Monday, February 07, 2005

Mauled in America

One of this country’s contributions to the world was the development and marketing of the indoor shopping mall. First seen in Edina, Minnesota, this new phenomena quickly spread across the country wherever convergence between major arterials, cheap land and under served residential neighborhoods could be had. As was the case with most things in modern American history, these projects started small and were mostly utilitarian in design before morphing into the one million square feet plus behemoths they are today. No matter what form the ultimate design took, one element remained consistent across the country: acres upon acres of free parking.

Southdale Mall in Edina Minnesota after its opening in 1956

Like everything else in post-WWII suburban development, the shopping mall owes its existence to the presence of cheap and abundant energy. Malls are enormous structures with huge infrastructure demands from construction to everyday climate control and are more often than not situated where the only form of access is the automobile. Many of these structures originated in the heady days of real-estate speculation where developers competed with each other to reach every last retail dollar possible. Once that speculative atmosphere finally died down by the 1980s, it became evident that some areas had become over-malled. As a result, more than a few failed in the ensuing years and others were forced to evolve to meet the latest big thing in the retailing world: the big box store and the power center.

Capitalism, in ruthlessly efficient form dictated that the malls grow, specialize or die. Many malls went on an expansion binge, growing new wings or adding a second story, updating the décor and wooing that specialty anchor. Others redirected themselves to serve niche markets, redesigned themselves into a genuine town center or simply converted themselves into a big box center. Those that did neither strategy fell on hard times and failed. So now, halfway into the first decade of the 21st century you can find one in almost every major urban area in a variety of stages of failure. Thus an UNplanning precedent is already being set.

If malls across this country are failing for purely economic reasons, try and imagine what may become of them in a post-peak energy world. The inevitable economic downturn will finally put the breaks on mindless consumerism, taking out many boutique retailers in the process. The pain of course will spread everyday retailers as both the US consumer will be able to afford fewer goods while disruptions in global supply chains ensure that fewer products even reach our shelves in the first place. Plus, since we have traded the accessible downtown shopping area with the auto-oriented shopping mall, we face the situation where most if not all potential consumers are no longer able to easily access the shopping center.

Finally these behemoths themselves are not particularly energy efficient themselves. Those large buildings require huge climate control systems and thousands of light fixtures to effectively operate. Due to their huge floor areas and limited access points, only modern HVAC equipment really is capable of handling the load. Contrast this to a downtown district where each individual shop or small building can control their own temperatures as needed while more effectively able to utilize daylight (courtesy of their smaller sizes) instead of interior lighting. In periods of warm temperatures, the small shop keeper can still survive with no AC with the help of passive cooling and active ventilation strategies. A mall without AC will become an oven.

So, what will become of our beloved shopping mall? Well, the future is always hazy but the UNplanner is not optimistic for the mall’s continued survival. For the reasons stated above, most if not all will fail. (This holds true for Big Box retailing as well). The energy-driven UNplanning process will dictate that the structure be either adaptively reused or scrapped altogether. Considering the energy predicament we will be in, the value of the processed “raw materials” incorporated into the mall structure will outweigh any reuse potential. Thus malls, like any other excessively large building will be seen as a veritable strip mine of sorts where many of civilizations metals and other materials can be had. Over time the structure will get picked a part for the steel, copper, aluminum, zinc and silica (glass) that have been conveniently left for us in a high value, pre-processed condition. This process will continue until there is nothing of value left. Depending on the local availability of aggregate supplies this may mean anywhere from a pile of unneeded cement blocks to nothing at all will be left for future generations. The former site however will more likely than not will remain for some time after abandonment, yet another scar in our collective urban landscape.

Dixie Square Mall in Harvey Illinois, 25 years after closure


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lion Kuntz's Palace concept pretty much takes care of the problems associated with these specialized single-use malls.

2/24/2005 1:57 AM  

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