Photo by Kevin Cole

In 1952, Austrian architect Victor Gruen dreamed of building the perfect downtown on an immense plot of windswept prairie grass, just south of Minneapolis. Residents would walk through mixed-use developments, flush with greenery and eateries. Public spaces would flourish amidst the amenities of urban life, from apartments to townhouses and clinics to schools. Gruen’s paradise never materialized. Instead of fashionable promenades and village greens, the city of Edina, Minnesota got the Gruen-designed Southdale Center—the original shopping mall.

Southdale Center was revolutionary for its time. It was a two-storied monument to shopping in a single-story world. Shoppers walked in air-conditioned bliss from one anchor tenant to the next past ten acres of glistening shop fronts. In the middle of the complex sat Gruen’s verdant town square. Sunlight poured through the skylight onto a garden court of sculpted magnolias, koi ponds, and hanging ferns. Shoppers relaxed with their loot and downed meals from the food court. Then, just as quickly as they came, shoppers walked out to their cars and drove away.

In 2004, The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell reflected on just what Southdale meant to shoppers:

Until then, most shopping centers had been what architects like to call “extroverted,” meaning that store windows and entrances faced both the parking area and the interior pedestrian walkways. Southdale was introverted: the exterior walls were blank, and all the activity was focused on the inside. Suburban shopping centers had always been in the open, with stores connected by outdoor passageways.

These elements should seem familiar to us today, since they were copied across America. “The shopping center is one of the few new building types created in our times,” Gruen stated in his 1964 book, The Heart of Our Cities.

Southdale Center opened on October 8, 1956, at a cost of $20 million, or what would be roughly $174 million today. (By contrast, the nearby Mall of America cost over $1 billion.) Forty thousand visitors visited on its first day. By all accounts, they were amazed. “The splashiest center in the U.S.,” declared Life. “Part of the American way” and an “imaginative distillation of what makes downtown magnetic,” sang others.

Southdale Center sat like a city on a hill, drawing shoppers from the Twin Cities and beyond. It became a destination address all by itself. But Southdale was never meant to end at its walls. “Gruen’s original vision was to foster community,” said D. Jamie Rusin, an architect and planner speaking recently to The Wall Street Journal. “He originally saw the mall as a place you could go to shop, eat, see the doctor, have an office—a community center for people who didn’t have one.”

What Gruen imagined for Southdale was a not-too-distant cousin to today’s New Urbanist vision. It was really just an old-fashioned town square dressed up in modern clothes. Around it were to be clusters of walkable mixed-use developments, built with an eye toward providing life and space for community to flourish. Gruen recognized that postwar American suburbs were being built to conform to the arterial highway system. The traditional Main Street was fading. Gruen’s mall would be the new urban core. The goal was to encourage families to cluster in residential communities off the highway, where they could walk and talk with their neighbors as they shopped.

No wonder then that as copycat malls popped up across the country—like distant islands floating in a sea of parking—Victor Gruen began to sour on Southdale Center. What was once a vision for new urbanism became to him the original sin of suburbanism. Gruen called these developments “shopping machines,” accusing them of blighting the natural landscape, corroding city centers, dissolving social connections, driving small merchants out of business, and marring the city aesthetic with “ugliness and discomfort.” Needless to say, he spared the mall little mercy.

Yet it was these same “shopping machines” that proved immensely popular features of postwar American life. Roughly 1,500 malls were built from the mid-1950s to 2005. “Shopping plazas sprouted like well-fertilized weeds,” said urban historian Thomas Hanchett, thanks in part to generous changes to the tax code. At their peak in the mid-1990s, malls were popping up at a rate of 140 a year. Culturally, the mall gave two generations their memories of youthful independence. The children and grandchildren of the Baby Boom met up with their friends, watched movies, snacked on soft pretzels, and pursued faint flickers of romance.

But as with some memories, time hasn’t been kind. Many of today’s shopping malls maintain a ghostly presence on the fringes of America’s urban spaces. Nearly 15 percent of malls are between 10 and 40 percent vacant, up from just 5 percent in 2006. Another 30 million square feet of mall retail space are in the throes of what real estate analyst D.J. Busch of Green Street Advisors terms a “death spiral.”

Shoppers are increasingly making purchases from home; Internet sales reached 6 percent of total retail spending in the fourth quarter of 2013, nearly doubling their share from 2006. Many parts of America are “over-malled,” suffering from nineties-era overbuilding that left a glut of retail space that’s hard to fill. Older malls are feeling the pinch. Though the bulk of shopping malls remain healthy to an accountant’s eye, they’re fast becoming cultural dinosaurs. Many shoppers feel alienated by their concrete brutalism and aging, introverted atmosphere. “Within ten to fifteen years,” says mall developer Rick Caruso, “the typical U.S. mall, unless it is completely reinvented, will be a historical anachronism—a sixty-year aberration that no longer meets the public’s needs, the retailers’ needs, or the community’s needs.”

Is it possible to breathe life into dead malls? “Sometimes a mall goes out of business because it has lost its economic reason for being,” architect Victor Dover notes, but “almost every community needs something.” We need to “stop thinking about these as failed shopping center properties and start thinking about them as potential mixed-use properties.” Reinventing shopping malls won’t be easy. They are large and inflexible spaces. Yet, as Victor Gruen knew, we have always needed gathering places. That is why we should look back to Gruen’s original vision of the mall to find its purpose for the decades ahead.

Many of these shopping centers are ideal sites for transit-oriented, mixed-use developments that include housing, retail, office, services, and public space. Infusing malls with new life means following a few basic ideas. Outward-looking shop fronts will need to be carved into malls’ blank faces. Large parking lots will have to be replaced by regularized street patterns that connect with surrounding communities. Mixed-used developments around the mall should sit flush with roads and offer residents and shoppers walkable, public spaces. Non-retail activity, such as office space and housing, will need to be integrated directly into malls.

Innovative policymakers should also consider malls as self-contained zones for experimenting with new ideas. Devens, a 4,400-acre redevelopment of a former military base on the outskirts of Boston, implemented a 75-day, one-stop permitting regime that helped turn the once-derelict space into one of Massachusetts’s most thriving commercial centers. Other cities have turned ghost malls into low-cost co-working and “maker” hubs—a boon in particular for poorer entrepreneurs who can’t afford flashy commercial space. New ideas can be tried out in old malls, trusting that the best ones will trickle out to the rest of the city. Ultimately, the aim should be to turn malls into a space for individual flourishing in the midst of community.

Southdale Center still sits as a fading testament to Victor Gruen’s vision for a new downtown. Its owners renovated the building a few years back, moving around the food court and adding a few dabs of fresh paint. It didn’t do the trick. Southdale remains roughly a third vacant. Some of the mall’s anchor tenants closed up shop years ago. But in early summer of 2013, just as the last touches of winter faded away, developers broke ground on a new housing development on the corner of the old Southdale Center. They gushed over its “stunning urban amenities” and particularly pointed to its easy walkability to restaurants and green space. In a small way, Gruen’s original vision is actually coming to life.


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