The good...the bad...and the ugly.

Across America, architects are breathing new life into old shopping malls.

Lakewood, Colo., is a reasonably prosperous suburb of Denver, but the future didn't look particularly bright at the center of town when Steve Burkhold ran for mayor several years ago.

Mr. Burkhold promised that, if elected, he would do something about the Villa Italia mall, which, while centrally located, was in decline.

The complex is slated to be razed beginning late this summer. Instead of replacing it with a series of new big-box stores, an honest-to-goodness, town-style center will be built - something that Lakewood has never really had.

"The bottom line is dollars," says Will Fleissig, of the Continuum Partners redevelopment team working on the Lakewood project, which will cost an estimated $500-to-$600 million. "If national retailers feel they are doing much larger volumes [in the new development], and if we can show we can lease the properties more quickly and get a premium on our rents, then we will set a precedent. Other communities will say 'Let's try that in our town.' "

The idea is to fuse shopping, housing, offices, entertainment, and public spaces into a vibrant new neighborhood without moatlike parking lots.

"There is a lot more risk [to the developers] in doing it this way because the housing is very tied to the viability of the town center," says Bob Gibbs, whose company, the Gibbs Planning Group in Birmingham, Mich., consults on retail development and town-planning projects.

Nevertheless, the neotraditional strategy of creating friendly Main Street atmospheres has been employed on a smaller scale at the Eastgate Town Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., which shows promise despite some struggles, and Mizner Park In Boca Raton, Fla., which is often cited as a model project.

Mr. Fleissig says that Mizner Park, while a model, is a "pretty isolated place." The Villa Italia redevelopment, on the other hand, expects to generate a downtown identity, with day and night shopping and eating, in an already well-traveled area.

This is an example of an "infill" project, the kind that has the potential to take empty or underutilized properties in established communities, fill and/or upgrade them, and make them blossom again.

One of the best sources of infill acreage, city planners realize, resides in shopping malls that have seen better days. These properties offer certain advantages, including the preexistence of infrastructure and proximity to public transportation.

What to do with them is the question, one raised in a new study titled "Greyfields to Goldfields: From Failing Shopping Centers to Great Neighborhoods."

The study was conducted by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) as a way of assessing the extent of mall decline and encouraging fresh thinking about the future of "greyfields."

In the language of the planning community, these are properties that require significant public and private-sector help, but little or none of the environmental cleanup associated with contaminated "brownfield" industrial sites.

The congress - a nonprofit coalition of urban designers, developers, and government officials - subscribes to the New Urbanist vision of compact, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Ellen Greenberg, CNU's director of policy and research in San Francisco, says, "We need to really expand the thinking about what these sites are good for, what kind of opportunities they offer."

Sprucing up isn't enough

A fresh coat of paint and a little sprucing up work in some cases (malls, on average, are remodeled every seven to 12 years), but cosmetic changes won't cut it in malls that are losing their grip on shoppers.

While well-managed and well-located malls are not in danger, the study conservatively estimates the number of regional malls in trouble at 140 nationwide, with another 200 to 250 such malls approaching greyfield status. Combined, this accounts for nearly 19 percent of all regional malls nationally.

Malls struggle for a variety of reasons. Older, smaller malls often seem most vulnerable. They may be situated in suburban areas that have lost their locational value as population growth shifts farther and farther out of cities. They may be architecturally obsolete or inconvenient to major new arteries. And frequently, they don't have the sheer size of today's newer megamalls.

The study places malls in four categories: greyfield, vulnerable, viable, and healthy. It shows that the acreage and number of stores increases in each of the four classifications. The average number of stores in a greyfield mall is roughly 63 on 46-acre sites, while "healthy" malls offer nearly 124 stores on 71 acres.

Big, however, is not always beautiful, as the 100-acre Villa Italia mall illustrates.

Mr. Fleissig describes Villa Italia as a "typical Battlestar Gallactica mall," a reference to its spaceship-type hugeness and four anchor stores. Three of these have closed or will close shortly.

