Magazine article The American Conservative

Shopped Out: The Changing Face of American Retail

Magazine article The American Conservative

Shopped Out: The Changing Face of American Retail

Article excerpt

GLEN BURNIE, MD. -- Harundale Plaza does not look like the kind of place where a revolution occurred. For starters, it's now a strip mall, and not a particularly high-end one. There's a grocery store, a post office, a tanning salon, and a Burlington Coat Factory. The architecture is, if not unattractive, generic. Abandoned shopping carts dot the parking lot. The only indication that this is a landmark--as central to American history as Independence Hall or the Chrysler Building--is a small pavilion outside the post office. There, a concrete marker, rounded to look like a rock, sits:

HARUNDALE MALL Opened: October 1, 1958

Harundale Mall was not the first true mall, but it was a close second. Its developer, James Rouse, a native Marylander, had very nearly built the first with his Baltimore shopping center, Mondawmin. But to Rouse's lasting disappointment, his creditors lost their nerve, and the center went without a roof. Thus, in October 1956, the same month Mondawmin opened, Southdale Center, in Edina, Minnesota, became the first mall, while Harundale had to settle for being "the first indoor enclosed shopping mall East of the Mississippi."

First or second, Haurndale set in motion the malling of America. It was an archetype that could be, and was meant to be, copied. It gave the mall its name. (Previously, the term applied to the open spaces between shops rather than the shopping center itself.) But most importantly, Harundale, unlike Southdale, was built by a developer, not a deep-pocketed department store, proving to other developers that the mall could be a profitable venture.

America now has around 1,100 enclosed malls, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. But as the current state of Harundale Mall--now downgraded to a mere plaza--suggests, the mall's heyday as America's premier shopping destination is over. Even before the recession, these "pyramids of the boom-years"--to quote Joan Didion's 1970 paean--had been losing market share: to big-box retailers (so-called "category killers" like Home Depot or Bed Bath & Beyond), to chain discounters like Wal-Mart, to e-commerce giants like Amazon and Zappos, and to other, ever newer, ever larger shopping malls. (Drive a mile and a half from Harundale Plaza, and you'll find yet another mall.)

No new enclosed malls have opened in the U.S. since 2006, and nearly 10 percent of America's malls are expected to close within the next few years. Last April, General Growth Properties (GGP)--which acquired Rouse's company in 2004 and is the country's second largest mall-owner--declared bankruptcy. Websites like and track the growing number of "greyfields," with odes to deteriorating retail centers across America. The "un-malling" of America has begun.

Or has it? The same people who are declaring the mall dead now champion a new type of commercial space that looks an awful lot like what Rouse wanted for the mall in the 1950s. The best communitarian intentions of suburban planners, it seems, often go awry.

At a 2007 meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Thomas D'Alesandro IV, senior vice president of GGP, declared the familiar mall paradigm--fashion, food court, and familyfocused--over. GGP was no longer in the business of building malls, but transforming its existing malls into "mixeduse centers." Indeed, D'Alesandro noted, he had never worked on a mall; his bread-and-butter has been projects like Virginia's Reston Town Center, opened in 1990. The first "suburban downtown" in America, Reston Town Center promised "the vitality of an Italian piazza and the diversity of a French boulevard"--a mall of sorts, yes, but one with a skating rink, a hotel, a cinema, and high-rise condo buildings. "The big idea," D'Alesandro explained, "is to integrate the mall into a larger urban fabric, kind of like the 19th-century urban arcaded streets were in Europe."

The "town center" or "lifestyle center" is the brainchild of the New Urbanism, an influential movement of architects and planners that advocates a return to traditional neighborhood forms, emphasizing dense, mixed-use developments, open, pedestrian-friendly avenues, and public gathering spaces. …

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