2012 Best Mid-Late 20th Century Enclosed Shopping Mall: Mall of America

When we at Streets.MN were dividing up who would write which “Best of” entry, no one else wanted shopping malls. One said “I’m cool with anything but the best indoor mall, since that doesn’t exist.”

What do most urbanists want? A lively, pedestrian realm, clean, free of automobiles, with a variety of activities, the ability to interact with others and randomly encounter friends and acquaintances. This is what the shopping mall gives.

While these malls tend to be surrounded by huge parking lots, and no one would, of choice, walk to them, this is what is required to provide this pedestrian realm and the residential densities at which most Americans want to live. With single-family housing densities, there just are not enough people within walking distance of anywhere to create a retail experience at a scale larger than a convenience store. We need motorized transportation to get people to large centers where we can get the variety we crave. In the downtowns of the 1890s — 1940s, this retail experience was enabled by the Streetcar. Since the advent of the climate-controlled indoor mall in the late 1950s, it has been the Automobile.

Minnesota’s claim to fame is the Mall. Edina’s Southdale was not the first shopping center, nor the first auto-oriented shopping center, nor the first shopping mall, but it was the first climate-controlled shopping mall. It, and the rest of the ‘Dale family (Rose, Brook (a sad story, that Brook), Ridge) were built by the Daytons (whatever became of them?). But that is not all, oh no, that is not all. After the destruction of the Superbowl non-champion Vikings first stadium in Bloomington, the site became home to the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the United States (maybe).

When asked to come up with a symbol for the states as part of a Monopoly Here and Now edition, Americans in a survey selected Times Square for New York, San Francisco gets the Golden Gate Bridge, while for Minneapolis, Americans selected the Mall of America (which as all good Minneapolitans know, is in Bloomington). It is how the nation sees us. (The game is also appalling for its inclusion of 4 stadia, and one stadium plaza.)

Southdale http://www.mnhs.org/library/tips/history_topics/72southdale.html

Southdale, designed by Victor Gruen, was envisioned as a Town Center, and while surface parking was the first thing to surround it, it was not envisioned as the last. But it is only today, more than five decades later, that development adjacent to Southdale is finally being approved. Malcolm Gladwell talks more about Southdale here:

When Gruen first drew up the plans for Southdale, he placed the shopping center at the heart of a tidy four-hundred-and-sixty-three-acre development, complete with apartment buildings, houses, schools, a medical center, a park, and a lake. Southdale was not a suburban alternative to downtown Minneapolis. It was the Minneapolis downtown you would get if you started over and corrected all the mistakes that were made the first time around. “There is nothing suburban about Southdale except its location,” Architectural Record stated when it reviewed Gruen’s new creation. It is:

an imaginative distillation of what makes downtown magnetic: the variety, the individuality, the lights, the color, even the crowds—for Southdale’s pedestrian-scale spaces insure a busyness and a bustle. Added to this essence of existing downtowns are all kinds of things that ought to be there if downtown weren’t so noisy and dirty and chaotic—sidewalk cafés, art, islands of planting, pretty paving. Other shopping centers, however pleasant, seem provincial in contrast with the real thing—the city downtown. But in Minneapolis, it is the downtown that appears pokey and provincial in contrast with Southdale’s metropolitan character.

In Planning for Place and Plexus, we discussed the Evolution of Retail (adapted here):

The first-ever sales transaction has not been recorded, and probably went untaxed. As the first transaction, it certainly did not occur in a shopping center, and almost certainly did not take place in a store. It also likely did not involve money, which had yet to be invented, so it really was more of a barter-like procedure. [Though this is disputed, see Debt: the First 5000 years] This first trade was an invention on the order of the wheel. Some scientists have even speculated that the ability of modern humans to trade is what advantaged us over the Neanderthals, (otherwise larger and stronger, and already settled) and gave us the evolutionary push to put that competing species out-of-business, so to speak.

Moving forward tens of thousands of years from the extinction of the Neanderthals, the Greek Agora, which acted both as a marketplace and public gathering area, was developed, probably some time around 1000 BCE, the Agora in Athens became a public area during the administration of Solon (638-558 BCE). The Roman Forum too was a marketplace and public venue, and in the City of Rome, several specialized markets developed, such as the Forum Boarium, dedicated to the cattle trade. One reference identifies over 31 fora in Ancient Rome. Rome at this time traded with places as far away as China, across the Silk Road and with islands in the Indian Ocean, indicating a similarly evolved culture of markets and exchange throughout much of the world. Market squares later took their place in medieval Europe.

