Opinion | Get In, We’re Going to Save the Mall


A series of U.S. and state Supreme Court cases, from 1968 on, have sought to limit free speech protections in malls by claiming them as private property; the plaintiffs in these cases have been union members and antiwar and anti-fur demonstrators. In Amalgamated Food Employees Union Local 590 v. Logan Valley Plaza Inc. in 1968, one of the first of these cases, Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the majority, argued that “businesses situated in the suburbs could largely immunize themselves” from criticism — which went against the public interest in a suburbanizing nation.

The whiteness of malls, at least, is changing. The geographer Wei Li coined the term “ethnoburb” in 1997, studying the rise of majority-Asian American suburbs. Willow Lung-Amam has chronicled the rise of shopping centers and malls curated for this demographic, and formerly white-serving malls across the South have been reborn as mercados offering Latinx food, fashion and entertainment and fulfilling other community service functions.

What these Asian and Latin American projects have in common is a responsiveness to changing residential patterns and a willingness to support local businesses — displays of creative management beyond attracting the latest hot national brand. The approach of these culturally responsive mall managers is more akin to the revolution promised by the festival marketplaces of the 1970s than of the peak mall 1990s. The architect Ben Thompson — a creator, with his wife, Jane Thompson, and the developer James Rouse of the urban marketplaces Faneuil Hall, Harborplace and South Street Seaport — wrote, “Everything we build must inject the affirmative values human beings need as much as food — the pleasure of tactile and visual things, assurance of physical security and freedom, variety of stimulating impressions and experience.”

Ethnocentric mall revamps are only one of a bouquet of strategies deployed in successful retrofits, resurfacings and replacements of malls. June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones have been chronicling suburban reuse for more than a decade. Their database and 2021 book, “Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia,” includes malls that have become civic centers, schools, churches and medical facilities — sometimes in tandem, reversing the single-use zoning common to the postwar burb.

The more uses added to the sites, the more likely they are to have added green space, whether those are the outdoor courtyards on the former parking lot at Austin Community College’s Highland Campus or the great lawn at the Promenade of Wayzata in Minnesota, which combines senior housing, a hotel and offices. Renderings for the Rise, the under-construction redevelopment of Vallco Shopping Mall in California, designed by Rafael Vinoly Architects, hype the 29-acre green roof as “the world’s largest” and claim it “restores the predevelopment character of the Cupertino landscape.”

Some have even become parks. The second wave of mall building in the 1970s often targeted low-lying areas that were difficult to develop for residential or other uses, and rightly so, as they were bottoms, or stream beds prone to flooding. Meriden Hub Mall in Meriden, Conn., was one such site. In 2007 the city began working on a plan, using local, state and federal funds, to replace the mall with a 14-acre park, opening access to Harbor Creek, creating a public space that also functions as a water retention basin and building a bridge and amphitheater. Mixed-income housing and an upgraded transit center now front the park, known as Meriden Green.

My favorite rebirth-of-the-mall story comes from Detroit. Before Mr. Gruen designed Southdale, he worked out some of his ideas for the new suburban Main Street in Southfield, Mich., just north of the city. Northland, which opened in 1954, had landscaped outdoor courtyards with modern sculptures connecting rows of shops and a branch of the city’s leading department store, J.L. Hudson. The planted spaces offered room for women and children or anyone else isolated in their homes, to come together and shop, chat and play.



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