Boston — America's long drive to build mammoth suburban shopping oases may be taking a sharp turn to the city. The Carter White House quietly offered in November to help stop new shopping centers that could draw business from downtowns. Administration sources say an unexpectedly large number of mayors have responded, seeking an official pall over suburban mall sprawl.
The strategy is to have a mayor ask a federal agency for a "community impact analysis," which would weigh a proposed mall's economic effect on a city. If the impact proved "negative," the agency could "consider" blocking highway construction or permits that would support the mall.
About 35 cities have signed up so far -- from Indio, Calif., to New London, Conn. "We were a little suprised," said a White House official.
"The Constitution doesn't say that every private developer is entitled to an off-ramp," says the program's administrator, Marshall Kaplan, who is a deputy assistant secretary in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
President Carter's urban strategists hope that removal of what has amounted to a federal carte blanchem for mall building, as well as population shifts back to the city and high gasoline prices that bring pause to spur-of-the-moment shopping trips, will send developers and their dollars into America's aging cities.
With little extra money to plow into solving urban problems, the Carter administration is left with taking regulatory actions in order to help cities. But the new policy sets up a potential for divisive urban vs. suburban battles and may place Uncle Sam as the arbiter in disputes over jealously guarded local zoning and land-use questions.
US officials admit that the move to control once little-questioned federal support for suburban growth is "too little, too late." Cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit, and Cleveland have had "the vitality sucked out of them" by the retail magnets built on their fringes, they add.
"The White House statement is a . . . long-overdue acknowledgment that the federal government is a giant and should watch where it puts down it footsteps," comments Dr. George Sternlieb, director of the Rutgers University center for urban policy research. He warns that the policy will have to be administered fairly to be effective.
Actually, the White House directive, redrafted and watered down over a dozen times through intensive lobbying by the shopping center industry, simply focuses the bureaucracy's attention on the economic well-being of older cities. It is not an executive order and could be moribund when Mr. Carter leaves office.
The memo given to US agencies by White House aide Jack Watson was not a "policy," but in Washingtonese, a "guidance." And it does not mention malls. Rather, it refers to "large commercial development."
The informal policy, however, is not just for cities. One suburban or rural community could use the impact analysis and federal denial of roads and permits to stop a mall in a nearby town. And possibly, two worn-out cities next to each other could battle for a mall with the federal weapon.
One stipulation laid down by the White House was that a mayor protesting a mall on a city's outskirts must come up with his own plan for downtown revival.
"The memo will help cities that have good projects," says Mathias DeVito, president of the Rouse Company, successful developer of such urban mall projects as Boston's Quincy Market. "But many projects are too hypothetical."
A typical use of the new federal tool is under way in Duluth, Minn., where officials have applied to stop a giant mall planned just over the city line. With little land available downtown, Duluth proposed a counter-mall built on stilts over a highway. Already in place are skywalks and several new office complexes.
"The downtown mall is the kingpin for it all. But the developers just don't think the trend to the cities is real yet," says city attorney David Malban. "The other mall would virtually remove the commercial district of Duluth."
In Connecticut, New Haven merchants say they are threatened by a proposed giant 1.2-million-square-foot mall just north of the city."It would be like placing New Haven 10 miles outside New Haven," says Kimberly Vinal, a city planner. Besides asking for an impact analysis, the city asked the Rouse Company to consider remodeling the existing Chapel Square Mall into something resembling Quincy Market.
Mall developers, who say they can live with the directive, nevertheless contend they simply follow the consumers.
"There appears to be a philosophy that a way to revitalize downtown is to stop suburban malls," says Jess Wolf, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "If you stop a mall, the pressure for new stores has got to go somewhere."
If not relieved, he warns, a community will get "haphazard roadside development.