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Opinion: Of malls, and death and dying, and those freaks of shopping nature

Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach, as it appears now.

Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach, as it appears now.

Mark Chapman

Mark Chapman

NORWALK Conn. – The first time I ever heard the word “mall” was when I was a child – maybe 5 years old, maybe 10 – and it was in Miami Beach. My parents were taking me over to Miami Beach and a place called Lincoln Mall, where there were stores, restaurants and – hold on, now – NO CARS!

Wow! Really?

Yep. A strange concept for a kid from Cape Cod, this Main Street that was more like a Main Sidewalk (note to DPW: It was WAY more than 7 feet…).

There were kiosks with information, and big planters and tall palm trees lit with colored lamps, and it was all outdoors!

So THIS is a mall? COOL!

The next mall I heard about was coming to Cape Cod, on the outskirts of Hyannis, near the airport. And, sadly, it would be all indoors, and not anywhere near as pretty as Lincoln Mall, which, by then, was being called Lincoln Road, probably because “mall” was losing its luster.

Oh, the Cape Cod version had some good stuff – mostly restaurants and some clothing stores that had stuff I actually liked and could afford. But the mall experienced the Great Migration, not just of shoppers, but the teenagers who used to hang out on Main Street, making life unpleasant for all who passed who weren’t part of the crowd. Not my idea of a good time – sitting on the wall in front of Filene’s, smoking, being loud and making rude remarks to people passing by, leaving trash behind.

I was such a straight kid.

So I was never a mall rat. I tolerated malls. Now and then I’d find one in my travels that was glitzy and inviting, but, at their heart, they were all just pigs with lipstick, indoor shopping centers where you could find stores that were 50 Shades of The Gap. I began to avoid them whenever possible. And now, as a great number of these dinosaurs of capitalism are mired in the economic tar pits, we find ourselves bearing witness to an effort to resurrect the beasts, to keep them from extinction. Norwalk may not be Ground Zero for the rescue effort, but it is, without doubt, a target.

There’s a perfectly good piece of property by one of the most heavily traveled highways in America, General Growth Properties and its local lawyer and legislator, Larry Legend (oh, could you BELIEVE that??? I mean, really, folks. Larry BIRD? HE’s Larry Legend. So just stop it.), are convinced will be part of the Shopping Mall Revival of 2015.m Or 16. Or 22… (see “Xanadu”)

The GGP people have made the rounds in Norwalk, showing off their mallnificent plans, making changes to mollify the citizens, with the occasional mallevolent comment surfacing about the land just sitting empty for another decade if the Land Disposition Agreement is not altered – well blown up and rewritten – to make a mall work.

Some Norwalkers have bought into the plan. Others see it as just so much mallarky (OK, now I’ll stop…).

But Norwalk isn’t the only city in America that is targeted for The Next Great Mall. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, one of my former employers, ran a piece recently about a new mall destined for that city on the Gulf of Mexico. The mall, it appears, will have some things in common with the proposed Norwalk project – glass and glitz. It won’t have the same developer (Taubman Centers is running that show). And it apparently has elements of a couple successful Florida malls, one in Orlando, the other in Tampa.

Turns out Sarasota may be part of a trend. While the countryside is strewn with the corpses of shopping malls, there are some notable exceptions – the Shopping Freaks of Nature.

    Click here for some GGP properties: GGP collection

  • Providence Place, built in 1999, is the 1.3 million-square-foot House That Buddy Built, part of a whole bunch of goodies then-Mayor Buddy Cianci brought to the failing city to stop the descent and turn the little Rhodey state capital into a City on the Move. Of course, Buddy moved, too, into the federal pen. The mall is a success – and Cianci, a two-time loser in the felony/jail time sense, is making another run at City Hall. Some former mayors just don’t know when to quit.
  • The Towson Town Center in Maryland has hints of what the Norwalk mall might be like, fronting on a road. There is a Cheesecake Factory in the picture. If that comes with the Norwalk mall, I could be had.
  • There’s a big glass wall in the Streets at Southpoint in Durham, N.C. There’s an expansive glass wall at the Beverly Center in L.A., providing great views from the escalators. And of the Escalators.

There are several other GGP malls. Many of these are renovations, because, after all, who’s building new malls these days?

And then there’s Taubman Properties, running malls such as Westfarms in Farmington, the Mall at Short Hills, NJ, Charleston Place in South Carolina, and Town Center in Stamford, among others.

So malls, like newspapers, are not quite ready to give up the ghost. But the question Norwalk has to answer is, are they just whistling past the graveyard?

12 comments

Suzanne October 5, 2014 at 8:32 am

Yes, they are. For the few Malls that you have mentioned, there are dozens more that either have been abandoned or re-purposed. Just yesterday, I found out a streetscape Mall, popular decades ago in Sacramento, CA, is being destroyed for another state government building. A Mall in a well-to-do section of Albuquerque has been abandoned, the final anchor store, Dillards, leaving. Meantime, an open air Mall, the successful model about the country, is thriving nearby. Two examples of many I have cited before in other Mall conversations.

