Waterside Mall, in Washington, is razed. Photo from flickr.
This is our 100th post on A Town Square. Thanks for being a part of the tiny band that visits from time to time.
I was absolutely dumbfounded and thrilled the other day, when I picked up the Washington Post and read the article, below in its entirety, by Chadwick Matlin, who is a young journalist and currently the Dutko Fellow at Slate.
His riff on Wal-Mart is not my cup of tea (never shopped there, never will), and I would have emphasized the local and the regional, and perhaps talked about reviving a walkable Main Street neighborhood, but otherwise, I’m good with this.
He proposes the obvious, to me, but I think the not-so-obvious to many. Ironically, this piece appeared the day after Christmas, when malls everywhere were trying to pick up the pieces following a dismal holiday season.
In the next city, there will be no malls. Here’s Matlin’s piece.
The Washington Post
Tear Down That Mall
By Chadwick Matlin
Friday, December 26, 2008
A couple of years ago, in a bid to make fun of 1980s cheesiness, CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother” featured a music video called “Let’s Go to the Mall.” Its main target was the horrible fashion sense of that lost decade, but it was a critique of something else, too. Because the song was set in and about a mall, it subsequently ripped teeny-bop culture and the North American impulse toward consumer escapism.
It’s hard to figure out what’s changed about malls since then. Malls are a testament to the kind of consumer thinking that got us into the recessionary mess we’re in today, after all. And that’s why we need to close every single one of them.
Already, malls are in a considerable amount of trouble. Shopping centers on the block are selling for 25 to 35 percent less than they did a year ago. Retail vacancies are on the rise; nationally, 6.6 percent of stores were empty in the third quarter of 2008, a 20 percent increase over the same quarter last year and the highest rate since 2002. Much of the pain is interwoven with the retail sector, where analysts estimate 148,000 stores will have been closed in 2008.
And it will only get worse. Mall stalwarts like KB Toys, Steve & Barry’s, and Linens ‘N things are all closing. The recession is expected to rage through 2009, and retail chains will probably be looking at dismal holiday numbers. A mall’s chief purpose these days is to be there come the holidays. Now that we’re beyond that season, many stores will need to shutter in the New Year.
Every store that closes has an impact on the shops left behind. Fewer stores means less foot traffic; less foot traffic means less window shopping; less window shopping means fewer impulse buys. It’s a positive-feedback loop that, for malls, is actually negative.
Thus, several of the biggest American mall owners are fighting to stave off bankruptcy as bad bets in real estate have weighed down their ledgers. But, just like with cash-starved families looking to sell their homes, buyers will now only purchase malls for a lowered price since the industry’s outlook is so bleak. This would entail huge losses for the mall owners, so they continue to balk. At some point, though, something has to give.
And when it does, there’s going to be major consolidation in the industry. Our current economic state is simply not able to sustain so many meccas of merchandise. Some malls will likely close as fewer and fewer chains are willing to spread themselves so thin. Because, really, if Starbucks isn’t expanding, then nobody else is, either.
But why just consolidate? Let’s close them all. I’m not saying that all of their tenants should close. Instead, the stores that once filled the malls should go and fill other empty storefronts dispersed across the city. Call it the great chain-store diaspora.
To realize just how outdated malls are, let’s think of the few benefits they offered in the first place.
Before Wal-Mart and Amazon, malls were the place to maximize shopping efficiency. Besides a grocery market, they had almost every consumer good you could ask for, and usually at reasonable prices. But now Wal-Mart and Amazon do exist, and they’re even better than malls. Wal-Mart offers groceries along with the rest of the bric-a-brac and does it at a cheaper price than any other physical location. Amazon, meanwhile, has a selection far wider than a mall could ever hope to match and pro-consumer prices because the company’s overhead is so much lower than a department store’s.
From a retail perspective, malls were once handy because they freed stores from the hassles of managing their property. Essentially, the mall serves as the landlord and the shops are its tenants. But that relationship has become increasingly strained as the rent has stayed relatively flat after years of incremental increases. There’s less money to go around now, and chains could be thinking twice about having a landlord, especially when commercial real estate is so cheap, thanks to the depressed real estate market. Smart business may mean a store moves out and gets its own place, free from those security guards nagging them all the time. Plus, it would help lift sagging commercial real estate prices.
Blue- and pimple-collar jobs
The retail sector, of course, is a key piece of the American work force. Remember the 148,000 store closings? Those translated into 625,000 lost jobs, many of them held by the people who could least afford to lose them — working-class and young Americans. But to repeat, closing the mall does not mean closing the stores. The mall itself does not have that many jobs to offer the community. Aside from administrative and security duties, there isn’t much left. Closing the mall would leave an unfortunate but ultimately negligible wake.
Perhaps the greatest impact would be on teen culture, a risk of which I am acutely aware. I spent many weekend afternoons gazing at the bracketed racks of video game stores, wondering how to stretch my birthday money into as many games as possible. Afterward, I’d meet friends at the food court and order a four-cheese slice at Sbarro, masochistically counting down the minutes until the inevitable stomachache. Yes, the mall was a place where I could go to dream big and forget that I hadn’t yet done my homework.
But if this economic disaster has taught us anything, it’s that folks need to pay a little more attention and stop throwing all their cares away. For that to happen, we need to make sure that no one can ever again scream, “Let’s go to the mall.”