How About Gardening or Golfing at the Mall?

Posted on February 9, 2012

Cleveland’s Galleria at Erieview, like many malls across the country, is suffering. Closed on weekends because there are so few visitors, it is down to eight retail stores, eight food-court vendors and a couple of businesses like the local bar association.

So part of the glass-covered mall is being converted into a vegetable garden.

“I look at it as space, I don’t look at it as retail,” said Vicky Poole, a Galleria executive. “You can’t anymore.”

Malls, over the last 50 years, have gone from the community center in some cities to a relic of the way people once wanted to shop. While malls have faced problems in the past, the Internet is now pulling even more sales away from them. And as retailers crawl out of the worst recession since the advent of malls, many are realizing they are overbuilt and are closing locations at a fast clip.

The result is near-record vacancy rates at malls of all kinds, both the big enclosed ones and the sprawling strips. Sears Holdings is closing up to 120 stores, Gap Inc. 200 stores and Talbots 110. Abercrombie & Fitch closed 50 stores last year, Hot Topic, almost the same number. Chains that have filed for bankruptcy in recent years, like Blockbuster, Anchor Blue, Circuit City and Borders, have left hundreds of stores lying vacant in malls across the country.

Most cities, looking at shrinking budgets, cannot afford to subsidize or knock down ailing malls, and healthy retailers that are expanding — like H&M and Nordstrom Rack — generally will not open at depressed locations. So, as though they were upholstering polyester chairs from the 1960s with Martha Stewart fabric, urban planners and community activists are trying to spruce up and rethink the uses of many of the artifacts.

Schools, medical clinics, call centers, government offices and even churches are now standard tenants in malls. By hanging a curtain to hide the food court, the Galleria in Cleveland, which opened in 1987 with about 70 retailers and restaurants, rents space for weddings and other events. Other malls have added aquariums, casinos and car showrooms.

Designers in Buffalo have proposed stripping down a mall to its foundation and reinventing it as housing, while an aspiring architect in Detroit has proposed turning a mall’s parking lot there into a community farm. Columbus, Ohio, arguing that it was too expensive to maintain an empty mall on prime real estate, dismantled its City Center mall and replaced it with a park.

Even at many malls that continue to thrive, developers are redesigning them as town squares — adding elements like dog parks and putting greens, creating street grids that go through the malls, and restoring natural elements like creeks that were originally paved over.

“Basically they’re building the downtowns that the suburbs never had,” along with reworking abandoned urban malls for nonshopping uses, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor at the College of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The efforts reflect a shift in how Americans want to shop today: rather than going to big, overwhelming malls, many prefer places where stores can be entered from the street, featuring restaurants, entertainment and other Main Street mainstays. Also, as commuters in urban areas shift to public transportation, the giant parking lots are no longer needed.

The Simon Property Group, a large mall operator, is remodeling 15 to 20 malls a year, said its chief operating officer, Richard Sokolov. It is adding amenities like electric-car charging stations and stadium-seating theaters, and scheduling 20,000 events a year, like cooking demonstrations. Malls today have to “provide a unique set of shopping, dining and entertainment experiences,” Mr. Sokolov said.

Westfield, another large operator, has added dog runs and ice rinks, and, in Toledo, Ohio, the Wait Room, a lounge where customers can drink a beer and check their e-mail “while their significant other shops,” said Katy Dickey, a Westfield spokeswoman, in an e-mail.

While some malls can afford to change with the times, many cannot, and over all, there are too many malls today, urban planners say. The vacancy rate at shopping centers and strip malls was 11 percent in the last quarter of 2011, the highest level since 1991, according to the research firm Reis. Larger regional malls fared better, with a vacancy rate of 9.2 percent.

There are about 108,000 shopping centers in America, according to a 2009 survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers. Just a few years ago, developers competed to build malls, betting that continued growth would support them, but the recession threw those plans off course.

A new enclosed mall has not opened in the United States since 2006, according to Professor Dunham-Jones, and many ambitious projects, like New Jersey’s Xanadu just west of Manhattan, have lain half-finished for years.

“In the aggregate, we have more than we need at this point, and it can have a blighting influence on communities,” said Patrick Phillips, chief executive of the Urban Land Institute. “You see that all over the country, these endless commercial strips that are completely underutilized.”

That is leading to a variety of creative solutions that “would help make ’60s and ’70s suburbia a bit more sustainable,” said Rob Shields, director of the City-Region Studies Center at the University of Alberta, which held a design competition over the last several months that attracted the Detroit and Buffalo proposals.

But putting the theory into practice is requiring unusual city-developer liaisons. Mall owners often need regulatory clearance or financing help from a city to make major changes, and cities can sometimes seize malls that they believe are a hindrance to economic development. And malls were usually built at busy intersections with good access to public transportation — a combination that still works, even if the mall itself doesn’t.

In Seattle, city planners are looking at reworking a still-thriving mall as a focus point for more development.

“We’re at this interesting moment, because in cities, land is very scarce,” said Marshall Foster, city planning director for Seattle, which is trying to make Northgate Mall, a popular mall built in 1950, a center for urban life. “We can’t afford to overlook these opportunities any longer.”

The city is adding transit and trying to increase jobs and living space there. It has restored a creek originally covered by a parking lot, and is pushing the mall owner and retailers to add a street-grid layout and remodel stores so they are accessible from the street.

Cleveland, too, has given over some plots of land to the greenhouse effort at the Galleria mall.

The shift to gardening began with the carts that used to sell jewelry or candles, where Ms. Poole, the director of marketing events, had herbs planted in the disused retail carts inside the mall. She learned how quickly aphids proliferate indoors (solution: release 1,500 ladybugs into the mall).

The garden now produces lettuce, strawberries, basil and other crops, which are sold to visitors and used for the mall’s catering business. An unexpected benefit has been an influx of visitors, which has prompted related retailers to open in the mall, like a company that sells rainwater collection barrels.

“This has been sustaining us throughout these hard years, but now we’re looking at the potential of turning things around,” said Ms. Poole while preparing kale and spinach seeds for spring planting.

Stephanie Clifford, New York Times