Five or six Malls does not a trend make. The areas you describe as building new Malls of the type being proposed for Norwalk by GGP are located all in up and coming or well-established among the monied retirement set. Hardly the diverse populations and demographics of the Northeast Norwalk.
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Countless people have mentioned that Stamford Town Center is a “ghost town.” As researched and mentioned before, adding another Mall to an area already saturated with them, i.e., Danbury, Trumbull and Stamford, is a great way to enforce Mall failure for those that already exist.
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The 50 Shades of Gap might just turn out to be the 50 Shades of J Crew or Polo – stores that already exist on at least four significant main streets in this area. A Mall containing these stores will only serve to create competition that I am betting those main streets will lose leaving town centers degraded.
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While a mall thriving from 1999 is a good thing, a new Mall with an old concept failing all over this country (and NOT just in the Rust Belt of the Mid West) is not a good plan for now or for our children’s future. As Malls continue to die or be destroyed, one must ask, “Just what are we creating for Norwalk’s future taxpayers?”
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The “lifecycle” of such a structure has been described by a commercial real estate contributor as somewhere between 25 and 50 years (if I read the entry correctly.) That means, somewhere in the next generation, there is going to be a large, glassed in box, largely abandoned (dying Malls tend to feature a lot of discount centers), that we have left for future generations to deal with.
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Meantime, GGP will have made their bucks, been waived of taxes (I read, who knows if this correct, that they will be phased in after seven years), and left the stores to build their developments and profit margins elsewhere.
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Norwalk, with a little boosterism from GGP, will have given away the land, the store and their future. Yay, Mall.

Lifelong Teacher October 5, 2014 at 10:08 am

This is a bad idea any way you look at it. Unless, of course, you’re a developer or their attorney.

anon October 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Some credit due here, they are reaching out to neighbors,shopkeepers, neighborhoods, churches, newspapers, the City. GGP is putting in the effort, they are listening.

Some may not like that GGP builds malls and bought this property but, it’s what they are, mall builders.

The Al Maldny mosque folks will hopefully take a few lessons from them.

Rod Lopez-Fabrega October 5, 2014 at 1:36 pm

HEAR,HEAR ! To all of the above…
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It is very clear in which direction the future of “shopping” lies–and it’s not in standing in front of a Mall mirror that lets you select in a reflection the color of the outfit your are trying on.
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When your real life for five days of every week is: navigating the morning rush hour on clogged highways or over-filled trains, surrounded by others who are late for work, putting in your 9 to 5 (or more if you’re looking for advancement,) then navigating the evening rush hour on highways or on over-stuffed trains clogged with lots of tired grumpy people, all followed by time to catch up with life for a couple of crowded weekend days.
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Much easier to glance through a glitzy catalog, make one phone call and wait for the stuff to arrive in the mail. If it doesn’t fit or the color is wrong, or you just don’t like it, return it (usully no return postage required), make one more quick phone call and wait for the new choice to arrive.

So, the future of “shopping” begins to look more and more like MAIL instead of MALL.

Jeff October 5, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Good read. City planning should not be dictated by corporatists who appear to be cheer leading the horrific idea of a mall in a heavily congested area off of I-95. Should this bad idea ever be implemented, the corresponding area will likely evolve into one of the great highway bottlenecks of our time.
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The citizens should have the ultimate say in what should be placed on this valuable property. The mayor and elected officials should encourage multiple town halls and forums to get the idea generation juices flowing. . . We can do better than building a popular concept from yesteryear and let’s stop the “Group Think” mentality that a mall is our only option here.

John Hamlin October 6, 2014 at 7:48 am

Norwalk can do better than the mall proposal, but unfortunately there’s no one at the helm PLANNING what the city will become.

Haley October 6, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Here’s an idea: Solve three problems at once by putting the mosque, the driving range and the house proposed for a tidal marsh in Rowayton on the property that is to be malled over.

Oldtimer October 6, 2014 at 6:31 pm

I have suggested the planners look at a redevelopment project in Omaha called midtown crossing. There are several high rise buildings featuring condos and rental apartments on the upper floors with retail, mostly restaurants but also a grocery store and a movie theatre. There is a hotel and it overlooks a small park where there are concerts each week in summertime and, when I was there, football on a large outdoor TV. There are no low price units, secure parking is under each building, and it seems to be very successful. I have no financial interest in this project but was very impressed by a visit there.
http://www.midtowncrossing.com/about/default.aspx

Oldtimer October 6, 2014 at 7:10 pm

We need to make a serious effort to attract people with higher incomes who will happily pay the price for a really nice place to live. Some provisions in our present zoning would have to be changed, or waived, but there is a market for luxury apartments/condos in a well managed complex. the upper floors from 95/7 would have an amazing view of the harbor and across the sound.

Suzanne October 6, 2014 at 7:15 pm

Oldtimer, I watched the link, thank you.

What this is offering is what makes a successful mall in the United States. There is open air dining, apartments above both retail and dining establishments. There are corporate occupants. There is a well known and large grocery store.

Most importantly, there is green space and it looks lovely. People can do yoga, enjoy free concerts, dance on the green, have celebrations.

Every parking spot is in a covered garage and integrated as part of the architecture. It is geared toward pedestrians and outside – and this is Omaha! I love that they have a farmer’s market there every week.

Why can’t GGP see the vibrancy of such a community and how this approach integrates every demographic? That the connection to the out of doors enlivens a space that provides both culture and commerce? I feel like GGP is unloading a concept onto Norwalk that doesn’t work because they can.

Amanda October 6, 2014 at 8:35 pm

@Oldtimer, isn’t the example you posted very similar to what Waypointe is doing right down the road? It’s a functional and thoughtful idea, but I don’t think we need any more overpriced condos/apartment rentals. I’d love to see a terrific/boutique grocery store (something Norwalk really lacks). If the mall idea must come to fruition, it should be an open air mall. The structure they are proposing makes no sense for the neighborhood. Someone commented on another site saying they were a manager at one of the local Sono restos and they thought this would increase revenue to the area. My question is…how? When you think of going to a mall, it’s a drive in-drive out scenario. Indoor malls don’t encourage people to wander the area. They are talking about putting a Cheescake Factory in the mall? No thanks. We have fabulous local restaurants in Sono that are struggling already due to the lack of parking and increased rent prices. There are better uses for this property.

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