After the mall: retrofitting suburbia

As it once sucked the life out of Main Street, the suburban mall is being reconsidered – or torn down – as towns move back to the concept of a multiuse town center.

By , Staff writer

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    From the rubble of the Villa Italia mall, Lakewood, Colo., created its own ‘Main Street’ in Belmar.
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Few here have forgotten the Villa Italia, the hulking, whitewashed mall that once spilled across the skyline of central Lakewood. Unveiled in 1966, the Villa was the largest indoor shopping center west of the Mississippi River and east of California. The gaudy main hall – ornamented to evoke the charms of old-world Europe – played host to hundreds of after-prom parties, first dates, and all-day festivals. In its heyday, in the 1970s and ’80s, the Villa anchored this large, affluent Denver suburb, which never had a Main Street to call its own.

Then in the ’90s, like hundreds of malls nationwide, the Villa began to lose its luster. First went the jewelry stores and the luxury-goods boutiques. By 2001, destination department stores such as Montgomery Ward and JCPenney had vanished, too, and with them, most of the foot traffic. The kids who hung out in the food court decamped for more vibrant locales; the corridors grew hushed. The once-great mall became a cemetery of dollar stores and a glorified walking track for senior citizens. In 2003, it was mercifully reduced to a pile of rubble.

For at least a decade, Americans have been regularly reminded that the indoor mall was hurtling toward obscurity. The causes were manifold: the rise of Internet shopping, the sharp spikes of an ailing economy, the success of Wal-Mart and its big-box kin, the fading relevance of mall culture.

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Welcome to 2009, the year that the mall, the staple of so many childhood memories and a longstanding pillar of suburban commerce, could finally and truly go bust. From west to east, shopping centers stand darkened, the hulks of Circuit Citys boarded up, the parking lots of Linens ‘n Things deserted. Malls are posting the highest vacancy rates in a decade, and retail rental rates are plummeting, according to Reis, a New York firm that studies trends in commercial real estate. And the slope is precipitous: Last month, General Growth Properties, one of the biggest mall operators in the country, declared bankruptcy.

But here in Lakewood, a successful revitalization effort provides a modicum of hope for city planners nationwide. Beginning in 2002, Villa’s 103-acre plot was rezoned and restructured, setting the stage for Belmar, a vibrant new downtown area, part residential, part retail, and part office park.

In form, Belmar resembles a scaled-down city center, with a maze of sidewalks; a grid system of streets; and residential, retail, and office units stacked tightly atop one another. The multiuse district has attracted home buyers and renters, and generated millions of dollars for Lakewood.

Some experts are touting this transformation – from dead mall to sustainable community – as a solution to the so-called “ghost box” syndrome. And developers are paying attention. In Cathedral City, Calif., for instance, a decaying strip mall has been reborn as a tree-lined boulevard, with increased pedestrian access and improved public transportation. In Mashpee, Mass., planners have partially demolished a shopping center and are working to incorporate a “walkable village.” In Boca Raton, Fla., a mall was razed to make way for a multiuse area featuring both retail and housing.

“Retrofits,” as they’re called, take a variety of forms, from “raze it all and start anew” to creative adaptation of an existing space, such as the Food Lion supermarket in Denton, Texas, that became a public library. Each process shares common goals: reduce the blight, scale down sprawl, cut car traffic, amp up foot and bicycle access, and eliminate barriers between residential and retail space.

“Historically, there were two options for developers who wanted to revitalize a dying mall,” says June Williamson, an architect and coauthor of an influential new book, “Retrofitting Suburbia.” “The first was going downscale into a power center, with Wal-Marts or Kmarts. Alternatively, developers would go upmarket into a lifestyle center – take off the roof, add the high-end restaurants, spruce it up. But we’re seeing [planners] start to approach things from a very different angle – pulling in the retail, and then pulling in other uses as well. They’re really thinking about sustainability [and a] long-term strategy.”

Belmar is the “Cadillac” of retrofits, says Ms. Williamson. Although the district has been hit as hard as any community by the economic malaise, 85 percent of the retail space in Belmar has been leased. Residential leasing figures are even higher: Of 478 available rental units, 94 percent are occupied. Meanwhile, property values in Belmar are now the highest in Jefferson County.

Mayor Bob Murphy says Belmar has become the kind of Main Street that malls ran out of business; the kind of gathering spot that Lakewood never had. “That’s what we hoped it would be when we started out, and that’s what it has become,” he says.

Belmar is nearly complete, and, when finished in 2012, will have 1.2 million square feet of retail space and 1,300 residential units. It already incorporates many aspects of urban life – from a centrally located ice-skating rink to wide sidewalks – and has a host of “green amenities.” A 1.75-megawatt array of solar panels helps power Belmar, and 14 wind turbines generate electricity for parking lots.

Critically, retrofitting refers not just to sustainable architecture and the proliferation of mixed-used facilities. It’s also a matter of urbanization – of changing the social fabric of the suburb itself.

Bedroom communities created in the wake of World War II were low-density, high-sprawl, and decentralized or loosely connected by a small downtown. Developers worked from a car-first perspective, liberally sprinkling in dead ends and cul-de-sacs, and skimping on sidewalks, parks, and other shared space. The classic American suburb had a tangle of single-use buildings and a dearth of public transportation. But over the past decade, with baby boomers headed toward retirement, the suburbs have weathered a profound revolution.

