Will We Grow Nostalgic for Strip Malls?

Yesterday I came across this article  about a competition at the University of Alberta called “Strip-Appeal” in which architects and other designers submitted proposals for re-purposing abandoned strip malls.   As big box stores and online retailers like Amazon claim more and more business, strip malls have started going empty.

Photo credit: Sten Odenwald

I had a look at some of the submitted designs and I couldn’t help but feel a little weary.  Design proposals included:

1. several variations of a park/greenspace/community garden (Yaaaaawn.)

2. turning the strip mall into a mixed-use town-center-y kinda thing with underground parking.  (zzzzzzzzz.)

3. a plan where people could just come in and use the building materials from the old strip mall to build whatever they wanted because there would be no zoning regulations for the new space.  (Sounds like anarchy but at least it’s different.)

4. a gathering place for mobile “pop-up” retailers.  (In other words, one week a space would be occupied by Dahn Yoga, the next by Haagen Daaz?  Is this feasible?)

“Bumper Crop” Concept by Miller Hull Partnership.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for “re-purposing” rather than scraping old structures clean away and building completely anew.  I’m just wondering:

a) if these new and improved spaces would be any more successful than the old strip malls or if they would lose money too, and

b) if we might, just a TINY bit, grow to miss those tacky old strip malls.

I mean, today people have come to look with some fondness back on the industrial landscapes of the 20th century — you know, the old foundries that have been transformed by clever architects into urban parks and artists’ studios.  Those old smelting towers and smokestacks that were considered such eyesores have become chic and retro because now they’re surrounded by Karl Foerster grass. (And yeah, okay, they don’t belch toxins anymore, I know.)

But I wonder if, in a hundred years, visitors to one of these repurposed strip malls will be like, “hey look, they salvaged the red faux-shingle roof from the old Pizza Hut!  Isn’t it GORGEOUS?”

Maybe one day, far in the future, I’ll be strolling through one of these new-fangled places with one of my grandkids, and I’ll tell him, “that’s right, sweetie, this Sustainable Eco-Plaza used to be a Trak Auto!  Granny bought her wiper blades there!  And that Carbon Credits ‘R’ Us over there used to be a 7-11!  That was back in the days when folks were allowed to buy hundred ounce sodas!”

And I’ll think of the Erol’s Video store that I used to visit every Friday night, and the Cheng’s Chinese Take-Out that I ordered from every week but never actually knew where it was.  And my eyes will get a little misty.

17 thoughts on “Will We Grow Nostalgic for Strip Malls?

  1. Very funny. I think the industrial/retro chic thing is based on a quality of gritty authenticity. Will a Pizza Hut roof ever be seen as having that quality? I guess it’s possible, but seems a little unlikely. As to abandoned strip malls, they’ve got to do something with them but it’s hard to know what. Seems like it should depend on what the area needs. If parks are in short supply, if there’s a need for business incubator space (free office space, etc.), or whatever. You’ve identified the big challenge, though: if the site is supposed to be self-supporting, how do you overcome the forces that caused the strip mall to be abandoned in the first place? Beats me.

    • Maybe not gritty authenticity, but maybe old strip malls will conjure some other quality– how about Post-modern Über-suburban Meta-angst?

      Or not. I just think that as soon as a type of landscape disappears people start missing it a little, even if they reviled it during its heyday.

  2. Well I’m still bewildered by the current adoration of 1950s furniture , so ya never know. And the old exec office bldg in dc was hated in its day.
    I think we CAN bet on the FBI bldg always being hated, however.

  3. How about returning them to the farmer’s fields they were prior to being a strip mall, and celebrate the local produce movement. Better yet, replant the forest that was there prior to the farmer’s field and leave it alone.

  4. Living in Dallas, it’s impossible to get away from the strip malls. Or any other mall, for that matter: I’ve joked for years that the original “Dawn of the Dead” is the best documentary about Dallas ever made. (Back in 1984, the Chicago columnist Mike Royko covered the Republican National Convention in Dallas, and among other choice comments, he referred to Dallas as “a shopping mall Shangri-La.” Royko has been dead for 15 years as of this last April, and Dallas still has an arrest warrant out on him, mostly for daring to speak ill of the city.) Even here, though, the malls are dying, and the standard strip-mall is dying, too. I may miss individual stores, but I definitely don’t miss the concept.

