I Believe the Trend Was Caused by All the Things I Believed Before I Investigated the Trend

This is so common that there ought to be a name for it (perhaps there is and I just don't know it):  Writer does a story or study on some trend, in this case the downfall of the enclosed shopping mall.  In each case, the writer discovers that such malls died because of ... all the things the writer already holds dear.  If the writer hates American consumerism, then the fall of such malls is a backlash against American consumerism.

It is interesting to note that all of the ideas quoted are demand-side explanations, e.g. why might consumers stop going to large enclosed malls.  And certainly I find the newer outdoor malls more congenial personally, but this can't be the only explanation.  Here in north Phoenix, I can see the dying enclosed Paradise Valley Mall out my window, but just a few miles away is the Scottsdale Fashion Square, a traditional mall that appears to be going great guns.  Ditto the Galleria in Houston.  Perhaps part of the answer is that enclosed malls were simply overbuilt and that people are willing to drive a bit to get to the best enclosed mall in town rather than a smaller version closer to their home (certainly Mall of America made a big bet on that effect).

But it also strikes me there are supply side considerations.  The mall out my window is a huge waste of space, surrounded by parking lots the size of a small county.  And it's just retail.  Modern outdoor malls allow developers to mix shopping, living, and office space in what looks to my eye to be a much denser development.  All these malls have stores on the ground floor with condos and offices up above.  To my not-real-estate-trained eye, this would seem to increase the potential rents in a given piece of land and provide some synergies among the local businesses (e.g. office workers and residents eat and shop in the mall shops).  In some sense it is a re-imagining of the downtown urban space in a suburban context.  This is ironic because it is something urban planners have been trying to force for decades and here comes the free market to do it on its own.

People also like going to newer facilities.  Just ask hotel owners.  If owners do not totally refresh a hotel every 20 years or so, people stop visiting and rates fall.  The same is true of gas stations and convenience stores.  When I worked at Exxon briefly, they said they budgeted to totally rebuild a gas station every 20 years.  So it is not impossible there is a big supply-side explanation here -- if people are reluctant to go to establishments over 20 years old, then visitation of enclosed malls should be collapsing right about now, 20 years after they stopped being built.  A shift in developer preferences could be a large element driving this behavior.  I don't insist that the supply side and real estate incentives are the only explanation, but I think they are a part of it.


  1. Onlooker from Troy:

    Simple: confirmation bias.

  2. Onlooker from Troy:

    "When I worked at Exxon briefly"

    Ha! I knew you were a big oil shill. ;-)

  3. Jim A:

    From what I understand, one of the biggest concerns was the cost of air conditioning.

  4. Sam L.:

    There was an outdoor mall in Tucson with shade cloth over the inner court. I think the Mall of America may be a special case, given Minnesota winters.

  5. Matthew Slyfield:

    I am in south eastern Wisconsin. Here even the outdoor malls are pretty much exclusively retail space. A few also have commercial office space, so do most of the indoor malls, but there are none that have any residential space in the mix.

    Another likely supply side factor in the death of indoor malls is the cost of climate controls for such a large indoor space, with large open entryways from the common space to the individual stores, the mall is effectively one large open space for purposes of HVAC.

    You mention the Mall of America. I went there once, after seeing three different franchises of the same chain I gave up on trying to explore the whole thing. What is the point of a mall that large if the only way they can fill the space is through duplicate stores?

  6. DirtyJobsGuy:

    When I was in college in the 1970's I worked for my father who was doing rural shopping centers (K Mart + supermarket + a few pad stores). I'm an engineer, not currently in real estate, but I did learn that the key to any big shopping center was the anchor stores. These really drew the crowds and the small stores helped cover the bills. The decline of many of the anchor stores (Sears, J.C. Penney, and regional department stores) is the big reason for the demise of many enclosed malls. The ones that survive have the best of the remaining large stores (Macy's, Nordstrom, etc). The outdoor malls can survive without a large anchor to justify the interior space where the goal is to guide the shoppers past all the other storefronts on their way in or out of the mall. Also the 1970's enclosed malls provided additional security (don't laugh, mall cops were an asset) when crime was really bad in the USA. With crime dropping you can live with an enhanced strip mall and little or no surveillance of the parking lot.

  7. KevinM:

    Or it could be a case of government meddling. Multiuse developments are virtually required now, because thats what all the cool urban planning kids are doing. And they're certified SEER platinum, which just means parking your SUV or pickup now takes 2 spaces. Diagonal parking is forbidden for new development.

  8. HenryBowman419:

    Diagonal parking is forbidden? I did not know this — is this a state law or a Phoenix-area rule? What is the rationale?

  9. Ann_In_Illinois:

    "something urban planners have been trying to force for decades and here comes the free market to do it on its own"

    Ah, but if the free market does it, it will include features that people want but the urban planners don't like them to have, such as convenient parking rather than trying to force everyone to take the bus.

    Of course, with the old indoor malls, I didn't find the parking all that convenient. I once asked my brother, an architect, why they weren't planned better. He said that all they care about in terms of the parking lot is sucking you in, so you feel that you can drive up close very easily. They don't care how, or if, you get out again, they just want to suck you in.

