New Suburbanism…

Interesting article on the decline of shopping malls over at the WSJ (hat tip James Lileks. At the risk of schaudenfreude, I have to say it made me smile. There’s a certain irony to hear someone say

“For towns and cities that are home to dying malls, the fallout can be devastating. Malls hire hundreds of workers and are significant contributors to the local tax base. In suburbs and small towns, malls often are the only major public spaces and the safest venues for teenagers to shop, hang out and seek part-time work.

Commonly, “the mall will be a meeting place, or, in some cases, like a city center,” says Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte LLP. The deterioration of a mall can spawn broader problems, he notes. “It can become a crime magnet.”

So essentially, the suburban mall is dying the same death that it inflicted on Main Street. Not a bad thing, as despite the opinion of “The chief economist at Deloitte LLP”, I have never visited a mall that provided a sense of community. In fact, a Mall’s sole purpose was a temple to consumerism. Spend, spend, spend, and don’t you dare loiter around. This ain’t public property you know.

Yes, there is a sadness about seeing any decline in a local economy. And yes, jobs and livelihoods are being lost, and real humans will suffer, which is never a good thing.

The question that I have though is, “What is killing the malls?” The article does not lay the blame on the current recession. That has just accelerated an already existing trend. Malls have been closing for years. (The link is a tribute site to one of the original malls here in my neighborhood) It closed for good in 2004, after a long, slow death. What replaced it? Why Main Street Inc. A faux downtown populated by chain restaurants, coffee shops, and a WalMart. Just like the small town of my youth! (kidding. As Kaufmann has eloquently detailed, the small town mainstreet of my youth was bulldozed for a mall in the 70’s.) No, the malls are dying at the hands of… malls in Main Street clothing. How sneaky. Yes, the Borg assimilates all.

Speaking only from my personal experience of the Apache Plaza / Silver Lake Village developments I can tell you the following. No one walks there. The faux main street is essentially an island in a sea of parking lots, whereas the Mall was an “enclosed” island in a sea of parking lots. It is more convenient to be able to drive in quickly, park, go to the one store I want to shop at, and then leave. No more parking in the Goofy lot, and walking 1/2 mile to the Mall Entrance, then another half mile past the Orange Julius and Spencer Gifts to get that greeting card at Hallmark. Yes sir, progress. They could only improve on it if they found a way to make the whole experience into a drive through. (Don’t think they aren’t trying.) Then again, isn’t that what the Internet is doing for us already? Why even get into the car when you can shop from home in your boxers?

Sigh… sorry. Didn’t mean to get so preachy. (Steps down off his soap box). Where I am going with this is back to my earlier comments on Front Porch Republic, that what will ultimately unlock the potential of New Urbanism is human scaled economy. Developments like Silver Lake Village are not human scaled economy. The business that are there are franchises of large corporations. While the owner is a local, and the people that work there and shop there are locals, a large share of the profits are taken out of the community rather than being re-invested into it. What localism needs is to find a way to have locally owned business compete with transnational corporations on their own merit. I truly believe that until they can, the best that local economy can achieve is small, niche businesses where place and quality can justify higher expense. (Microbrews, Community Supported Agriculture, and you local Coffee house spring to mind)

In future postings I will continue to explore this question, “How can a local business compete economically with global transnational corporations?”

These are the kind of developments that give New Urbanism a bad name, because what they really are is New Suburbanism.

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