    The funny thing, though, is that we have lots of spaces with dead strip malls in the area, and there’s not a whole lot that can be done with them short of razing them. (By way of example, one of the earliest strip malls in the country is just down the road from my house, and it had been empty and decrepit for at least the last twenty years. It was finally demolished five years ago, but the concrete pads are still there, waiting for someone to want the property enough to tear them out and build something new.) You can’t turn them back into farmland easily, because all of the topsoil is gone. You can’t convert most of them into multiuse facilities, because refitting them with proper electricity, Ethernet, and water and sewer is usually more expensive than it’s worth. Hell, by now, a lot of them are having to be shut down out here because sewer and water lines are cracking, and nobody wants to pay to bring them up to code. Don’t get me going about asbestos and pre-ban lead paint.

    The really sad part? Thanks to tax codes in most areas, there’s no incentive to do anything with the spaces unless someone (the government? A private altruistic group?) buys them out. As I said, Dallas is rotten with half-empty strip malls, and some of them were built years ago and have never had a single tenant. The owners, though, have no reason to lower rents to attract new tenants, and in fact keep jacking up rents if the tenants can handle it and cry crocodile tears if the tenants have to move out. For the vast majority, they get more of a tax writeoff if the the space is empty than they’d make on rent, and a lot of them actively discourage further development by requiring a percentage of the gross in the store along with rent. So long as they don’t allow trees to grow up in the parking lot, nobody really cares, and that lasts until we go through another one of our boom cycles and incomes increase to where new businesses can justify paying the standing rent. Everything else, especially the idea of using the dead malls for tech incubator offices, requires the owner to spend some money on changing the use, and most of these characters are so cheap they use both sides of the toilet paper.

    Other than that, thank you for bringing this up, Especially with Amazon’s new close-to-same-day service starting up, it’s only going to get worse with standard strip malls. Much like dead movie theaters, someone’s going to have to come up with new ideas, because the only other option is to raze them all, wasting the effort spent building them in the first place.

    • Wow, sounds like a bad situation there in Dallas. One of the reasons I got to thinking about this whole topic was because I’d heard about the possibility of Amazon having a new Same Day service, which would naturally be devastating for traditional retailers. If Amazon can manage to offer same day delivery at little to no extra cost, I’m not sure I’ll need to leave the house anymore. And hey, maybe Amazon will start building warehouses on all the old strip mall site around Dallas….they’ll need new warehouse space with same day shipping.

      But overall, yes, I think it must be hard to transform abandoned building sites into anything profitable. It seems like most of these re-purposing projects are funded by local governments or supported by foundations who have some wealthy donors.

      An interesting case study of “adaptive re-use” is this maximum-security federal prison just down the road from where I live. Everybody thought it was terrible and scary, because prisoners were often escaping. Then the prisoners were shipped elsewhere, the county purchased the land, and along with a local foundation, transformed the place into an Arts Center, which hosts concerts, provides studio space, offers art classes, etc.

      The prison buildings that were once so reviled are now seen as attractive cultural landmarks, examples of early 20th century prison architecture. Care was taken to preserve some of the prison’s graffiti-covered walls, now seen as a type of folk art rather than an eyesore.

      It’s just interesting how perceptions can change.

      Anyway, the project is considered a success, but it’s definitely not a commercial success. I mean, its maintenance is not supported by the artists’ rent or the fees for the art classes but rather by the taxpayers. I’m not saying that these re-purposed sites should never be civic or public spaces, but it would be nice to see some projects that actually could make money, too.

      • I agree. I have to admit that some of the ideas for reusing strip malls and standard shopping malls have merit, but the only way they can be done is if some anonymous rich guy keeps throwing money at the final projects to keep them going. Speaking from experience after working on several projects where the benefactor suddenly saw a bright shiny object and wandered off, I’m a firm believer in making sure that the operation has an actual business plan, so it can pay for itself.