The development plan initially called for rebuilding in phases around the lone holdover anchor, Foley's, a May Co. store. But instead of limping along, the decision was made to tear down virtually everything and start from scratch. Only Foley's will be spared, and the space it occupies will be enlarged and given a new facade.

The core of the Villa Italia redevelopment is expected to go up in two years, with the remainder rising within four to six years, and possibly stretching out over 10.

This multifaceted project eventually will create 15 blocks of housing, office space, and retail businesses, as well as a hotel, from what used to be a shopping bunker in a sea of asphalt.

"In a sense," Fleissig says, "we're paving the parking lot with housing."

This is expected to add 2,000 new residents to the heart of Lakewood, and thus create patrons for a still-sizeable retail community.

"The key is to create the excitement of a village center," Fleissig says.

Lakewood began as a bedroom suburb of 13 subdivisions, which incorporated in the late 1960s to resist annexation into Denver and the city's school-busing network. It has emerged as Colorado's fourth-largest community (population 126,000), with an impressive 6,500 acres of parkland and recreation facilities, as well as the largest concentration of federal employees outside of Washington, but little to distinguish it architecturally.

Mayor Burkhold's charge to the developers was to create a place where Lakewood could have a parade. You really can't do that very well in the middle of an enclosed mall. You need a downtown, which requires the kind of space that malls are often uniquely able to offer.

Mr. Gibbs, a keen student of what makes retail properties tick, says that reviving mall properties is sometimes a matter of "turning them inside out." This can mean tearing off the roof and putting a street or open-air walkway where shoppers once strolled indoors. The stores, then, enjoy a new public face, exposing them to foot and car traffic, rather than sitting undiscovered deep in the interior of cloistered malls.

A key consideration in any greyfield mall redevelopment, says the Congress for the New Urbanism's Greenberg, is adaptability.

"Single-use malls," Greenberg explains, "don't allow for flexibility over time." It's pretty much all or nothing. The lending community, she says, has traditionally been more comfortable with single-use projects, but this is changing as mixed-use neighborhood development catches on.

A common feature of these neighborhoods is a greater concentration of people living, working, and shopping in a defined area. Small redevelopment sites don't allow for smooth transitions in density, but large mall sites generally do.

"The perimeter of the site can be developed with lower-density housing, so you don't have to build higher density immediately adjoining existing residences, which may have a different character," Greenberg says.

Urbanity in the midst of suburbia

In the case of the Villa Italia redevelopment, the plan is to incorporate a variety of housing types - apartments, condos, townhouses, lofts over storefronts - but no single-family, detached homes, which are already in plentiful supply nearby.

"We're trying to create a sense of urbanity in the middle of what is primarily a residential suburb," Fleissig says. "We want to reknit the community. There are single-family homes on one side of our project and a big apartment complex on another, and we want to make those people feel very welcome." To do this, a new street grid will help blend the old with the new. A goal in this and other similar projects is to enhance walkability with streets that accommodate cars but cater to foot traffic.

In describing the strategy New Urbanists employ, Gibbs says: "We want visitors to drive up the main street, looking at the storefronts while they're looking for a place to park. Then give them a guaranteed, easy-to-use surface lot [or garage] if they don't find a parking space on Main Street."

The Villa Italia redevelopment will include a 16-screen cinema, but the plan calls for integrating it into the surroundings.

All that will be visible from the street will be a 100-foot marquee, recalling the grand entrances of old.

Storefronts will bracket the entrance, with three floors of housing above. Moviegoers will park in a garage, exiting onto a sidewalk that will lead them by restaurants and retailers to the box office.

Adjusting to this downtown approach requires tenants to "change their formulas," Fleissig says.

For the redevelopment to succeed, retailers will at least partly need to benefit from the new residents, including many, Fleissig suspects, who will find a more urbanized Lakewood, with 18 hours of activity, to their liking.

"We're really trying to offer [housing] to a group of home buyers and apartment dwellers who wouldn't have thought of living in Lakewood in the first place, without this kind of environment. We expect young professionals and active senior couples who don't need a big house to move here."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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