“Our research indicates that there are more people looking for an urban-type environment,” Williamson says. “It’s a cultural shift, and it’s a demographic shift – there are a larger percentage of households without children, either empty nesters or young couples who don’t want kids. There used to be a split, where you’d live in the city until you had children and then move to the suburbs. That’s not being borne out by the middle class right now.”

Recent US Census data reveals a rise in childless families, and a soaring market for suburban, multiunit housing. Meanwhile, an April Brookings Institution report shows that between 1998 and 2006, jobs moved from city centers to first-ring suburbs, bringing younger, livelier residents.

“Suburbs have become a very specialized species,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architect and Williamson’s coauthor. “They’re not very adaptable. The urban form, on the other hand, is remarkably adaptable. It can keep changing. Think about cities – that patina of culture accumulated by all the generations that came before.”

She and Williamson argue that a swift urbanization of the suburbs is important – for the environment, the economy, and American culture. Urban areas, for instance, compel people to drive less and encourage a sense of community and the all-important “interconnectivity.”

This “downtown feel” was vital, says Craig Vickers, a landscape architect with the Denver firm Civitas who worked extensively on Belmar. “Even people who haven’t been exposed to urban densities [are] seeking urbanism. For [city people], Belmar may not look like a gritty urban place. But this is a gritty urban place for people who grew up around here. And people really wanted it.”

Still, no matter how many residents clamor for revitalization, changing the face of a community can be slow and thorny. One major problem is the specter of density – the antithesis of the suburban ethic of the home as an island in a lawn.

Mike Rock, Lakewood’s city manager and an instrumental figure in the creation of Belmar, says that he “immediately found [himself] butting up against this idea that if you allow commercial and residential units to touch each other, you’re diminishing the value. People will say, ‘We’re not the city, but we aren’t the city on purpose.’ ”

In Colorado, where the libertarian instinct runs deep, there were also concerns about cost and governmental involvement.

“The Villa was built at a time when malls were still the shiny new thing,” remembers Mr. Rock. “You look at photographs from when it first opened, and it’s just a sea of all these cool, ’60s-era cars. It’s hard to overestimate just how strong peoples’ attachment was to the mall. They loved the place.”

More contentious still was Lakewood’s decision to finance Belmar through a public-private partnership with Continuum Partners, a development firm based in Denver. Continuum took on much of the cost, which is expected to reach $850 million when the project is finished. Lakewood then enacted a 2.5 percent “public improvement fee” for retail transactions in the Belmar area, to be remitted directly to Continuum. (City officials also waved a third of Lakewood’s 3 percent sales tax, partly to placate consumers.) Continuum also secured $200 million in federal funds through the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, which issued bonds to developers using eco-
friendly building techniques.

“We were clear the first time we came out to Lakewood,” says Thomas Gougeon, a principal at Continuum. “We said, ‘It’s broken, it’s dying, but it’s not dead enough. It’s going to be messy. And someone is going to try to stop you. Someone always does.’ ”

In 1999, Continuum acquired the land under the mall; a year later, it acquired the mall itself. But after reaching agreements with most of the tenants, Continuum was stymied by the former May Department Stores Company, which then owned a longtime Villa anchor called Foley’s.

“Shoppers coming into Foley’s were being told, ‘You are going to lose your store because the city of Lakewood is forcing us to leave, and if you don’t like that, then contact the city council,’” Rock remembers. “That’s a lot of pressure on us.”

Then in 2001, Continuum initiated eminent domain proceedings against the May Company, ratcheting up pressure on elected officials.

“Think about it: eminent domain is contentious. Urban renewal is contentious. And we had both,” Rock explains.

But after Foley’s was forced out, and the mall demolished, Rock says that the “majority of the public went from mourning, through a period of skepticism, to a serious sense of pride. A pride based on the idea that people actually want to live here, that they bring their friends here, that Lakewood finally has its own town center.”

On a cold day this spring, the streets of Belmar were mostly empty, with only a few passersby ambling along the sidewalks. Big metal lamps hung over the streets, a decorative touch designed to make Belmar feel a little cozier. Pop music swirled eerily from speakers into the air. Much of the activity seemed to be centered on “Block 7,” a strip of art galleries and storefronts subsidized by Continuum. Jeffrey Steffonich, a college student working at a studio, said, “There’s been a lot of interest [in Belmar] among young people … interest in the culture ... the galleries. People see it as a cool place to live.”

Other vendors and residents expressed concerns about a nationwide drop in retail sales and the ability of the developers to complete the retrofit. “I think there’s a lot of potential here, and certainly more than there ever was at Villa Italia,” said Ann Rivera, the co-owner of a local PostNet franchise. She paused, and added, “There’s still a long way to go.”

The question now is whether Belmar will consistently draw residents and shoppers – and whether the model can be translated elsewhere. In “Retrofitting Suburbia,” Ms. Dunham-Jones and Williamson argued that similar revitalizations are necessary to accommodate the rapidly changing suburban culture.

Mr. Vickers agrees: "Right now it’s a balancing act. We need enough retail to bring people down here, and enough residential to make retail function. I don’t know if [Belmar] is the magic bullet, but it’s an important step in that direction.”

Richard Farley, a principle at Civitas, said that in the end, it “won’t matter if Belmar is panned or praised in the architectural journals. Real success will be if Lakewood really embraces Belmar.... Real success will be if the people really love it.”

More: How the 'average Jane' changed her neighborhood

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