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Why old shopping malls need to become living prototypes

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Suburban retail centers have bright futures, if they can adapt to a shifting retail environment

The death knell of the American mall has been sounding for decades. According to a report by industry analysts Green Street Advisors last year, since 2010, more than 20 enclosed shopping malls have closed, and more than 60 are on the brink of boarding up. Food courts, anchor stores, and blocky, air-conditioned retail centers may seem like 20th century relics in an age of Amazon and fast fashion.

But the reality, and remedy, is a little more complicated. Malls aren’t going anywhere. But after a development glut that left many areas oversaturated with retail, these developments need to evolve.

During a seminar at the Urban Land Institute called Mall of the Future: Catalyst for Community Regeneration, developers and designers laid out compelling visions for transforming decades-old structures into new urban centers. While many take the idea of regeneration to a very futuristic extreme—suburban drone port, anyone?—all of them speak to the urgent need to find a new identity for these hulking structures, and the opportunity to create 21st century community spaces.

“People are tired of every place being the same as every other place,” says panel member Matt Billerbeck, a Senior Vice President at CallisonRTKL who leads the shopping and entertainment districts sector. “Developers need to ask, ‘how do you put together a compelling collection of retailers, and how do you improve the customer experience and make it so it’s not replicable online?”

Billerbeck and other made clear that malls aren’t monolithic. High-end locations across the country have done quite well, buoyed by name-brand tenants, while more mid-market shopping centers are taking a bigger beating from online commerce. But the panelists agreed that in this economic environment, nimble structures, better connected to both the landscape and the environment, could thrive. It’s not just malls that need to change, it’s our concept of malls, and what they might mean to the community.

“It can’t just be a shopping center,” says Billerbeck. “It’s about entertainment, and the consumer’s view of entertainment has changed. Adding a new movie theater is like the last gasp of the mall. People want to be involved.”

Today’s challenging climate for malls came about for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with increased competition. The market became saturated, today’s younger demographics have less purchasing power, the internet has simplified the buying experience, and shoppers have “experience fatigue.” Trends change, and most malls haven’t.

In his opinion, malls need to bring arts and culture onto the property, from buskers and arts events to yoga classes and unique food experiences. Billerbeck points to a number of examples of creative stores across the country that are elevating shopping and dining into an experience, not just a place: Shed, in Healdsburg, California, offers interactive food and dining in the heart of wine country, offering authenticity and community; or Trinity Groves in Dallas, an outdoor shopping and dining development with a restaurant incubation program that develops and promotes new chefs. Many successful developers see the investment in experience as a difference-maker: late this summer, Westfield, a mall giant with locations around the world, purchased Scott Sanders Theatrical Productions, a company owned by the produce of the Broadway musical The Color Purple, in a bid to create more engaging spaces.

In addition to entertainment, the real challenge for tomorrow’s mall, according to Billerbeck, is integrating them into the urban fabric, and finding ways to connect these car-centric developments to the community in a more direct way. Michigan Avenue in Chicago offers an ideal example; one of the most profitable shopping districts in the world, it’s a street highly integrated into the urban fabric.

Mall developers in suburbia can’t suddenly wrap their retail centers in a dense urban neighborhood. But they can focus on developments that encourage walkability and more interaction, whether it’s by landscaping and opening up the retail experience to the outdoors, incorporating transportation options such as bike-sharing, or surrounding shopping with mixed-use commercial, office, and multifamily housing. Many of these ideas aren’t new; Columbus, Ohio’s Easton Town Center, one of the most famous town center-style malls, opened in 1999. But there’s now an increased urgency in making older developments stand out.

Technology is poised to accelerate the evolution of these spaces. Driverless cars will reduce the need for excessive parking lots, and offer new space for landscaping and community events. Emerging mobile technologies and interactive displays will alter the size of stores—Billerbeck says the jury is out on whether that means smaller and more personalized, such as the Rebecca Minkoff store in New York with virtual changing rooms, or larger, with a focus on a more interactive, theatrical experience—and react to a shopper’s presence, creating a more tailored user experience when walking through the mall. Many locations have already started introducing this kind of technology: Salvation, a Nike’s strong of concept stores in California, features customization counters that led shoppers imprint images onto their clothes.

There’s no set formula for success, according to Billerbeck. New spaces and redesigned shopping centers need to be flexible, and adapt to changing consumer preference, a living prototype that’s constantly changing.

“I’m optimistic about what retailing can do for our communities, and where all of this is going,” he says.