De-malling Movement Turns White Elephants Into Urban Centers
In his definitive book, City Center to Regional Mall, urban historian Richard Longstreth points out that in 1960, Southern California had 14 regional malls, located mostly in the southern L.A. County and northern Orange County suburbs that were emerging at the time.
These malls were not exactly identical. A coming generation of teenagers would probe endlessly for the distinctions between Whittwood Center in Whittier, Stonewood Center in Downey, Lakewood Center in Lakewood, and Del Amo Center in Torrance. But, as Longstreth points out, they all had one thing in common: They were "large, fully integrated retail complexes, each oriented toward a pedestrian mall and conveying little semblance of a conventional urban retail district."
Nearly a half-century has passed since this first generation of malls in southern L.A. and northern Orange counties were built. But they are no longer as similar as the teenagers of the ‘60s remember them as being. Del Amo Fashion Center is the largest mall in the West, a vast suburban retail kudzu sprawling across streets and arterials throughout Torrance. Lakewood Center and Stonewood Center are standard-issue four-anchor regional malls owned by Macerich Company.
But Whittwood Center is a different story. Now owned by Lennar Partners, Whittwood still has the standard anchor tenants – JC Penney, Sears, Mervyn's, and Target. But Whittwood worked with developer Stephen Hopkins to create a "town center" feel and add 150 townhomes to the mix. The renderings of Whittwood Town Center may seem a little like Southern California kitsch – rows of palm trees and a grid system layered on top of the old anchor-tenant footprint – but it is definitely not Del Amo Fashion Center. In a way, Whittwood Town Center is the opposite of what it was originally supposed to be. It still has a pedestrian mall and serves as a full-service retail center. But the whole point of the facelift is to mimic – rather than counterpoise – the conventional urban retail district.
As the Whittwood Center story shows, California is gradually being de-malled. The regional malls and shopping centers that emerged during the suburban era are becoming obsolete. But they are not all transmogrifying in the same way. Some are growing into the larger regional centers that are necessary to compete in today's retail world. Some are being torn down and replaced with a new kind of shopping center, often something as simple as the standard "power center" with discount retailers. Some are being torn down and replaced with housing, usually high-density housing with a traditional street grid that has been superimposed on the old mall footprint. And still others, like Whittwood, are being transformed without being razed, so that they are more urban and mixed use in nature.
The reasons for this change are as profound as they are obvious. Fifty years ago, a standard-issue suburban mall like Lakewood Center or Del Amo Center was a necessary selling point for the single-family-home community being built around it. Today, regional malls are struggling to compete against high-end "experience" shopping such as The Grove in Los Angeles and against low-end discount shopping as exemplified by Wal-Mart. Smaller shopping centers are also struggling, as community retailers gradually go by the wayside in the retail battle. Many more may be at risk if the big three supermarket chains – Vons, Albertsons, and Ralphs – do not recover market share from the recently concluded labor strike and lockout.
At the same time, land in California's metropolitan areas is increasingly scarce. The wide-open farmland of a half-century ago in southern L.A. and northern Orange counties has given way to a congested, low-rise tangle of houses, apartments, business parks, and retail centers. The pressure for more housing – and, for that matter, more business parks – is unabated. In particular, the demand for starter homes and sophisticated retail is virtually bottomless among the emerging ethnic populations throughout the state, especially in metropolitan Los Angeles. So old malls, shopping centers, and commercial strips have become fodder for the next generation of urban growth in California.
And make no mistake about it, we are talking about urban growth here. It is true that many of these centers – Whittwood Town Center being one example – still devote large chunks of land to surface parking. But in virtually all cases, the most obvious icon of the suburban era – the massive, nondescript enclosed shopping center that could, as one commentator recently put it, be mistaken for an insecticide factory – has been eradicated. The enclosed mall has been replaced with a kind of ersatz urbanism that uses traditional building forms and grid patterns as a selling point, which suggests that the whole place is not simply a suburb but something much more sophisticated.
At its best, the de-malling of California is a breathtaking enterprise. The leading example here is Paseo Colorado in Pasadena – a recent transformation of the 1980 regional mall, Plaza Pasadena. The original mall was an early attempt to draw shoppers back to downtown Pasadena. In fact, Plaza Pasadena was one of the reasons why the adjacent Old Town Pasadena returned to life. Despite its urban location, however, Plaza Pasadena was a standard, blocky, enclosed mall. And it cut off the City Beautiful axis between Pasadena's City Hall and its Civic Auditorium.
The new version quite literally blew up the center of the building, opening up the center of the mall to pedestrians to reconnect the two civic icons. Even more remarkably, the developers of Paseo Colorado constructed four stories of apartments on top of the existing steel, thus creating a mixed-use project without surrendering the mall's basic structure. And when Macy's declined to renovate, the developers removed the blank brick wall facing Colorado Boulevard by "pasting" coffee and juice shops on the wall's exterior.
Of course, not all of the de-malling transformations are breathtaking. In Oxnard, the 1960s-era Esplanade Mall was bulldozed after the city lost a mall war with neighboring Ventura and replaced it with a massive power center featuring every discount retailer imaginable – Target, Home Depot, Borders, Old Navy, and so on. The result is a huge financial success for Oxnard – a very gratifying development after losing the mall war – but it is certainly not a good piece of urbanism. Neither, for that matter, is the winner of the mall war in neighboring Ventura – a standard Macerich four-anchor that failed to take advantage of the fact that it sits immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood.
The de-malling of California is certainly not what the visionary mall developers of the 1950s had in mind when they invented the two-anchor shopping center. And it is probably not how the visionary planners of past generations imagined that urbanism would come to California. But if there is one thing we have too much of in this state, it is a suburban-era infrastructure that is quickly becoming obsolete. And so de-malling will likely to continue apace, as home prices skyrocket, department store chains merge, and Wal-Mart takes over the world.