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 deadmalls.com and labelscar.com 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 family-focused—over. GGP was no longer in the business of building malls, but transforming its existing malls into “mixed-use 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. The animating idea behind New Urbanism is the reinforcement of community ties through good design. The town center is to be the new “Main Street”—that mythical place synonymous with a particular moment in small-town American life. Main Street encompasses a variety of different places—the New England village green, the Southern courthouse square, the Midwest street—yet it embodies a common cultural ideal. Peter Blackbird, a self-styled “retail historian” and founder of deadmalls.com, writes that the malls of tomorrow should be “woven into the fabric of the community, close to where people live and, therefore, easy for pedestrians to access. Developers should also strive to create malls that offer a place for people to socialize, not simply to buy.” Likewise, leading New Urbanists Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, in their much praised Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, suggest including “nonconventional, community-serving tenants”: libraries, nonprofits, community colleges, even churches.

To New Urbanists, the town center is an answer to the rampant sprawl and commercialization unleashed by the suburban mall. But the town center owes more to the traditional mall than one might think. Indeed, it may only be in its waning days—after more than five decades of uninterrupted growth and evolution—that the mall is finally beginning to realize its original purpose.

Certainly, Rouse’s plans for Harundale Mall sound a lot like a New Urbanist town center. Rouse remained nostalgic for his small-town upbringing in Eaton, Maryland, and he wanted to bring that sense of place to greater suburbia. His mall would be a “community lifestyle center”—an antidote both to the disorderly fragmentation of city life and the banal strip-mall culture of suburbia. The mall should serve “as a lively meeting place as well as a market place,” claimed Rouse, and so his facilities included churches, art centers, libraries, and public gathering spaces. Among the tenants of Harundale Mall were the United Church of Christ, a grocery store, a sidewalk cafe, and scores of mom-and-pop businesses. (Malls are associated with chain stores, but Rouse was a fierce advocate for independents: “The smaller local merchant is able to pitch in with his own hands and his own family, sacrifice income, fight hard for business, and sweat out a tight period,” he wrote to one investor.) There was also a 350-person auditorium, which could be rented out for weddings and civic meetings. A community room hosted Girl and Boy Scout troops meetings and classes for bridge, tap dancing, and first aid. In the evening, a local group hosted square dances. “The soundest economic base for a ‘main street,’” Rouse said of the mall, “is to make it an indispensable servant of the community.”

These were not mere platitudes to Rouse. When he planned his ideal community of Columbia, Maryland—his vision of an “inspired, concerned and loving society”—at the center of each neighborhood “village” was a shopping center, and at the center of the entire town was Columbia Mall.

And now, for all the enthusiasm over “town centers”—so sustainable! so green! so walkable!—most resemble nothing so much as the old, boring mall, just without the roof. Consider Maryland’s Bowie Town Center, with its typical mall layout: two anchor stores face opposite sides and are linked together by a chain of smaller boutique shops. Surrounding the complex on all sides are parking lots. With a roof, Bowie would look a lot like other dying malls in the area—perhaps as much a victim of changing tastes as of the economy.

According to the Urban Land Institute, malls need to reinvent themselves every five to ten years to remain competitive. Some redecorate; others add another floor or anchor store; still others take off the roof. For now, shopping outdoors is a pleasant novelty, especially for people who spend most of their days in front of a computer. Landmark Mall, a dying mall in Alexandria, Virginia, shows how cyclical the tides of fashion can be. It opened in 1965 as Landmark Center, an outdoor town center complete with a New Urbanist-pleasing public plaza. But in the late 1980s, that wasn’t cool, so the mall was enclosed. Two stories were added in 1990, just in time for the zeitgeist to move on to chic new outdoor centers like Pentagon Row in nearby Arlington. The city of Alexandria now envisions a second makeover: Landmark Village, an outdoor town center complete with a New Urbanist-pleasing public plaza.

