may seem now), which suggested an aura of urbanity for new suburbanites who had just left the city.
With his Southdale Center, Gruen liked to brag that he had re-created “the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares.” But while Gruen had imagined Southdale as a mixed-use complex of offices, medical facilities and apartment buildings, retail became the predominant focus of the suburban mall. Many of Gruen’s less-profitable schemes ended up on the cutting room floor.
Sitting in the middle of a sea of parking, Southdale largely isolated itself from the surrounding community, creating a giant island of retail. Even Gruen acknowledged that all the “trees and flowers, music, fountains, sculpture and murals” were all designed with an eye toward increasing profits.
Or as he wrote, “the environment should be so attractive that customers will enjoy shopping trips…This will result in cash registers ringing more often and recording higher sales.”
Nonetheless, Southdale was an immediate success: on its first day of business, 75,000 visitors stopped in to view the new phenomenon. The mall’s grand design proved that suburbanites could be enticed to stay within a climate-controlled, private space for hours upon hours of shopping, and a new model of American retailing was born. A different flavor of the same thing
For decades, the interior-focused, blank-faced suburban malls —always surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking—would become characteristic of the postwar retail model. In the process, malls stole the market-share, tax dollars, jobs and pizazz of traditional downtown shopping districts.
But malls were eventually doomed by their own success: the formula became too easy to replicate, and the design became ubiquitous. With the same chain stores and cookie-cutter designs, malls came to symbolize both mind-numbing homogeneity and loss of community.
“Suddenly people realized this mall formula is everywhere and is getting boring,” says Beyard.
It’s also possible that the sheer size of many malls overwhelmed shoppers. For instance, the 2.4-million-square-foot King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania includes over 400 stores; it’s anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, JC Penney and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Lifestyle centers propose to remedy that mind-numbing situation. However, Cooper Carry architect David Kitchens is skeptical of their longevity.
“They are a better, fresher mousetrap that will work for awhile and then go away,” he says.
Rather than making real connections with the surrounding community, he thinks that many of them – especially the ones devoted solely to retailing – are “designed to be a category killer that will suck the lifeblood out of everything else.”
Yet the shift from large malls to smaller lifestyle centers is part of a larger story, Kitchens insists. He sees lifestyle centers as tapping into Americans’ “emotional desire to rebuild their community.”
“As development gets larger and larger,” he continues, “people now want to decentralize and build personal feeling back into their lives.”
Parading themselves as Main Streets from a bygone era, these new retail centers hope to recreate what was lost in the rush to cover America with large malls from the 1950s through the 1990s. Yet at their core, Gruen’s ideal mall and the New Urbanists' lifestyle center share the same aspiration: a thriving community center, yes, but one that ultimately turns a tidy profit.
And whether we like it or not, suburban Americans have been building community on a foundation of commercialism for the last 60 years.