Several years ago I flew to Los Angeles to report for the New York Times on a competition called “Dead Malls”. This wasn’t a competition for an actual brick-and-mortar commission, but instead what is sometimes called an “ideas competition”.
The idea behind that competition was to generate new ideas for the growing amount of abandoned suburban shopping malls across America. There were all kinds of proposals, from arts facilities to prisons. But the idea I didn’t see in that competition was the sole one that made any sense: simply stitching malls into city fabric by making them mixed use with a variety of housing and other private and public spaces, a variety of scales (both for the architecture and the businesses there), and better access for pedestrians and mass transit.
All this time later, MulvannyG2 Architecture has been named a winner in a similar ideas competition, held by the International Council of Shopping Centers. The ICSC’s Future Image Architecture Competition asked firms to address a potential “big box” store design built 50 years from now. MulvannyG2 won in the “Green” category for an entry that offers a six-step sustainable strategy for adapting abandoned large format stores into new uses.
MulvannyG2’s winning entry, “ReStart, ReConnect, ReVive, ReTurn, ReClaim, ReEnvision” works on the premise that by 2060 large format stores’ current suburban locations will become urban as density spreads and escalates. Global warming, presumably, would have wrought substantial climate change by that time, and fossil fuel resources would have dwindled far past peak-oil. This, the architects reasoned, would in turn provide greater incentive for large format stores’ adaptive reuse; they will become too valuable a resource to lie abandoned as many do today, or even to be functioning with that low level of density and seas of asphalt parking lots.
Sitting down with a quartet of architects from the firm recently, they discussed additional impetus behind the winning design.
“The crux of it really was stitching everything together so it would be a living entity again,” MulvannyG2’s Jonathan Dunn said.
The competition entry used an actual outer-Portland site, at 122nd and Glisan, as its starting point. “With sustainability, especially, site is so important,” said Dunn, who also co-chairs the AIA/Portland chapter’s Committee on the Environment. It’s the crux of how you take a building and shape it to the site.”
“We had a lot of conversations about the right approach,” MG2's Darren Schroeder said. “We wanted something that links everything together and is mixed use but has the financial underpinnings to work. We tried to look at this from a developer’s perspective. That part of it said, there’s no reason why these sites can’t evolve the same way the other fabric of the city has developed historically: slowly, in phases, and with multiple users.”
The design splices what was one large mass into multiple levels, cutting courtyards and skylights into the building and creating a succession of different kinds of indoor and outdoor spaces with multiple tenants and many points of entry. The program integrates housing, libraries, markets, restaurants, an amphitheater, open space, and even farming.
The design also presumes that fewer people would be driving cars in 50 years, so there is less than half the amount of parking spaces allotted. That’s the part of this process that may have been the most fun for the architects. Not only did they cut the amount of spaces, but also made them less obtrusive. Do shopping mall developers have any idea how ugly parking lots are? Burying them underground is more expensive, but you also get what you pay for.
“Those are the pressures of the trade,” Schroeder said. You have to be able to understand how important parking is to your client, but you also have to be able to show your client the value in wrapping it in.”
Developers of suburban shopping malls typically have looked for as much as five parking spots for every thousand square feet of spaces. With all that reclaimed space, the design added more greenspace.
MulvannyG2 also sought to bring a more local focus to a format that is usually dominated by chains. “Small local businesses was a huge focus. This used to be the big box chain and this is a complete opposite. Maybe that’s where we’re moving,” said MG2's Kelly Stewart.
Certainly a mall would start to feel different if it had lots of open greenspace and was oriented around micro-sized retail such as food carts or individual retailers. In fact, it makes me think of Saturday Market, which consists of just such a mix today.
But the reason many of us hate shopping malls is not just the chains or the ugly parking lots, but also the antiseptic feel of the interiors. Some of that bad feeling comes from the lack of natural light and air, but it’s something more, too: the failure of interior design to feel vibrant and varied. “We fight that all over the country,” adds Schroeder, whose firm designs retail facilities for many clients. “We even see it in Times Square.”
Ultimately, though, I can’t help but wonder if it’s not the design of shopping malls that needs to change but the approach of the developer, or even the fact that there is a single developer. “What used to be one big box from a tax lot perspective, a huge multi acre parcel that belongs to one holding company, we’d like to give it more like the function of a city,” Schroeder said. “How many tax lots does the city of Portland have for one block downtown? Why can’t we have 25 tax lots here? That’s where our discussion got excited. We didn’t want it to just be a site plan exercise. The idea about this is it’s supposed to work across economic boundaries. Not just a place to go and party and shop, and not a place to squat in your expensive condo. Just a mixture of demographics.”
It’s impossible to predict the future, but the future of the shopping mall can change before 2060, especially when architects and developers needn’t reinvent the wheel to find what works and what is viable for shoppers and residents. “We can grab a lot of cues from our present and say, ‘What’s important to us now?’ Light and space,” Schroeder concludes. “That’s been the guiding force, for example, in what’s made the pearl successful. Maybe it’s not diverse, but they’ve made it work by just extending the grid.”
“This isn’t a one size fits all solution. You can’t just put an urban farm in the middle of a shopping mall site. But these are under-utilized properties with real estate value. How do we get a return on that value again? Back in the day it was sufficient to do forgettable construction and call it good. Now there’s a greater obligation.”
As it happens, I was in a retail space designed by MulvannyG2 over the weekend: the renovated Fred Meyer store at SE 39th and Hawthorne. It is a big improvement over the old store, with more glass along the perimeter and more greenery in the parking lot. But there is still a lot of windowless concrete wall along Hawthorne, and a convoluted entry-exit area. If you're going to pull off a transformative retail design, it takes a willing client, too.