Column

Dying malls offer a chance to build something better — and address how our lives are changing

I can still recall the excitement of family trips to the brand new indoor mall, with its acres and acres of multitiered offerings.

You could buy just about anything at Concord’s Sunvalley Mall, up in the Bay Area. You could grab a burger, go ice skating, ride the elevators in the sprawling department stores, flip coins into the fountain. The mall opened in 1967 and had its own post office, hammering home the idea that this wasn’t just about shopping, it was the invention of a new kind of American town, stormproof and climate controlled.

And such malls were enjoyable enough for a few decades, especially when it rained and you needed to get the kids out of the house. But the formulaic chain-store sameness of malls grew tedious, and I ended up longing for the authentic Main Streets that were killed off by malls, big-box discount stores, and, in recent years, digital shopping.

Dying malls can be chance to make L.A. better

Now a lot of malls are dead or dying.

Not all of them, by any stretch. The Del Amo Mall, for instance, and the Glendale Galleria seem to be thriving, thanks to some combination of location and marketing strategy.

But shuttered windows and “For Lease” signs are now common at many of Southern California’s three dozen or so malls. They dot the land in various stages of fossilization, thanks in part to the fact that many people now prefer to do their shopping without having to put on their pants or leave the house. One recent report said that up to 25% of shopping centers could close in the next five years.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The market works the way it works, or, as some prickly readers said of my Sunday column about the death of newsstands, “things change,” and “get over it.”

Rick Caruso has a solution

Thanks, but no. I’m not averse to change, and I tweet as I can, but I’m not ever going to get over the death of newsstands.

But malls I can do without, and rather than hold a wake, we should celebrate the opportunity to put so much concrete and asphalt to better use.

What do we love to complain about in Los Angeles?

Everything, pretty much. But atop many a list are a lack of housing, especially affordable housing, and a lack of parks.

So here’s our chance to put all that real estate to better use.

“The indoor mall is an anachronism, and its time has come and gone,” said Rick Caruso, developer of the outdoor Grove and Americana on Brand, upscale destinations that offer more than retail and are often packed with people who don’t even go there to shop.

Not everyone loves the Caruso concept, but he was onto something in predicting the death of malls and knowing what consumers wanted in their place.

Most malls are going, except for a few survivors

“Most malls,” Caruso said, “other than a few really well-located ones, are going to die off. And there will be great opportunities for repurposing the real estate, no doubt.”

Caruso said he’d just read a Wall Street Journal story—the headline was “The mall of the future will have no stores” — about a struggling mall in Michigan. A Lord & Taylor department store had skipped, leaving a 240,000-square-foot hole in the mall. But Ford Motor Co. moved its purchasing and engineering staff into the space.

That’s one answer, and other malls now have government offices, medical clinics and schools where chain stores once existed. But malls were designed for a specific purpose and can’t always be easily adapted or reconfigured. In some cases, Caruso said, the best bet might be to bulldoze everything and start over.

“When’s the last time you went to the third floor of an indoor mall?” he asked.

That’s a very good question. I know I’ve been up there, if only to look for the bathroom. But I can’t remember when.

I live not far from the mall in Eagle Rock, which has a thriving Target but not much of a pulse otherwise, partly because the Target is a Target. Those guys sell everything, whether you need it or not. There doesn’t need to be another store within 40 miles of a Target, let alone within 40 steps.

So we’ve got this giant concrete bunker of a mall surrounded by vast acres of parking spaces that are usually empty.

Taking back the asphalt

Imagine the possibilities.

“Leave Target where it is,” suggested supermarket and retail consultant Phil Lempert, “cut out half the mall and do some open-air stuff and try to create some excitement….Art exhibits, cooking demonstrations, whatever. There’s a social aspect that malls have been lacking.”

Such transformations have already begun, said Jeff Moore, Southern California retail market leader for CBRE. For example, he said, the 1970s Laguna Hills mall is being made over as a village of apartments, shops, live entertainment and a park.

City College of New York professor and former L.A. resident June Williamson, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” described a Seattle mall where part of the vast parking lot is being turned into a light-rail train station. Also in the works are energy-efficient housing, a medical center and a park.

“There’s a huge opportunity in all of that underperforming asphalt” at malls like the one in Eagle Rock, said Williamson. And you could put parking underground and bring buses right up to the property so people don’t have to travel everywhere by car.

How do we make this kind of thing happen?

Naturally, the owner of the property has to be on board, said Tom Safran, a developer who specializes in high-quality affordable-housing projects. Then city officials, including the district councilman, have to lead the way on whatever zoning changes would be required. And you might have to beat back some opposition from those who oppose denser housing projects, no matter how badly we need them.

“Anybody who’s smart is looking at reinventing these places,” Safran said of our once-revered dying shopping malls.

Time to take back the asphalt. And please send me your thoughts on how you would remake your local mall.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

MORE FROM STEVE LOPEZ

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
74°