STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now another retail story we've been following, the decline of American shopping malls. There are roughly 1,200 indoor malls in the United States, and only about a third of them are doing well. Thanks to a variety of factors that have transformed the economy in recent years, malls across this country are in various states of distress. These dead and dying malls leave behind huge concrete carcasses, and some are being transformed into everything from medical centers to hockey rinks. Ellen Dunham Jones is a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Institute of Technology, and she's been following these changes in both the urban and suburban landscapes. What is a dying shopping mall in your view?
ELLEN DUNHAM JONES: A dead or dying mall is a mall that is not generating enough dollars per square foot to pay for the maintenance of the structure itself. In fact you can actually often find a mall that's fully occupied, but it's occupied with shops that are paying fairly low rent and not really your class A mall. Once they're only generating less than about $300 or $250 per square foot per month, that's a real indication of trouble because the mall owner's not going to be able to maintain the roofing - really provide the kind of maintenance for the long-term life of that mall, and that usually indicates it's heading into a downward spiral.
INSKEEP: What's killing malls?
JONES: A variety of things. Everything from - there's the fact that we probably built too many of them. The U.S. has almost twice as much retail that's in shopping centers than anywhere else in the world, and online shopping is having some of a toll. The recession certainly took some of a toll, but also just the decline of the middle class is also really making it that much harder.
INSKEEP: So if you have a dead or dying mall, I suppose there must be different stages of grief. You go into denial for little while, then you try to bargain - you try to fix the mall in some way, but at some point you must realize this is just no longer going to be a traditional mall. And it gets into the question of redevelopment, which you have been tracking. What are some of the things that people are trying to do with malls?
JONES: Usually when a mall dies, there's a reason. There was too much competition from other malls or something. So it's not always the best move to just try to replace it with retail, and we find all sorts of interesting things. They're being turned into office space - Google Glass happens to now be in a former dead mall.
JONES: They're being turned into medical centers, churches, school and universities, civic functions, some of them have played a role in disaster recovery.
INSKEEP: So is there also an opportunity when a mall dies to just blow it up?
JONES: Absolutely. There's over about 40 malls that have more or less bulldozed the existing mall and are now building the downtown that that suburb never had before. One example is Belmar - it's in Lakewood, Colorado, just outside of Denver - and it used to be the Villa Italia Mall, a very large, regional mall on a 100 acre just single superblock site. Today it's 22 blocks of walk-able, urban streets that connect up with the neighboring streets.
At the ground floor, you get a lot of shops and then above that a lot of either offices or apartments. And at the same time, I mean, they basically tripled density on that site, but they've more than quadrupled the tax revenue that the town is receiving. And at the same time, they've actually cut traffic because so many of those people now are able to walk to their, you know, daily needs.
INSKEEP: And this is the trend in real estate development, isn't it? Just as the shopping mall was the big thing a few decades ago, that mixed-use development that you're describing that's rather dense with different kinds of uses, all-in-one property. That's what development is all about right now?
JONES: We're seeing a lot of it. It's often referred to as new urbanism. Is the sort of the movement that has been driving a lot of this because it makes so much sense from an economic point of view, certainly from a sort of sustainability and environment point of view, from a social sort of building more opportunities for people to get together. And it also just really makes sense in terms of our changing demographics, folks in their 20s, sometimes called the millennials or Gen Y, most of them grew up in the suburbs, and most of them have made it very clear they want to live a more urban lifestyle. They don't want to become their parents.
INSKEEP: Ellen Dunham Jones, thanks very much.
JONES: Thank you, my pleasure.
INSKEEP: Ellen Dunham Jones is a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Institute of Technology.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.