  10. Ann_In_Illinois:

    Exactly! I lived in Minneapolis when my children were toddlers, and it was great to be able to take them to Mall of America in the winter. Being inside all the time gets a bit old after 4 or 5 straight months.

  11. mesocyclone:

    The mall outside Coyote's window, Paradise Valley Mall, is indeed part of an urban planner's attempt to foist downtown in the suburbs. It was part of a Phoenix scheme called "urban villages." This central planning approach required that any development like PVM had to have a mix of high density and low income housing, thus not only exporting a tiny bit of downtown living, but also a whole bunch of crime. Check out the denizens of the Walmart next to Coyote's building.

  12. rdk:

    About three and a half years ago I was on a study tour to Paradise Valley and a few of us ended up at that mall. At the end of our visit we asked the central help desk people to call us a cab back to our hotel, which they did and directed us to one of the entrances to wait. While waiting we chatted to a couple of locals explaining where we were from (Australia) before they headed off to keep shopping and we kept waiting. After about half an hour no taxi had turned up, but then one of the women we had been talking to came back and told us a taxi was waiting at the opposite entrance. Sure enough it was ours - what was amazing was that the lady had walked right across the centre to get us, after telling the taxi driver that she knew who had ordered the cab and asked him to wait. So my memory of PVM is one of amazing helpfulness and friendliness of the locals - we all agreed that nothing like that would have happened at one of the big shopping centres (malls) in Melbourne.

  13. Rick Caird:

    Diagonal parking prevents a lot of accidents. Our major grocery store recently expanded and now has straight in parking rather than the former diagonal. It makes exiting a parking spot in a busy parking lot somewhat akin to crossing a mine field without a map.

  14. Matthew Slyfield:

    I rather doubt diagonal parking prevents all that many accidents. Most of the parking lots in my area are perpendicular parking, rather than angle parking, yet there are very few parking lot accidents.

    Also diagonal parking forces one way traffic in the parking lot isles.

  15. Rick Caird:

    Diagonal parking does force one way which is exactly why it is safer. In a very high traffic area like the only grocery store in the neighborhood, you have traffic going both way, people walking both was and you have to see in 3 directions at once: left, right, and directly behind.

  16. richfam:


  17. marque2:

    Brrr, this time of year, I really relish the ability to go to an enclosed mall. I guess though, I don't do very much mally type shopping and seem to survive going to the outdoor grocery store once a week.

  18. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Brrr, this time of year, I really relish the ability to go to an enclosed mall."

    Personally, I prefer to stay home. This time of year, I only go shopping when it's absolutely necessary.

  19. KevinM:

    Harris County, TX (Houston), but I am sure we are not alone. Maximizes the number of spaces per given area. I think flood control has something to do with it..

  20. randian:

    It doesn't maximize space. A parallelogram has the same area as a rectangle. If anything right-angle parking increases required space because the lane must be wider to accommodate a larger turning radius.

  21. Sam P:

    I was in Jakarta, Indonesia last month and noticed that many, possibly most, of the malls (and there are quite a few) include an adjacent connected office or residential tower or two. They also like to build their malls many stories tall (5-7 shopping levels seemed pretty common) with underground and above the mall parking levels. I suspect developers have a difficult time accumulating land inside of Jakarta.

  22. Mike Powers:

    Overbuilding might be part of it. I remember when I was living in Newport News and there was one stretch of road which, famously, had four malls in a row.

  23. gloamer:

    "In some sense it is a re-imagining of the downtown urban space in a suburban context. This is ironic because it is something urban planners have been trying to force for decades and here comes the free market to do it on its own."

    Where I live on the western suburbs of Cleveland there is Crocker Park, which is exactly this sort of mixed-use "urban-style" development built on what previously was empty farmland. It's been remarkably successful for such a development, with top-notch outdoor retail (Apple store, etc.) paired with office space and residential. Currently American Greeting is building a new HQ on adjacent land. There are common spaces that get heavy use by the community and a community center being built. Public transportation runs right through the heart it. And the residential options have expanded from the initial apartments all the way to the high-end with 500K town homes (top of market in this area).

    On the face of it, you'd think urban planners would be very enthusiastic about it -- FINALLY the boring suburbs have embraced dynamic urban spaces. But it's quite the opposite. In fact, the urban planners have outright disdain for Crocker Park, trashing it constantly as a fake and soulless Disneyland. The criticisms have grown absurd as the development has seemed to out pace its critics. In fact, when aspects of a new downtown development were (accurately) described as "similar to Crocker Park" it kicked up a hilarious amount of online argument as to why the downtown development was so very, very different. Observing all this over the past decade it's hard not to conclude that the urban planning class simply dislikes any development in the suburbs. It doesn't matter awesomely mixed-use something it, doesn't matter how popular it is, doesn't matter how many hip new local eateries and farmer's markets are there. If it's not it's not built in the right zip code the cool kids will deem it not cool no matter what.

  24. randian:

    It's not so much the zip code, though that is a small part of it. The real problem the urban planners have is that Crocker Park wasn't built by their order and direction. It wasn't properly "planned", you see, that's why the downtown development is "different".