The opening of the Southdale Center, Minnesota, in 1956 sparked a retail phenomenon that quickly became intrinsic to American culture as we know it. However this previously bustling commercial landscape is starting to look more like something from a post-apocalyptic novel.
Described as ‘Suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity’ in Gillian Flynn’s recent literary sensation, Gone Girl, the abandoned shopping mall has become a key metaphor in literature and film – and part of everyday life in America.
As our fascination with speculative dystopias grows, these suburban skeletons have developed into a public obsession. Pictures of the abandoned malls can be found across the internet, with the rise of the newly popular art from ‘Ruin Porn’ and websites like deadmalls.com.
Once reflecting the extreme consumerism and hedonistic attitudes of the 20th century – now these vacant malls are the epitome of the decaying American dream.
The economic downturn really took its toll on shopping malls, marking the beginning of the end for many. The Miami Herald states that ‘in 2007, for the first time in 51 years, not a single new mall opened [and] only two or three have been built since then’.
Top of the list of suspected killers is the internet. Socio-economic shifts have meant that the way in which we shop has changed, not just in America but worldwide.
We want to order it from the comfort of our sofas and have it delivered to our doorsteps, and as Robin Lewis, co-author of New Rules of Retail: Competing in the World’s Toughest Marketplace voices it:
‘Who needs to spend the time and effort … when they can let their fingers do the walking and can shop virtually for an unlimited selection in a matter of minutes? All while sipping coffee.’
Second is the changing habits of the younger generations. The most economically frivolous – the Baby boomers have been replaced by cost conscious Millennials. The boomers may have fond memories of meeting their friends for some retail therapy, however malls are no longer seen as a central hub and kids no longer want to ‘hang out’ at the mall.
Miami Mega Mall
The third and final culprit is the ‘Mega Mall’. Full of luxury, flagship stores, these A-listers are achieving global domination and the middle-range, B, C and D list malls just can’t compete.
According to the International council of shopping centers (ICSC), suburban, mid-range malls have suffered most in the past 3 years at the hands of their giant counterparts.
The Triple Five conglomerate own some of the biggest malls in America, including West Edmonton Mall, and The Mall of America, which was recently declared ‘one of the top tourist attractions in the country’.
Drawing in over 40 million visitors, more than Disneyland and Disney world combined – the colossal complex even has its own zip code.
However, plans to build an even bigger, better mall have appeared on the horizon. Already dubbed the ‘Miami Mega Mall’, Triple Five recently announced plans for American Dreams Miami in the west of Miami-Dade County.
Planning to develop an extensive 200 acres and costing an astonishing $4 billion to build – it will be the biggest mall in the United States to date, and one of the biggest in the world.
Many retail industry critics claim that Triple Five avoid the fate of others by creating more than just a mall. The Miami Herald describes these as ‘Much-more-than-a-mall destinations that can overcome the fierce economic and demographic pressures’.
Theme park-esque, they overwhelm the senses, giving people more than one reason to go to the mall.Through incorporating movie theaters, ice skating rinks, ski slopes alongside the more extravagant water parks, aquariums and rollercoasters – they are becoming more like a family day out.
Peaking in 1990s, where approximately 140 sprung up a year, it was unrealistic to assume the industry would keep expanding at this rapid pace.
By the early 2000’s, we had overbuilt and overspent, and many malls were facing the financial strain. According to Green Street Advisors there are now 1030 malls in America, and they predict that approximately ‘15% will fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next 10 years’.
As the economic climate improves more money can be invested in refurbishment. Architect, Ella Dunham Jones addresses the ‘growing number of empty and under-performing… retail, sites’ in her TED talk Retrofitting Suburbia.
Her aim is to create a new urban utopia through re-inhabitation, redevelopment and re-greening, arguing that they give us ‘a tremendous opportunity to take our least-sustainable landscapes … and convert them into more sustainable places.’
She maintains that ‘retrofitting’ allows us ‘to redirect a lot more of our growth back into existing communities … instead of continuing to … tear up the green space out at the edges.’
Many spaces hold potential for reincarnation in the form of offices, nursing homes, universities and schools. The opportunities are endless as the exoskeleton already exists. Here are just a few who have succeeded in their venture:
Now a modern medical complex, this revitalized mall provides affordable care to the underprivileged people in the community.
Converted into a pedestrian friendly town, it has been repurposed into mixed use buildings (retail, entertainment, residential, offices).
Purchased by the Southland Christian Church it now hosts a 52,000-square-foot auditorium, offices, a school and a nursery.
One of the nation oldest shopping malls, this historic landmark is combining commercial and residential property. With the lower levels remaining as shops and the higher levels converted into micro-apartments.
The new face of shopping malls
With the changing habits of consumers, the rise of e-commerce and the ‘Mega Mall’ set for world domination, it may be the case that traditional suburban malls are suffering.
However, with new ideas to renovate and retrofit the argument still stands that malls are changing rather than dying, as Kathleen Kusek writes for Forbes magazine:
‘A more accurate description is that U.S. malls are far from dead, but rather re-emerging from deep coma after some dramatic cosmetic surgery.’
So, maybe malls are not just relics of the past or the perfect backdrop for a zombie apocalypse. Perhaps they have a brighter future than the dystopian image they currently hold. Let’s hope so.