The Slow Death of the Shopping Plaza
I have written previously about some pleasant and nostalgic aspects of suburbia. Putting aside questions of wise land-use planning, much of what remains from our mid-century suburbs is harmless. The buildings are quirky, often include kitschy salutes to their particular locales, and are built at a human scale. That sort of architecture is long gone, but suburbia is still with us, though with much less of the charm.
Case in point, the Sully Place Shopping Center in Chantilly, Virginia. This strip mall is built along a major intersection on Route 50—known to locals as the endangered Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway (the name, of course, is endangered—not, unfortunately, the highway). Across the street is a collection of car dealers and an apartment complex called “The Fields of Chantilly.” On the other side, Sully Place butts up against a cul-de-sac neighborhood of mostly identical homes. The plaza is quite large and oddly designed; an American farmer from the days of the Founding would easily mistake it for an alien structure.
The anchor stores in the plaza are currently occupied, and there is none of the loitering or petty crime that tends to hasten the deaths of these places; this is no dead or dying mall. Yet the accompanying strips of smaller shops in between the anchors are one-third vacant. Of about 40 small storefronts, 13 are currently sitting empty (the number of vacancies has actually ticked up in the last several years). One or two stores that are occupied are “marginal” businesses, like the closeout warehouse stocked mostly with returned electronics and smashed cereal boxes. This is in one of the richest parts of one of the richest counties in the nation—the households within five miles of the mall sport a median household income of $110,000—during a supposedly thriving economy. That suggests that the high watermark of the massive shopping plaza is probably behind us, though whether greater blame belongs to e-commerce or to the defects of the sprawl model of development is up for debate. In any case, one wonders what the original builders were thinking in 1991 when the plaza was built.
One of the anchors, inhabiting what used to be an unusually large K-Mart, is a massive home decoration store, with the distinctly uninspiring name At Home. Imagine dozens of aisles of garden gnomes, welcome mats, rugs, brass urns, and hundreds of other tchotchkes and trinkets. Then imagine, if you will, the tens of thousands of similar stores across the country, filled to the brim with the same junk, accounting for most of what is left of brick-and-mortar retail. As James Howard Kunstler puts it, wave your flag over that.
Where could all of this have possibly come from? The answer is not dynamic, value-generating “capitalism.” It is rather that this endless array of stuff is the home-décor equivalent of junk food. Anyone who studies American food and eating habits knows that most of what occupies the supermarket is nothing but various combinations and permutations of corn, sugar, salt, artificial flavor, and food dye.
The same is basically true of those lamps, baskets, Christmas elves, vases, and fake flowers. They are all made from a handful of very cheap, ubiquitous materials: cheap iron and stamped tin, glass, plastic, plaster, particle board (i.e. sawdust), and even actual cardboard. One notices the same thing in furniture shops—all of the beautiful hardwoods have been used up, and so the furniture is made from poplar and rubberwood if you’re lucky, and plywood and particle board if you’re not. Even some of the furniture is made from cardboard, which is green and, we are told, stylish. Plenty of this stuff costs a pretty penny, but virtually none of it has any real value. You can plunk down a couple hundred for a life-sized cactus-shaped urn or Egyptian-esque cat statue if you want, but it’s not going to be an heirloom or an antique any more than that retro-style wood-cabinet record player that shows up in every discount department store at Christmastime.
How long can it go on? How long will there be enough resources and energy to fill discount stores and closeout warehouses and “category killers” to the gills with all this stuff? But that is the wrong question. This is, ironically, what resource scarcity looks like. It’s not an environmentalist trope or a distant cataclysm. It is the reality under which every American consumer lives who is not filthy rich. Recite that list again: glass, cardboard, sawdust, plastic, plaster, stamped tin. These materials will be available in some form virtually forever. So we make everything out of them.
Exiting this wasteland of garden gnomes and inflatable Santas, you’ll pass a string of those small vacant storefronts. There are rarely more than one or two people on the sidewalk, which is very wide. Two thirds of the parking lot is likely to be empty. This architectural type, the suburban shopping plaza, has married the worst of the windswept Soviet “town square” with the worst of American hedonistic consumerism. Skateboarding, loitering, shoplifting, and demographic changes have slowly killed many a once-mighty shopping plaza, and there is no reason why this one would be exempt from one day becoming a great hulking roadside ruin. A traffic fatality or two might also do it: the sprawling plaza is bisected by an actual road—on which the vehicles routinely do 40 miles per hour—which makes navigating by foot or even by car a risky proposition.
And while we’re on the subject of cars, the mostly empty parking lot is enormous. There are dividers with shrubs and small trees, intended to prevent the conversion of the lot into a drag strip in the after-hours. Perhaps they are also meant to provide a little greenery, but the sad-looking dried-out pine trees and scraggly bushes only emphasize that this is a vast asphalt desert. There is so much parking that some of the corners and edges of the lot are cracked and neglected, like an entire small lot behind the At Home anchor that is virtually unused. And yet the zoning laws mandate “minimum” parking requirements. Fairfax County’s minimum parking requirement for a shopping center is between four and five spaces—depending on the total size of the plaza—per 1,000 square feet of floor area. Sully Place has 2,819 surface spaces, which is roughly in line with the mandated number. In order to make sure that no one ever waits five minutes for a spot, we pave over double or triple the amount of land that is really needed, and mostly never use it for anything.
Most people respond to all of this with a shrug: welcome to America. Or they might suggest that environmental concerns are nothing more than northeasterners in sardine-can cities getting a little stir-crazy. This line of thinking is present in the American West, for example, with its Big Sky Country and endless grazing lands and hardscrabble rural farms. Such a lifestyle, despite its underlying ethic of subsistence and survival, teaches that there is far, far more land and resources than we will ever need. Landfill shortage? Landfills bigger than any now in service could be built all over rural Montana and barely put a dent in the landscape. Think of all the steel locked up in rusting ranch fences and abandoned silos and piles of junked cars. There is some truth to this: the density and claustrophobia of the Eastern Seaboard megalopolis and its sprawl and exurbs is a tiny dot on our massive planet. If the globe is a 70-inch television, Sully Place or even Chantilly is a pixel or two.
But for tens of millions of people, that tiny dot is also home. The existence of the steppes or the tundra does not somehow obviate the uglification of the landscape that we actually inhabit day-to-day, nor does it excuse us from the duty to tend our little corner of the earth with care. We can’t do that all the time, but we can slow down our construction of monstrosities like Sully Place. That’s a start.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.