Cities Are Trying to Fix the Giant Screwup That Was the Downtown Shopping Mall

A California Hot Topic. Photo via Getty Images.

Let us turn our attention, once more, to the great American shopping mall deathwatch.

Today, in end-of-malls news, the Wall Street Journal reports that cities are realizing that it was, in fact, a terrible idea to raze large swaths of their downtowns to build giant hulking malls that now squat, stone-faced and unwelcoming and outdated, in what used to be public spaces. Oops! And so now they’re trying to correct the mistakes of the 1970s.

While enclosed malls are synonymous with suburban shopping, they were also built in cities from Burlington, Vt., to Palm Springs, Calif., frequently as a means of reviving flagging downtowns. The urban malls widely failed, buckling to competition from suburban rivals.

“The fact that they cut up the street grid and put up blank facades, they killed the real-estate value around them,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, an expert in mall rehab projects and architecture professor at the Urban Design Program at Georgia Institute of Technology. “I think they had a pathological effect in some cases.”


The Journal’s big example is the Galleria in Worcester, Massachusetts, built in 1971 and replacing “a dense warren of old city streets and downtown buildings.” It didn’t pan out as well as its planners might have hoped.

The Galleria struggled over many years, then re-launched in the mid-90s as an outlet mall with celebrity spokeswoman Judith Light of “Who’s the Boss?” fame. The struggles continued, and by 2003, then-Mayor Tim Murray was calling for the mall’s demolition. It closed for good in 2006.

“You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” the former mayor and lieutenant governor, who now heads the local chamber of commerce, said in an interview. “It was a design disaster.”

Now the city is in the process of replacing their boondoggle with a hotel, apartments, and offices.

I’ll say this for the reclaimed wood being slapped on interiors all over America: It’ll be a lot easier to replace once it goes out of fashion than these giant concrete monsters.

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