With some disdain, Germans flock to new downtown malls

Not so long ago, this was the country's second largest garrison town. Department stores boomed. Crowds strolled the streets, and Orean Celik's jewelry store thrived.

But then the German Army pulled out of this community of 53,000 nestled in the hills near Frankfurt. The big department stores closed, turning Wetzlar's bustling artery into a mile of decay.

"The buying power went down, the quality of the clients changed," says Mr. Celik. "The city died."

But a renaissance is under way. It began when an American-style mall opened last winter in Wetzlar's urban heart, between the train station and the old town square. Mr. Celik and other merchants have prospered since moving into the eye-catching steel and glass structure.

Long derided as "consumption cathedrals" in a country that clings to its town squares and pedestrian street culture, malls have grown smartly in Germany over the past decade.

When built on the outskirts of cities, these massive facilities were seen as draining the urban centers of their economic and social life. But the Wetlzar mall represents a controversial new generation of shopping malls.

Smaller and based in the inner cities, they are hailed by some as a remedy - reviving downtrodden German cities.

But others see them as a continuing threat to the cultural, economic, and social identity of European cities.

"What's at stake here is to regain our town's urbanity, to retain cities and towns were people live, work, go to a museum, walk in the park, go to concerts," says Hartmut Thielen of the German Association of Cities in Cologne.

"I can only hope that the shopping malls help the inner centers become attractive again. If we don't do anything, no one will go out, meet, and socialize in cities. Cities will die."

With malls making up only one tenth of all retail sales compared with 60 percent in the US, Germany is still considered by some retailers as undeveloped territory.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall fueled an explosion of retail construction in regions - especially in the former East Germany - left commercially underdeveloped during decades of communist rule.

Before German reunification there were fewer than 100 malls. Now there are more than 360, with 60 new centers planned for the next three years, according to the European Retail Institute in Cologne.

Eastern regions such as Saxony and Brandenburg have seven times as many malls as other German cities, according to the institute.

In the late 1980s, malls averaged 30,000 square meters in size and settled near the highways. But this boom prompted a backlash. In recent years they've tended to be 20,000 square meters or smaller.

"And the trend is for them to settle in the city centers," says Bruno Groner, who studies shopping centers for the institute.

"People never liked the concept of big malls spreading outside the cities - they are against the Europeans' urban culture," says Franz Pesch, urban development professor at Stuttgart University.

He says inner-city malls - assuming they are architecturally integrated into the city - are a "vitamin shot" to help ailing cities.

Stephan Kugel, general manager of ECE, the Hamburg-based mall developer that runs 70 of the country's 360 shopping centers and is considered a pioneer in designing successful inner city malls, says that all-under-one-roof centers have helped elevate shopping from a task to be accomplished to an experience to be enjoyed, not dissimilar to town centers.

"Shopping has to be fun, that's what makes customers come back," says Kugel, whose company also designed the Wetzlar Forum.

In addition to a myriad of restaurants and events such as cooking, fashion, and car shows, the Wetzlar Mall features a light-flooded atrium and transparent elevators.

Music is also a major draw. The city buffeted its mall with a new concert center next door.

Andreas Weber made the trip from the neighboring town of Weiburg, a half-day shopping junket with his three children.

"It's convenient and comfortable," says Mr. Weber. "I'm coming here because of the parking situation."

"We're attracting a lot more people from the outside, from tens of miles away," says Peter Hauptvogel, the town's economic adviser.

But just minutes from where Weber goes shopping, opinions are mixed as to whether the town's pedestrian zone at all profited from the mall's presence.

"With malls, it's the plurality of city life that's in danger," says Norbert Gestring, a sociology professor at the University of Oldenburg. "Malls are predictable. Their aim is to please customers."

What's lost in malls, he adds, is the spontaneous acquaintance with strangers and foreign cultures, the life of the cities itself.

"What happens to the minorities, to the marginalized?" asks Gestring. "The street musicians, the peddlers, the performers, where should they go? They [are] robbed of their stages - the city's public places."

Ola Roik of the German Retail Association in Berlin takes a different view.

"Shopping has undoubtedly become a form of entertainment and there are shopping malls that now play the role that towns used to play, and the market decides."

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