Over the past couple of days, I have noted that a significant number of visitors have arrived at this site from an article posted over at WorldChanging Seattle that was linked by BoingBoing. As seems to be the case withmost of the incoming links to this site, the article deals with the decline of the traditional enclosed shopping mall, and the open-air “Town Center” type developments that are taking their place. The article specifically touches on a few subjects (from something of an Urbanist, and to a lesser extent environmentalist perspective) that I have had sitting on my “to do” list for a while now, and there are some topics in the article that I would like to comment on.
The article over at WorldChanging (an activity that generally falls well outside of the scope of this particular website) cites a number of local malls as examples, but focuses primarily on Factoria and its upcoming redevelopment. The overall tone of the article seems to suggest that the area’s shopping malls are on a rapid descent toward oblivion, which just isn’t the case. The article’s claims that the malls in the area are headed down the proverbial tubes is greatly exaggerated, and even though the mixed use “town center” paradigm that the article discusses is becoming increasingly popular in the area’s shopping centers, the Seattle area’s traditional malls aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In the article below, I’ll explain why this is the case. Since this seems to be turning out to be far longer than I originally anticipated, I will split this into several parts. The next part will discuss some of what makes malls go into decline, and a third part will discuss some of the goals of the Urbanists with regards to “Town Center” type developments, and explain why things may not work out there quite the way that they would like them to.
The Reports of the Mall’s Death are Greatly Exaggerated
Contrary to what the article seems to imply, there are no truly dead malls in the Seattle area. For a mall to be truly dead, it has to be either completely or almost completely abandoned. Sure, there are a number of malls that are underperforming with high vacancy rates, but even at Totem Lake(the Seattle Metro area’s current poster child for dead malls,) most of the upper mall area remains occupied at this time with stable tenants, several of which have been there as long as the upper mall has existed. In fact, Denny’s Pet World in the upper mall has been there since day 1, and is celebrating their 34th anniversary this weekend. They opened in a different space (in what used to be the “mall” portion of the upper mall and is now the Guitar Center store) than they are located in currently, but they were there on day 1. If you count mergers and name changes, the Big 5 Sporting Goods store (which originally opened as SportsWest, another Pay and Save brand) has been around for just as long.
Although there are some vacant spaces in the upper mall as well, things are generally pretty stable there. It’s the lower mall (the part that faces I-405) where most of the decline of the property has taken place, and this is the portion of the property which will presumably be redeveloped first. Exactly when this redevelopment is going to begin remains to be seen, but up until the closure of the Rite Aid and CompUSA stores at Totem Lake, the redevelopment of the property was going to be far less drastic than what the plans call for now. More on this later.
The article also cites Everett and Factoria are given as other examples of dead malls. Although it has had its share of troubles over the past few years, the Everett Mall is far from dead, as you can see from the profile that I put together recently. The remodeling that took place a couple of years ago brought in a number of new tenants and improved the appearance of the mall, and although there are still some vacancies (which will most likely include the Steve and Barry’s anchor space at some point in the near future) in general the mall is in decent shape. Sure, there are much nicer malls in the area, but this one seems to be holding its own, and with two other stable anchors (three if you count the cinema) it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Over at Factoria Mall, the transformation into the Marketplace @ Factoria (a name which is just a bit too unwieldy for my liking) is due to begin any day now, but even here, the transformation isn’t going to be nearly as drastic as people might think. Sure, a significant portion of the current mall is going to be redeveloped into open-air space and a number of condos are going to be added to the property, but in spite of this, most of the existing mall here will basically remain as a conventional shopping mall. The photo that the WorldChanging article borrowed from my site to show the current state of the mall is actually outdated, and the empty space in the foreground has a new store being constructed in it now (the Trade Secret store which is moving from a soon-to-be redeveloped area.) As for the stores that have closed recently, in most cases they closed as a result of non-renewal of their leases rather than for economic reasons. Most of the major stores at Factoriawon’t be going anywhere when the new Marketplace opens its doors (or lack thereof), and although I have yet to see any official confirmation of either of these, it appears that both Target and Safeway will be building brand new freestanding stores to replace their existing Factoria locations.
At several of the area’s larger malls, the urban village concept has taken root, but its overall effect hasn’t been nearly as drastic as one might think. Alderwood and Northgate Malls have both recently added Urban Village style expansions to existing traditional malls, although the enclosed malls themselves have remained largely untouched as a result of these expansions. Over at Westfield Southcenter, they’ve bucked the trend entirely and just opened the doors to a $240 million indoor expansion to the mall which has opened with full occupancy (although this includes some stores that moved from the original mall.) Even before this expansion, Southcenterhas always been one of the busiest malls in the Seattle area, and with the addition of 75 new stores, this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future. On the flip side of the coin, there are a number of newer developments that have been built from the ground up in this style, such as Redmond Town Center (although it has a number of office buildings on site instead of housing.) Looking through the archives of the Redmond Historical Society, I can see that when I get around to profiling this mall and its history, I’m going to have my work cut out for me. The Historical Society has a thick binder of various newspaper articles, City of Redmond documents, flyers and other stuff from more than a decade of legal wrangling and public opposition (there’s epic poetry opposing the project in the file, for heaven’s sake) before the first shovel of dirt was turned. Originally, Redmond Town Center was conceived as a more conventional enclosed mall, and the open-air development that exists today represents something of a compromise.
Even though in many ways Town Center reflects a lot of what the Urbanistshope to accomplish with projects of this type, it has not been without its share of problems. As Redmond Town Center hit its tenth anniversary earlier this year, a number of retailers (including Express, Abercrombie and Fitch and the Limited) opted not to renew their leases, and closed up shop leaving significant vacancies, most of which have yet to be filled. The movie theater at Town Center also closed down, but will soon be replaced by a new upscale movie theaterthat is counting on amenities such as reclining plush seats, valet parking, smaller audiences and gourmet food to get customers to pay as much as $35 for a movie ticket. Whether or not they’ll actually be able to get this to work remains to be seen, but I suspect that even the thought of such a thing annoys the heck out of the Urbanist types.
One more recent example in the Seattle area is The Landingin Renton, a mixed-use development being built on what used to be gigantic parking lots for the nearby Boeing Rentonplant. This particular development (which is still under construction) also reflects the trend toward outdoor shopping centers, although it doesn’t quite seem to approach it in the way that they might expect. Currently, most of the complex seems to be dominated by what would appear to be a conventional strip mall style development witha number of medium to large anchors (the largest being Target,) with the rest being assorted buildings scattered somewhat haphazardly across the landscape. At the present time, a lot of the spaces under construction at the Landing have yet to find tenants, although I suspect that this situation will improve as construction gets closer to completion. Even though the Landing is a reasonable approximation of what Urbanistsexpect to be the shopping center of the future, the biggest test that the complex faces is to see how well it fares in competition with the shopping centers of today. The Landing is just a few miles away from Southcenter to the South and Bellevue Square to the North(although with Bellevue Square moving sharply upscale in recent years, it tends to be less of a competitor to other shopping centers in the area than it used to be,) and when the Factoriaexpansion is completed, it will be competing more or less directly with the Landing as well.
As much as some people would like to declare the shopping mall to be a dead concept, the reality is that in the Seattle area at least, the traditional shopping mall isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In the next part of this (which I will try to get posted soon,) I will go into some of the reasons that shopping malls go into decline, and discuss the example of Crossroads in Bellevue, a shopping center that accomplishes a lot of the goals that the Urbanists are searching for within the confines of a traditional shopping center. Stay tuned…