The conversion of shopping malls and strip malls into miniature downtown areas by advocates of the New Urbanism is changing the face of suburban America.
The number of moribund shopping malls in the US is on the rise, as online shopping and demographic changes leave brick and mortar retailers struggling. The US is currently host to roughly 1,200 indoor malls, of which only a third are performing well.
As many shopping malls gradually succumb to the changes in consumption patterns that are characteristic of the Internet era, new mixed-used development properties are rushing in to replace them, in what some say is the final emergence of the “New Urbanism.”
The concept of New Urbanism has been around since the 1980s. It entails the creation of “human-scaled” sustainable neighbourhoods that are amenable to pedestrian exploration, as opposed to the vast tracts of the suburban sprawl, which consume huge amount of land and can only be conveniently negotiated by vehicle.
America’s shopping malls are ideal sites for the sustainable community centres envisaged by advocates of the New Urbanism. The huge blocks of land and empty concrete shells that the dead shopping malls leave behind are ripe for conversion into a multi-function suburban town centres which combine residential, retail and office properties into a single, concentrated area.
Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said the suburban “downtown” areas that the New Urbanism strives to create cater perfectly to the changing tastes of the younger generation.
Members of the millennial generation pines for an urban lifestyle which provides far more variety and excitement than the suburban settings in which they were raised. The New Urbanism meets this demand by reproducing miniature “downtown” areas in the suburbs, reproducing the multiple functions of a city centre in miniature.
Jones says around 40 deceased shopping malls in the US have already been bulldozed and transformed into suburban downtown areas, consisting of a mixture of shops, offices and apartments that radically increase the density of functions and services provided by the erstwhile mall site.
Examples include the former Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood Colorado, just next to Denver. The 100-acre regional mall has been bulldozed and converted into a mixed-use development called Belmar, consisting of 22 blocks of pedestrian-friendly urban streets that connect to adjacent thoroughfares.
The combination of retail outlets on the ground floor with office space or apartments on top has served to triple the density of the site, as well as quadruple the tax revenues generated.
Traffic levels and vehicle usage have also fallen, as many residents of the new urban area no longer need to drive their cars to go to work or shop for daily items.