Tag Archives: Midtown Plaza

The Twilight of the Indoor Mall

The Awl looks at the death of the mall

In the nineteen fifties, people with money began leaving the cities in unprecedented numbers. They were getting married, getting jobs, starting families, and buying houses—they were moving to the suburbs. A Time Magazine article in 1954 observed: “…since 1940, almost half of the 28 million national population increase has taken place in residential suburban areas, anywhere from ten to 40 miles away from traditional big-city shopping centers. Thus, to win the new customers’ dollars, merchants will have to follow the flight to the suburbs.”

They did, and the suburban shopping mall was born.

But the original idea for the mall was not just about retail. Victor Gruen, the father of the suburban shopping mall, envisioned something much bigger. He wanted outdoor areas, banks, post offices, and supermarkets; he wanted to give the suburbs a soul, one inspired by the public squares of European cities. But that never happened. Instead malls were faceless, sprawling. Gruen was so disappointed with what malls became, he gave a speech in 1978 in which he said, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” Malls turned out to be the very monoliths of soullessness that Gruen had tried to overcome.

It’s not just that there are better malls than Collin Creek in the Dallas area. It’s that there are so many malls; Dallas has more shopping centers per capita than any other city in the United States. And according to some estimates, fifty percent of indoor malls nationwide will die over the next two decades—partly because some shoppers are opting for newer, better malls, but also because, as a recent Guardian article put it, “the middle class that once supported” mid-market malls is dwindling. Or, put yet another way, by retail consultant Howard Davidowitz: “What’s going on is the customers don’t have the fucking money.” Which, of course, wasn’t always the case.

As these old malls die off, they’re being replaced more and more by upscale, outdoor shopping centers—with lofts, grocery stores, offices, public meeting areas, and day cares. At least four have popped up in Dallas within the past ten years, and they’re always packed. Sixty years after Gruen’s ideas were bastardized by short-sighted developers, they are finally seeing their day. Inklings, maybe, of the suburbs finding their soul.

To counter this, maybe there is some life for malls in winter cities.

You can hardly blame the Finns for wanting to shop in giant, self-contained malls. After all, winter tends to start early in Finland (like, November) and end late (say, in April). Temperatures in Helsinki, which is at the nation’s extreme south, with a relatively mild maritime climate, rarely get above freezing in the coldest months, and have been known to go as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. In late December, the sun in Helsinki doesn’t rise until well after 9 a.m., sets soon after 3 p.m., and stays low in the sky — only getting to about 6.6 degrees above the horizon on December 27, for instance (compare that to New York, where it reaches an altitude of 26 degrees on the same day).

So it’s no surprise that the idea of walkable urban centers are a hard sell in Finland. Still, some in the nation are calling for Finland to rethink its love affair with the shopping mall.

Yet recently I have been shocked at how quiet Confederation Mall is (a ghost town), Lawson Heights Mall, and Midtown Plaza is when I am in there.  Then you look at how busy at the same time other places are.  Maybe we are growing tired of malls as well. 

Poor Urban Design in Saskatoon & How to Do It Better

Sean Shaw has a great post on the new Holiday Inn in Saskatoon.

How can this type of development be avoided? It will take a conscious effort by City Council to mandate more stringent and enforceable development guidelines, not just for the Warehouse District but all new developments within the city – this hotel would be a poor addition to any street, let alone one where there has been an intent to provide a better interaction between buildings and the street.

These efforts should include a mandate that parking be put underground, that buildings over 3 stories include setbacks from the street to  maintain the human scale, and that a minimal amount of street-level interaction be constructed between the ground-floor and outside traffic (be it through commercial/retail space requirements or better design using more inviting materials). Furthermore, enforceable guidelines are needed to prevent the construction of large blank walls along major thoroughfares. These are not revolutionary ideas by any stretch of the imagination. Many Canadian and North American cities have such development bylaws in place.

While some will argue that putting these development controls in place will increase the cost to private industry, potentially discouraging some development, if done correctly it can instill a sense of pride by developers in the City street-scape. Moreover, the long-term benefits of building areas that are inviting and attractive to people will attract higher through traffic beyond 9-5pm. Finally, as Saskatoon is currently the fastest growing city in the country, we have some latitude to impose expectations on those looking to reap the benefits of investing in our city.

Last week on my way home from work, I was testing out my new Fuji XP 20 camera and I was so dumbstruck by the horrible design that I found myself walking down 22nd Street just take a closer look at the building as I tried to figure out how city planners and city council could allow a hotel placed on top of a parking garage to get the go-ahead, especially right across the street from TCU Place which cries out for the need for street level shopping.

A decade ago I was in Chicago when Mayor Daley decreed that he would freeze all new buildings if architectural guidelines weren’t met.  The developers grumbled but complied.  The same thing would happen here but council doesn’t want to take a stand against new development.  The bigger problem is that the architecture has been so bad in Saskatoon for so long that as citizens we are used to really bad projects going forward (Galaxy Theatre, The Sturdy Stone Centre, Cooperative Building, Radisson Hotel, The Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan), what’s another parking lot with suites? 

Great downtowns are built one great building at a time.  Mediocre lifeless downtowns are built pretty much the way Saskatoon’s is created.