A Mall Makeover

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Shopping malls are an icon of American pop culture, but they face extinction unless they modernize. Debbie Elliott visits a Washington, D.C., area mall that's getting a makeover for the 21st century.

(Soundbite of movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High")

Unidentified Man: What's the matter? You look so depressed.

Mr. BRIAN BACKER (As Mark 'Rat' Ratner): I hate working the theater. All the action's on the other side of the mall.

(Soundbite of music)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

If you were born anytime in the past 40 years, you've probably spent a lot of weekends at the mall. Movies like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Clueless," and "Valley Girl" made cultural icons out of malls like California's Sherman Oaks Galleria. Romance, heartbreak, intrigue, really cute shoes - it was all happening at the mall. But the malls many of us grew up with have their own lifecycles, and all over the country they're fading away.

Professor EMIL POCOCK (History and American Studies, Eastern Connecticut State University): Enclosed malls have their heyday, a 30-year heyday or so. And now, they're being perceived as old and tired, boring, out of style.

ELLIOTT: Emil Pocock is professor of history and American studies at Eastern Connecticut State University and a historian of shopping malls. Yes, in consumer-crazed America, we have shopping mall historians. Pocock says big department stores that once anchored malls like Montgomery Ward have closed or merged out of existence. Without the foot traffic brought in by the big stores, smaller stores suffered and shoppers went elsewhere.

These days, Pocock says, consumers want far more from the mall than a department store and an Orange Julius in the food court.

Mr. POCOCK: Like to sit-down restaurants, for example, fitness gyms, cinemas. These features weren't necessarily a part of malls in their heyday in the '60s, '70s and even into the early '80s.

ELLIOTT: That's hurt older indoor shopping malls that are just too small to bring in the kind of retail outlets consumers seem to want these days. Malachy Cavanaugh, a vice president with the International Council of Shopping Centers, knows just how big Americans' appetite for amenities has grown.

Mr. MALACHY CAVANAUGH (Vice President, International Council of Shopping Centers): When you think of malls 20, 30 years ago, a good example may be Barnes and Noble that took about 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of space. Now, Barnes and Noble has a store format that's almost 20,000 square feet of space because they've incorporated coffee bars into their stores. And they have seating areas and children's play areas.

ELLIOTT: So what do you do with a failing mall if it's too small and rundown to fit in big new stores? Turn it inside out. One of the first modern shopping malls was Seattle's North Gate Center, built in 1950 as a double strip of stores surrounding an open pedestrian plaza. Malachy Cavanaugh says the way forward for many malls may be a trip back to the past.

Mr. CAVANAUGH: It's easier in a lot of cases to just de-mall it, take the roof, open it up, and then you can bring in larger footprints for retailers.

ELLIOTT: Laurel Mall in the suburbs of Washington D.C. is a typical older mall in decline. It doesn't look so spiffy. For one thing, you can barely see it from the road. There's a huge, crumbling, concrete parking deck blocking your view, though some previous owner has tried to soften it up by adding a strange little canvas tent entrance. Things don't improve once you get inside. It's cramped and kind of dark with a lot of vacant storefronts. Even the dollar store's going out of business.

Recently, I took a stroll through Laurel Mall with developer Thomas Falatko of Somera Capital Management. The company has just bought the property and is planning a full-tilt facelift.

Mr. THOMAS FALATKO (Somera Capital Management): We look at lots of malls and you can tell by the color and the paint when it was done. Like mid-'80s is turquoise and pink, or pink and gray. So you can almost pick the year, the last year it was renovated, by the color.

ELLIOTT: What does this mall tell you when you first came here inside and saw its colors?

Mr. FALATKO: It was in desperate need of a makeover. You look at the green marble. That's very dated. That was really big in the early '90s and I think the color palette is a little bit shocking in some regards. It's not really, I think, very soothing.

ELLIOTT: Falatko describes his company as a mall repair shop. Laurel Mall is the ninth mall the firm is redeveloping, and he believes it can make a comeback. For one thing, he says, it's in a good location. Laurel, Maryland is a Washington D.C. suburb full of affluent young professionals. But right now, they aren't spending their money at their local mall.

Mr. FALATKO: This particular project is not really serving the community. Only four percent of the community is coming here. So that means 96 percent of the community is leaving to shop elsewhere. It's not really the greatest thing for the community.

ELLIOTT: And it's, you know, we're here. It's still fairly early in the morning, but not that early. It's 10:30 or so and there's not a lot of foot traffic. I don't see a lot of customers strolling around.

Mr. FALATKO: No. And, you know, typically this is the quiet time in the retail business. You know, afternoon picks up. But, yeah. I mean, you'd like to see more tenants here or more customers here, you know, visiting the tenants.

ELLIOTT: In order to attract those customers, Falatko's company is planning to turn Laurel Mall, more or less inside out. The ugly parking deck will go and the blank gray fa├žade, so typical of older malls, will be turned into a series of storefronts facing the road. Falatko says, the new design will try to evoke Laurel's history as a cotton mill town, if a mill town ever had an Old Navy.

Mr. FALATKO: And so we looked at historical photographs of the original mills. There's a lot of brick. There was actually iron works here, so we're going to incorporate a lot of iron. Also part of the history is the racetrack, so we're going to create a children's play area, which will be themed around the racetrack using jockey silks.

ELLIOTT: The list goes on, restaurants with outdoor seating, bookstores, a movie theater, and hopefully a new lease on life for Laurel Mall.

(Soundbite of movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High")

Ms. JENNIFER JASON LEIGH (As Stacy): Linda, didn't I show you this? He gave me his card. Ron Johnson, audio consultant.

Ms. PHOEBE CATES (As Linda): Maybe we should, like, get a frame for this and put it up on the wall.

Ms. LEIGH (As Stacy): Come on, Linda, you're the one who told I was going to get a boyfriend at the mall.

ELLIOTT: We started the story at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, birthplace of the "Valley Girl" and scene of countless movies. It, too, faded away in the 1990s. The Galleria had been in decline for several years when it was damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and it never recovered.

In 1999, the original structure was torn down and replaced with an open-air complex that includes a movie theater, several sit-down restaurants, and an upscale day spa.

(Soundbite of song "Valley Girl")

Mr. FRANK ZAPPA (Singer): (Singing) Valley girl.

Ms. MOON UNIT ZAPPA (Singer): (Singing) Encino's, like so bitchin'.

Mr. ZAPPA: (Singing) Valley girl.

Ms. ZAPPA: (Singing) There's like the Galleria.

Mr. ZAPPA: (Singing) Valley girl.

Ms. ZAPPA: (Singing) And like all these like really great shoe stores. I like, love going into the clothing stores and stuff. I like to buy the neatest miniskirts and stuff. It's like so different coz...

ELLIOTT: In the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED we'll go shopping for your summer reading with Jesse Kornbluth. This is NPR News. Stay with us.

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