The American shopping center, redeemed

Malls are turning into lifestyle centers, going back to their roots and letting shoppers enjoy their environment.

I was shocked the first time I went to Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, several months after it opened in 1993. Social critics had proclaimed it the new white-flight fortress against the crime, disorder, and diversity of real city life.

George Will called CityWalk "a melancholy comment on metropolitan America." It was built for customers who, in Lewis Lapham's words, "had no intention of going to see the original city four miles to the south." After that buildup, I expected something at least as visionary and disturbing as Disneyland. What I found was a mall. CityWalk seemed no more revolutionary – and less fortresslike – than the Beverly Center. What a letdown.

A decade later, I returned to see what had happened to the famous harbinger of Fortress Los Angeles. On a Sunday evening in July, the place was absolutely packed. Families and friends by the hundreds were out enjoying the bustle, the neon lights, the night air, the music blasting from the public stage. A few people carried shopping bags, but most seemed just to be hanging out. CityWalk wasn't separate from the real Los Angeles. It was emphatically part of it.

In fact, CityWalk says far more about the state of shopping centers than it does about the state of cities. During the past decade and a half, the once-monolithic mall has become more diversified, more aesthetically appealing, and more porous. Outdoor "lifestyle centers," often without department stores, are reinventing the city street, while traditional malls revamp to provide more entertainment, more restaurants, more appealing public spaces, and more reasons to linger. After five decades of experiment and evolution, the American shopping center is finally beginning to fulfill its inventor's dream: to re-create the human-scale European city "filled ... with urban dynamism."

That dreamer's name was Victor Gruen, an architect in exile. In the mid-20th century, he lived in Beverly Hills but longed for Vienna, the city he'd been driven from by the Nazis. Like many émigrés, he missed the cafes and conversation that defined central European cities before the war.

To recover that lost urbanity, Gruen invented the shopping mall, imagining it as a human-scale alternative to the impersonal canyons of industrial downtowns and the drive-by anomie of postwar suburbia. The shopping center of his imagination would include not only stores but "a community center, an auditorium, a children's play area, a large number of public eating places and, in the courts and malls, opportunities for relaxation, exhibits, and public events." It would be, as we say now, a "third place," a congenial gathering spot separate from home and work.

But the economics of the time left his dreams severely compromised. Instead of centers of sociability, developers built "machines for shopping," designed to move customers efficiently from store to store, stopping only for essential fuel.

That old model has lost its appeal. For pure shopping efficiency, a big-box discounter is cheaper, a drive-up center is faster, and an online retailer doesn't make you leave your desk. To compete, malls have finally realized the rest of Gruen's original vision, adapting it to the contemporary scene. Children's play areas, soft seating to encourage relaxation, and lots of those "public eating places" have become de rigueur. Instead of getting shoppers in and out to buy shoes, today's malls encourage them to hang out, working on laptops or chatting with friends. It's the Starbucks strategy: provide an appealing environment so that people will make it a part of their lives and spend money while they're there.

The traditional enclosed mall, even in its retrofitted and reinvigorated form, can't fully represent the new urbanity. For that, you have to turn to large-scale lifestyle centers that re-create the urban street. Lifestyle centers have grown as the department stores on which traditional malls relied have shrunk. Like malls, lifestyle centers segregate their parking from pedestrian areas, making them different from old-fashioned strip centers. With their smaller shops and open-air design, they resemble city streets. Many feature apartments, offices or hotels.

Shoppers are no longer trying to escape their environment but to enjoy it. Even in suburbia they value the hum of city life.

Virginia Postrel is the author of "The Substance of Style." ©2006 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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