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June 3rd, 2009Rethinking the Mall

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by Allison Arieff

One doesn’t pop in to make a quick purchase at the Forum Shops at Caesars. Once inside this pseudo-palatial labyrinth, your path is blocked, er, directed by faux-marble benches, enormous planters and ill-placed concierge desks. You may see the store you need to get to in your line of sight, but access to it is, fittingly for Las Vegas, a mirage. There are no short cuts allowed, no direct paths. Your leisurely stroll is in fact carefully choreographed, and ensures that you will come into contact, however briefly, with every single store in the mall.

Ah, if only the designers and developers of shopping malls paid as much attention to the foot traffic outside the mall as they do to the orchestrated promenade within it.

At the 2009 International Council on Shopping Centers convention held in Las Vegas last month, pedestrian-oriented development was not top of mind (though in a 3.2 million-square-foot convention center, walking was a defining part of the experience). Despite a nearly 50 percent drop in attendance from prior years, most talk at ICSC was of how business as usual could resume once “things came back.”

Las Vegas was, of course, the perfect setting for this sort of optimism. Bad economy? What bad economy? When I stuck my card into an ATM, the screen instantly invited me to withdraw $1,000 from my account. (And when I opted instead for $100, I didn’t get five $20s but one single, crisp bill.)

I was brought to ICSC as a juror for the organization’s inaugural Future Image Architecture Competition, which asked entrants to imagine the shopping mall of the future. My expectations for the entries were high — and probably too preconceived. This seems like a watershed moment for malls, much as it does for housing. Surely, I thought, the entries will reflect the extent to which business as usual — i.e., massive anchor retail tenants surrounded by thousands (even millions) of square feet of specialized yet mass retail, in settings only accessible by car — cannot possibly continue. Having just witnessed the Sony-backed Metreon mall in San Francisco shift from its failed existence as a “state of the art technology and entertainment marketplace” to a modest farmer’s market, I’d seen the writing on the wall. Hadn’t the shopping center folks?

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