Even the more ambitious “de-malled” town centers, like Reston, still feel like, well, malls. “It’s hip to be square,” declares a brightly-colored poster at Rockville Town Center in Maryland. Another insists, “This place is happening”—not the kind of thing places that are actually happening have to advertise. The slogan for Reston Town Center is “what downtown was meant to be,” which is not too far from Southdale’s claim to be “more like downtown than downtown itself.” For critics, that’s exactly the problem. It’s no coincidence that all the epithets that have been hurled at the mall—“ersatz,” “sanitized,” “antiseptic,” and, worst of all, “Disneyland”—have also been lobbed at the New Urbanist town centers. (Though James Rouse, for one, considered Disneyland no less than the “greatest piece of urban design in the United States today.”) The mall, critics claimed, was a hermetically-sealed playground for the upper- and middle-classes, who want the pleasures of urban life but not city grit. Today critics say the same about town centers, such as this, from a blog post about Reston Town Center: “[It’s] a place where people with money can gather to spend it, pretending they live somewhere much more exciting, much more vibrant than the suburb they actually call home.”

Part of the problem for the malls and their town-center descendents is demographic. Suburbs don’t have the density to support the varied merchants—the local hardware shop, the piano teacher, the trendy fashion boutique—that make city streets so interesting. Most town centers are tiny—even at a leisurely stroll, you can walk the entirety of Rockville Town Square’s public space in 15 minutes. The open avenues of the town center create the expectation that they will keep going—just as city streets wend from neighborhood to neighborhood—but this illusion ends abruptly, usually at a parking lot. The transition could not be more sudden if you had stepped out of a climate-controlled, Muzak-infused mall. Suburban retail needs drawing power to pull in shoppers, so it has to be a destination. You won’t get in your car to drive for 15 minutes for a hardware store without some specific purpose in mind, but you might to browse the latest gadgets at the Apple Store or the new Spring line at J.Crew.

But there’s something more involved here. Malls, like town centers, are not just random agglomerations of stores like the old downtown or Main Street. They’ve been planned. Like the mall builders of yesterday, the New Urbanists tout the enlightened planner’s ability to forestall bad outcomes, like city blight or suburban sprawl. Yet the degree of control such planning entails also creates an atmosphere that feels contrived—one lacking the messy but redeeming randomness of Main Street. Centralization leads to standardization, with the result that many town centers seem stamped out of the same mold in some far-off corporate headquarters.

The mall may be planning’s single greatest accomplishment: no matter what is intended—“a community lifestyle center,” a “suburban downtown,” a retrofitted town center—your “not-a-mall” will always end up a mall. “A retail center in the conventional structure of the American city,” James Rouse observed, “is this tremendous diffusion of ownership. 150, 200 owners along the main street, 150, 200 different tenants paying rent to different owners. Nobody’s in charge.” In contrast, he argued, the planned shopping center would allow for the “administration of that space, a merchandising of that space.” It would be a machine for shopping.

What Rouse didn’t recognize is that once you decide to plan a space—rather than letting stores open and close willy-nilly, as in a city—certain immutable rules apply. A retail manager looking to maximize profits will begin winnowing out the marginal tenants (often the mom-and-pops Rouse preferred) in favor of more efficient stores with high returns—that is, the chain stores that populate every mall and town center in America. He’ll create “adjacencies” with similar stores grouped together in the hopes that the same shopper who buys a skirt at Anthropologie will buy a blouse at Banana Republic next door. All the various sciences of retail will be consulted: what’s the ideal placement for seating so that people will spend more time (and money) but not loiter? Which window designs are more appealing to the eye?

The enclosed shopping mall rapidly evolved away from the (partly) community-spirited plans of men like James Rouse. There is every reason to think that town centers will follow the same trajectory. These are retail environments, after all, with a business logic that overrides the cultural preferences of their planners. No planned development will mimic the organic life of cities or small towns. Across the suburbs of America, the mall is dying, only to be reborn as yet another mall—with or without the roof.  __________________________________________

Cheryl Miller is the editor of Doublethink magazine.

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