    • You bring up many interesting points, but chief among them, for me, is the idea that our current tax structures are supporting this stupidity, wastefulness and destruction of our local environment (both built and natural). This is a perfect case where it’s (past) time for the citizens of the area to demand change. At the very least to make it more cost effective to re-develop the already ruined land rather than convert “new” land to more development.

  5. I agree with Gaia and Texas,
    There really is no incentive to renew these spaces. In my own small town, traffic patterns changed and areas that were once flush wiht business traffic have been sidelined as new offramps and improved flow favored other areas. I think that the decrepit buildings need to be razed and cleared away. Allow weeds to grow, at least that is allowing rainfall to percolate into the soil, insects and birds to have some feeding grounds instead of concrete, and carbon to be drawn in.

  6. In my opinion, we are dying of our own collective stupidity. However they can get us to spend our money(“and make us poorer) has succeeded. Open air Farmer’s Markets seems like the best idea. We can’t live on lousy food alone – like in the grocery store. People still don’t seem to get that either. Hmm?!

  7. A very enjoyable post!

    I say raze em. If one has to reimagine a use for them, that implies there is no real market for those spaces. When the land becomes valuable enough for something else, it will become something else.

    I live just off Columbia Pike in Arlington and its fascinating to watch this street full of strip malls evolve into a more compact, mixed use corridor. Of course, the land is so valuable here with the proximity to D.C. so there’s an incentive to replace bad development with better development. Arlington also has a very progressive “form-based code” which dictates the spatial forms of development that replaces the strip malls. It forces the buildings to be on the street, have a certain percentage of windows, mix of materials, dictates their scale and form. But it does not dictate their use (as traditional zoning did which encouraged sprawl).

    It’s amazing to see the change of simply requiring the buildings to be on the street. It animates the street and creates life on the sidewalks.

  8. The strip mall is a vernacular ‘architectural’ style that is at its most prevalent, it seems, where land is flat and cheap. It is easy to imagine what the folks who own them should do with them if and when they are under- or disused, but I imagine that some of these property owners would prefer that they be ‘used’ (read: rented), rather than take a passive or active loss on their tax return, and it seems like the economic factors that are making them go empty are possibly having an effect on the property owners also; so they might have little incentive to turn what was once (or once hoped to be) an income-producing investment into a public service. It seems also that the communities that these structures are in might be underserved in a variety of ways if businesses have left them. These vacancies and derelictions are a blade that cuts in all directions.

    It is always interesting to me when gardeners, food advocates, environmental thinkers and their cohorts – Architects! get together and brainstorm, the thoughts frequently turn to tearing things down and/or replacing them with other things, often things that are very high-minded and dare I say, elitist. Replacing a functioning–even an ugly or ill-functioning–structure with another structure isn’t very ‘green,’ and if a community cannot support a bodega selling phone cards, quarter water, and cigarettes, it isn’t likely to support a farmer’s market with organic produce, either.

    I can’t legitimately defend the concept of the strip mall, it is undeniably ugly and wasteful of space and land, and most of what goes into them seems of little value–to me. Neither could I defend predatory leasing practices, and the FBI building is as brutal a Brutalist structure I have ever seen (and looking up a photo of it probably has me on a ‘list’ of some sort now). I think it would be superfantastic if some sort of incentive program could be created whereby fresh foods–even the evil agribusinessy kinds like you get at Kroger–could be brought into underserved and distressed communities. I am pretty sure, however, that even if economic conditions improve, you won’t see those things in these spaces, because people in general love nail sets, hair extensions, cheap liquor, and Marlboro Lights more than they love carrots and free-range chickens.

    I do love 1950’s furniture though.

    • Wow, I love your unminced words. I think you have thought all this through a great deal more than I have. It will be interesting to watch what happens to derelict strip malls in poor areas vs. those in middle& upper middle class neighborhoods. I’m sure the results will be very different.

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