Maryland County Rethinks The Shopping Mall

Like other suburban areas, Montgomery County, Md., is wondering what to do with aging shopping malls like White Flint. The solution may be a radical redesign that makes malls look like the things that suburbanites once ran away from: urban downtowns.

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The shopping mall is in trouble. That fixture of the suburban landscape has been hit hard by the recession. Even as business picks up, malls must compete with the rush to shop online.

NPR's Larry Abramson takes us to one shopping mall that's trying to escape the dustbin of retail history.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: If you want to get to the White Flint Mall, in the Maryland suburbs near Washington, D.C., you have to sail though a sea of parking spaces. The stores are surrounded by acres of asphalt that sit empty for much of the year.

ROLLIN STANLEY: Their part for Black Friday, basically - the only day they're busy, they're fully full.

ABRAMSON: For Rollin Stanley, this mall's dependence on cars is the reason it needs radical surgery. Stanley is the chief planner for Montgomery County. If he has his way, someday people will live and work right where we are driving. All that wasted parking will be turned into residential and office space, the parking will go underground. It's all part of an effort to find a way out of the gridlock created by suburban sprawl.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)

ABRAMSON: Inside the mall, the kids choo-choo is a reminder of busier times, when this might have been a cool place to take the family. White Flint is not dying, but its glory days are passed. Developers have tried numerous redesigns, but shoppers and retailers prefer hipper locations not far from here.

Standing in the center of White Flint, Rollin Stanley says we need to transform this space, without destroying it.

STANLEY: The White Flint mall will be like Transformers. You know, things will come off of it but the nucleus of the Transformer will be there. And all of a sudden it won't be a car anymore, it's going to be this strong retailing base with all these mixed uses above it. So, this will be the Transformer version of the retail industry.

ABRAMSON: That's visionary-speak for saying that this enclosed space will turn into an outdoor square, a piazza, surrounded by new stores and restaurants. The familiar anchors of the current mall, Bloomingdales and Lord and Taylor, will remain standing. So the mall of the future will be an amalgam of America's urban and its suburban pasts. The new stores may be smaller.

STANLEY: I can show you Best Buys in other cities that are like 10,000 square feet. They're almost like pickup outlets where you go and get your product. That's going to happen more and more. It's already changing the face of retailing.

ABRAMSON: Stanley says that smaller scale, and the outdoor design, will attract the demographic that this county needs most, young people.

STANLEY: This is an expensive place to live. We're not attracting young people. We're one of the fastest-aging counties in the country, and our property tax base has really plummeted through this recession.

ABRAMSON: In reimagining this mall, developers and planners are anticipating another trend, the rise of online shopping. Sucharita Mulpuru, of Forrester Research, says malls are not disappearing. But the Internet is making competition much tougher, and only the best-designed shopping centers will survive.

SUCHARITA MULPURU: And if you want somebody to go to an Ann Taylor or a J. Crew, you know, you need to make it convenient and easy for them. And - because one of the main reasons that people choose to shop online is that they don't want to have to fight the crowd. They don't want to have to deal with parking.

ABRAMSON: And that brings us to the other reason why redeveloping malls like White Flint is such a mammoth task. These places are like suns in their own solar system, they're surrounded by all kinds of strip malls and clogged roads. The county is planning to spend around two decades upgrading all that stuff, with a focus on better mass transit.

The goal may sound paradoxical, but county planner Rollin Stanley says more density is the answer to traffic problems.

STANLEY: More strategically located density near our transit stops.

ABRAMSON: White Flint has a metro stop that's half an hour ride from downtown Washington. Still, there is worry that such a massive redesign of this area will add to congestion. Neighbors of White Flint, like long-time resident Paul Meyer, are supportive of the plan, but he says there's a lot here that can go wrong.

PAUL MEYER: The construction is done, you increase the retail space, the commercial space, and the residential space, and you don't do anything about traffic, walking, et cetera, you'll have a real problem. You'll have a nightmare basically. It's a nightmare now, it'll get worse.

ABRAMSON: But Meyer supports the basic concept, and he looks forward to the day when life in these suburbs is more like where he grew up, New York City.

Now, you don't have to drive far to find once carefully planned experiments that are now dinosaurs. So the risks in these projects are high. If people don't like the mall of the future, they can easily decide to shop from home.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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