Reuters

The inventor of the suburban indoor mall came to rue his creations. But now they are dying off anyway.

The enclosed suburban shopping mall has become so synonymous with the American landscape that it’s hard to imagine the original idea for it ever springing from some particular person's imagination. Now the scheme seems obvious: of course Americans want to amble indoors in a million square feet of air-conditioned retail, of course we will need a food court because so much shopping can’t be done without meal breaks, and of course we will require 10,000 parking spaces ringing the whole thing to accommodate all our cars.

The classic indoor mall, however, is widely credited with having an inventor. And when the Vienna-born architect Victor Gruen first outlined his vision for it in a 1952 article in the magazine Progressive Architecture, the plan was a shocker. Most Americans were still shopping downtown, and suburban "shopping centers," to the extent they existed, were most definitely not enclosed in indoor mega-destinations.

Gruen’s idea transformed American consumption patterns and much of the environment around us. At age 60, however, the enclosed regional shopping mall also appears to be an idea that has run its course (OK, maybe not in China, but among Gruen’s original clientele). He opened the first prototype in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956, and the concept spread from there (this also means the earliest examples of the archetypal American mall are now of age for historic designation, if anyone wants to make that argument).

At the mall’s peak popularity, in 1990, America opened 19 of them. But we haven’t cut the ribbon on a new one since 2006, for reasons that go beyond the recession. As we imagine ways to repurpose these aging monoliths and what the next generation of retail should look like, it’s worth recalling Gruen’s odd legacy. He hated suburbia. He thought his ideas would revitalize cities. He wanted to bring urban density to the suburbs. And he envisioned shopping malls as our best chance at containing sprawl.

"He said great quotes on suburbia being 'soulless' and 'in search of a heart,'" says Jeff Hardwick, who wrote the Gruen biography Mall Maker. "He just goes on and on with these critiques. And they occur really early in his writing as well. So it’s not as if he ends up bemoaning suburbia later. He’s critiquing suburbia pretty much from the get-go, and of course the remedy he offers is the shopping mall."

Gruen wanted to create better versions of the American downtown in the suburbs. He wanted these places to be civic centers as much as commercial ones, with day cares, libraries, post offices, community halls and public art. He wanted the shopping mall to be for suburbia what the public square was to old European cities. In fact, that mall in Edina, called Southdale, was supposed to be the centerpiece of a 500-acre master plan to include houses, apartments, office buildings, a medical center and schools.

In his book, Hardwick unearths a great quote from the president of Dayton’s, the downtown Minneapolis department store that developed Southdale. He, like Gruen, believed that all of this could happen at no expense to the city.

"We do not believe," he said, "we or anybody else will lose any business because of the suburban move."

•       •       •       •       •

Gruen’s creations did an amazing job of luring customers (and holding them captive in the shopping bliss now known as the Gruen Effect). The day Southdale opened, 75,000 happy shoppers streamed in. And it’s hard to imagine now where Gruen thought these people were coming from, if not in an exodus from downtown.

He also built a series of satellite shopping centers around Detroit for the department store J.L. Hudson. When the first of them opened in 1954, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the country and the fastest growing in the East or Midwest. Of course Gruen’s shopping centers aren’t solely to blame for Detroit’s decline. But his idea helped set off a chain reaction that recurred in cities everywhere. Suburban malls drew consumers who found shopping and parking in the city too difficult. They contributed to a boom in development that enabled not just shopping dollars, but whole households to relocate to suburbia. Cities, eying this exodus, tore down buildings and tried unsuccessfully to recreate the ease of parking and the shopping experience people found in the suburbs. And this only further hastened their decline.

"Gruen will often go on about how they’re going to push each other, 'what we’ve created in the suburbs can now be a model for downtown,'" Hardwick says. "But he doesn’t imagine that what we created in the suburbs is going to bankrupt downtown."

In Edina, those plans for a whole town anchored around the mall were never executed, and perhaps Gruen was naïve to think the developers of shopping malls would also be interested in developing entire communities. At the time, Gruen believed that by locating all of a community’s shopping needs in an enclosed mall, with a nondescript exterior, we could do away with the "commercial blight" of scattered hot-dog stands and gas stations and neon storefronts that made America, in his eyes, so ugly.

But the property value around Southdale quickly went up. And instead of developing the full 500-acre site, Dayton’s sold off chunks of it for what would become the kind of "anonymous mass housing" Gruen detested, and precisely more of the commercial sprawl he wanted to eradicate. Repeatedly, his plans did not turn out as he had imagined them, and later in life he bitterly lamented that Americans had debased his ideas.

In one of the strangest legacies of his career, just as he was building these suburban shopping malls, Gruen was trying to revitalize urban downtowns with pedestrian-friendly master plans for cities like Fort Worth, Texas, and Kalamazoo, Michigan. He wanted to bring people back into the city even as he was trying to bring city-like amenities to the suburbs that lured so many people away.

"They’re totally at odds," Hardwick says. "He never is able to explain that, or justify it. It’s a fundamental contradiction of his career."

And then there was the problem in the suburbs of all that mall parking. How do you make a mall the civic heart of a community when it is, by definition, isolated in a sea of asphalt?

"Even if we had realized Gruen’s ideas," says Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, "if it’s just this self-contained pod surrounded by berms that you drive to, I don’t think the suburbs would actually look or function all that differently [today]."

•       •       •       •       •

By Dunham-Jones' count, today about a third of our existing malls are "dead" or dying. That’s not to say they’re mostly vacant. But they have dreadful sales per square foot. High-end dress stores have moved out, and tattoo parlors have replaced them – "things," Dunham-Jones says, "that would normally be considered way too déclassé for a mall."

About a third of our malls are still thriving, and those are the biggest, newest ones. But America is no longer building many new highways, which means we’ve stopped creating prime new locations for mall development. Some of the earliest amenities of the enclosed mall – air-conditioning! – no longer impress us. And the demographics of suburbia have changed dramatically. Malls draw the largest share of their customers from teenagers, and the baby boomers who largely populate suburbia no longer have teenagers at home.

For all these reasons, the suburban mall of Gruen’s plan appears to be victim of more than just the recession. Dunham-Jones, who has tracked this trend in her book Retrofitting Suburbia, estimates that more than 40 malls nationwide have been targeted for significant redevelopment. And she can count 29 that have already been repurposed, or that have construction underway.

In 2010, Columbus, Ohio, tore down the dead mall in its downtown for a park. Voorhees, New Jersey, demolished half of its dead mall, built a new main street and relocated its city hall into the remaining building. In Denver, eight of the area’s 13 regional malls now have plans for redevelopment. One of them, in suburban Lakewood, was converted from a 100-acre super block into 22 walkable blocks with retail and residences.

"It’s the downtown that Lakewood never had before," Dunham-Jones says. Ironically, this is what Gruen had been aiming for. "Except that now it’s open-air."

Americans haven’t particularly outgrown the consumer impulse that Gruen detected. We still love to flock to dense agglomerations of Body Shops and Cinnabuns and Brookstones. But now those places look increasingly like open-air "lifestyle centers," with condos above or offices next door. Some of these places are just the old mall in a new Main Street disguise. But when you add residences, and cut Gruen’s mega-block into what actually looks like a downtown street grid, that begins to change things.

"You’ve got to get a mix of uses, but the connectivity is probably even more important," Dunham-Jones says. "The uses will come and go over time, but if you can establish a walkable network of streets, that’s when you’re really going to establish a ripple effect in changing suburban patterns."

Top image: The Beverly Center shopping mall in Los Angeles (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

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