Dying shopping malls reborn as old-fashioned downtowns

By Jim Wasserman The Associated Press
Wednesday December 12, 2001

MOUNTAIN VIEW — That epicenter of holiday shopping, the enclosed suburban mall that came to symbolize 1980s culture, is becoming a powerful engine for redeveloping California. Malls where millions of teen-agers had their first kiss and suburban families roamed the food courts are being razed and reborn as entirely new visions for life, work and shopping, architects say. 

Stepping in where several malls have died, Californians are pioneering an old-fashioned return to downtown and Main Street, blending offices and restaurants with homes above stores. 

Unlike the origin of shopping malls, which wooed stores out of downtown cores in the 1960s and 1970s, their renovations a generation later are considered urban infill projects. 

“It’s ironic. When we built them they were on the edges, and now they’re in the center of our towns,” says Joe Scanga, principal at Calthorpe Associates, a Berkeley-based architecture firm. 

In Mountain View, Scanga’s firm designed an 18-acre residential neighborhood known as The Crossings on the site of a Silicon Valley favorite: the Old Mill Mall. In the 1970s shoppers strolled among indoor trees, creeks and waterfalls. 

Now Jim Li shops the site with real estate agent Lucy Wu — for a home among 397 townhouses, apartments and houses built on foundations of the crushed mall. 

“It’s incredible what they did with a little bit of land here,” says Crossings resident Carolyn Herrick. 

Herrick, a three-year resident of the neighborhood, with its front porch steps, narrow streets and designs that harken back to small towns before World War II, calls the atmosphere “Mary Poppins-like.” 

Likewise, in downtown Pasadena, developers are building nearly 400 rentals above stores at the just-opened Paseo Colorado, a glitzy three-block successor to a failed downtown mall. 

“These studios in Pasadena are going for $1,500 to $2,000 a month,” says Steven Bodzin, communications director for the San Francisco-based Congress for the New Urbanism. “They’re getting lines out the door for people who want this.” 

Bodzin, representing an organization that advocates more growth in existing cities and less at suburban edges, says, “It’s clear this is a lot more of a success than what was there before.” 

In San Jose, the dead Town and Country Mall is being razed and resurrected as an upscale downtown-style vision called Santana Row. Builders are promising 1,300 apartments and a hotel among its lushly landscaped plazas, stores and restaurants. 

It opens next August. 

In their time, enclosed malls were “slick engines for consumption, and people were blissed out with this kind of thing,” says Los Angeles architect Jon Jerde. 

Jerde, who designed San Diego’s downtown Horton Plaza and Universal City Walk in Los Angeles, says malls kept out the rain and bugs, and were “the place where one man could own it all.” 

Near the nation’s first mall, the 1956-era Southdale Mall in Edina, Minn., Jerde designed the cathedral of mall culture, the Mall of America. 

Now, he says, more people want something old that’s new again: Main Street environments and downtown-like experiences. In his hometown of Long Beach, Jerde designed CityPlace, an urban mix of houses and stores now under construction to replace dying indoor Long Beach Plaza. 

Although California has the most examples of these mall conversions, dead malls are being reborn across the nation. In Colorado, New York, Tennessee and Florida, local governments are kicking in hundreds of millions of dollars to help developers make a renaissance of their dying retail environments. 

Collectively, sites renamed CityCenter and BelMar, New Roc City and Mizner Park house millions of square feet of stores and office space and thousands of apartments. In suburban Denver, a city hall moved into a vacated department store. 

“They have a lot in common in how they’re redeveloping,” Bodzin says. “They’ve all moved away from relying on large individual anchors to having more smaller shops. And most have residential components.” 

Dead malls, surrounded by acres of parking designed for the weeks just before Christmas, make ideal redevelopment sites, authorities say. 

“It’s a huge national opportunity,” says Bodzin. 

In 1999, Bodzin’s Congress for the New Urbanism commissioned a study by Price, WaterhouseCoopers that estimated 7 percent of America’s 2,800 malls are dead or languishing. It said 12 percent more are headed that way. 

While most malls remain strong retail performers, and new malls keep opening, analysts say the less fortunate ones are undermined by a new constellation of trends: people with less money moving in nearby, competition from new giant, open-air regional shopping centers and people with less time to shop. 

“People don’t shop at small stores anymore, and that’s what malls are comprised of. Everybody’s moving to a larger format,” says Peter Blackbird, 21, an amateur student of malls from Queensbury, N.Y. 

Blackbird has visited dying suburban malls throughout the northeastern United States. 

“Some of my fondest memories were in the hometown mall,” he says. Now he maintains a Web site of mall pictures and anecdotes called Deadmalls.com. 

In California, while superstar renovations get most of the attention, other malls are also quietly finding new lives. 

The San Fernando Valley’s Sherman Oaks Galleria, famous as the setting for the 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” has become an office center. Mountain View’s Mayfield Mall, famed during its 1972 opening for being a carpeted mall, is a campus for Hewlett-Packard Corp. 

Likewise, Marysville’s Peach Tree Mall, flooded in 1986 and never reopened, is a complex for Yuba County government offices. In Fresno’s Manchester Center, Caltrans, call centers and a community college branch are nestled among stores. 

“We built too many of them too fast,” says Calthorpe Associates’ Scanga. “In the 1980s there was a boom to have them. We should have had two when two were popular and we had 20.” 


On the Net: 

Dead malls: http://www.deadmalls.com. 

Paseo Colorado: http://www.paseocolorado.com 

Santana Row: http://www.santanarow.com. 

Southdale Mall: http://www.southdale.com.