The Mallpocalypse and How America Is Reinventing Its Malls

Echoing Muzak lends a sinister atmosphere to the open — and empty — floor plan as you stroll past dusty storefronts and headless, naked mannequins. Is this the set of a new zombie thriller or the depressing reality for suburban shopping centers?

Back in the ’80s, malls were an emblem of American culture. Fountains, food courts, and endless franchise stores were the monuments to economic growth, but, increasingly, these megalithic marketplaces are going under.

In the next five years, according to Credit Suisse, 20 to 25 percent of malls in this country will likely be closing. The “retail apocalypse,” as it has been called, has continued throughout the year, with popular mall fixtures J.C. Penney, Payless Inc., Rue 21, Wet Seal, GameStop, Sears, and Macy’s announcing store closures. With around 1,200 malls in the U.S. today — and the highest retail space-to-person ratio in the world according to Morningstar Credit Ratings — store closings could just be a sign of market correction in the over-retailed and online-moving economy.

The country’s malls are still standing, though, and many will continue to flounder and collect dust until a viable solution drives patrons back into their brick-and-mortar arms. If not retail, then what will save the failing American malls?

It was never supposed to be like this. The first enclosed shopping center in the country was Southdale Center, in Edina, Minnesota, designed by Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen. Gruen has been recognized as the father of the shopping mall despite his resentment of the suburban sprawl and car-centric culture it encouraged. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” Gruen said in a speech in 1978.

Gruen’s initial intention for American malls was to urbanize the expanding suburbs with enclosed locations for shopping, dining, arts, education, and living. His architectural contributions were morphed into a scattering of retail posts around the country with unhealthy food and identical tenants selling the usual goods. What Gruen really hated — perhaps most of all — were the vast expanses of parking lots.

Gruen’s wish for multifunctional spaces may come true after all, with the retail-focused model of the mall proving inadequate. Ever since the economic recession of 2008 and the rise of online retailers like Amazon, shopping centers have been stocking up on unusual tenants to stave off the empty, post-apocalyptic look. Shooting ranges, car dealerships, satellite college campuses, churches, and even post offices can now be found in malls alongside Apple stores and Abercrombies. Residences and office space are also becoming more common in old Younkers and Radio Shack spots.

Rackspace is a cloud computing company out of San Antonio, Texas, that decided to reinvent the Windsor Park Mall into its own headquarters. The renovation seemed to make sense to the growing tech company, and the nearby city of Windcrest offered tax incentives for the revitalization of its dead shopping mall. Storefronts were converted into meeting rooms, and — in lieu of an escalator — a giant slide was installed to take employees from the second floor to the first.

Given the wide, open spaces designed into most shopping malls, large-scale events and entertainment can be a no-brainer. Destiny USA in Syracuse, New York, has rebranded itself as a full-on amusement destination with obstacle courses, indoor golf, traveling museum exhibits, and live shows. The usual anchor stores remain, and the expectation is that visitors will do some shopping during playtime.

In the midst of the retail shakeup, some shopping centers are holding steady — namely, upscale malls deemed “lifestyle centers.” This 21st-century trend has remade the mall into a smaller space with more character and luxury. High-end shops like Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Anthropologie are peppered in with eclectic architecture and parklike settings. Poag Shopping Centers is a Memphis company that develops and manages such locations in places like Colorado Springs and Katy, Texas. CEO Joshua Poag said, “Lifestyle centers allow the shoppers to park close to the stores they want to visit, making it convenient and easy, while offering a great environment with lush landscaping, water features, art, etc. for those shoppers that want to take their time.” With their chain stores and pedestrian-focused design, lifestyle centers appear to be a lot like outdoor malls. The strategic branding and courting of a wealthy demographic has spelled success for these posh marketplaces, though, and Poag says they’ve signed more restaurant deals in the past year than ever before.

Whether people will flock back to the mall for work, play, or a medical examination, many communities will be seeing various approaches to inject life back into these giant properties. The unemployment and crime that follow a mall’s closing can reverberate in already-suffering economies and cause hardship to snowball. Innovation, like that of Victor Gruen, during a time of economic transformation can turn around the dilapidated spaces of America’s malls into robust hubs of living and industry. Soon we may all be trading Sbarro for a library.