Shopping streets were of course common in urban areas. Enterprising retailers could transform the traffic brought by roads and bridges into customers. Even expensive transportation facilities would find themselves choked with stores, slowing transportation while quickening commerce. The medieval London Bridge is one of the more famous examples of a bridge that was covered with buildings such as retail, residences, and even churches. Opened during the reign of King John in 1209, it had taken 33 years to build. Eventually buildings up to seven stories high were built on this prime real estate. This bridge lasted until 1831, after a new bridge (without buildings) was constructed.

Permanent marketplaces were supplemented with temporary and traveling fairs. The first fairs have been dated to 500 BCE, and may have occurred earlier. Fairs were events where foreign traders could show their wares, and were often coupled with religious festivals, taking place at and around temples. The fair changed over many centuries, evolving into several different types of activities, ranging from world to state and county fairs to conventions and trade shows. They are now less a place for purchasing, and more for information exchange. In fact, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE), which specializes in agricultural events (like State Fairs), itself has an annual convention and trade show in Las Vegas.

Markets were enclosed at least as early as 1786, when a member of the French royal family rented gardens to create the wooden Galeries de bois du Palais Royal. In 1800, a warehouse was transformed into a Bazaar in London. In later decades, at other locations throughout Europe, streets were covered with metal and glass roofs, such as Saint Hubert Gallery in Brussels, opened in 1847, which survives to this day. These are clearly early predecessors of modern shopping centers that have management under a single organization

In 1823, Alexander Stewart opened a dry-goods store in New York. Dry-goods stores were certainly not rare, and what distinguishes department stores is basically size and scope. In 1846, Stewart opened the Marble Dry-Goods Palace on New York’s Broadway, which by 1862 had taken over a full city block and was the largest retail establishment in the world. Department stores were as the name suggests, stores with individual departments, which were often contracted out. Paris’ Bon Marche opened in 1838 and expanded in 1852, and Macy’s opened in 1858. John Wanamaker entered the Philadelphia retail sector in 1861 and by 1876, in time for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, constructed a department store that was “’the largest space in the world devoted to retail selling on a single floor.’” There is thus some controversy over which department store is first, because it is unclear where a regular store ends and a department store begins.

The shopping center followed streetcars and citizens to the suburb. Baltimore, Maryland’s Roland Park shopping center (with six shops) opened in 1896 to serve the needs of that new streetcar suburb, and is considered the first to provide off-street parking. Roland Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted among others, may also have been the home of the first homeowners or community association. Since it was built before zoning, its developer Edward Bouton placed covenants on houses to ensure that the character of the neighborhood would remain. The association collected revenue to support common areas like the neighborhood park. It is now listed on the register of national historic places.

Others credit Country Club Plaza, opened in 1922 and developed by Jesse Clyde Nichols, with being the first shopping center. It certainly was the first to fully adapt to the automobile, early plans had eight gas stations at the center, with plenty of off-street parking. In a sense Country Club Plaza is a planned extension of the city, the shops are at street level, and automobile streets transect the complex. But it is a part of the city designed solely for shopping. It is at a much larger scale than anything that came before. It has also kept up with the times, remaining a functioning and successful center with over 100 stores, in a way that many later enclosed malls, such as Apache Plaza, have not.

A mall is distinct from a center because the shops are facing inward into a pedestrian realm, rather than outward into a street. There are also pedestrian or auto-free streets that could be classed as malls. The key is that a mall is pedestrian oriented area lined with buildings. The word “mall” to refer to shopping derives from “pall-mall”, which was an alley where a game with a croquet mallet was played, pall-mall comes from the Italian for “Ball-mallet”. After games played in long alleys stopped being fashionable, that same street became a shopping area.

An enclosed, climate-controlled mall is a variant of the mall. Of the some 47,700 shopping centers in the US, only 2.4%, or about 1,130 are enclosed malls, but these malls have a much larger footprint, the 0.8% largest centers (the 421 centers larger than 1 million ft2 (93,000 m2)) comprise 7% of total floor space. The Mall of America alone contains just under 0.1% of total shopping center floorspace in the US. Many malls are now owned not by developers, but by Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS). REITS own or have an interest in half of 1130 malls (NREI online 2005). Leasable area has steadily increased

Well Street.MN readers voted, and the results are given below. Mall of America is not only how the world knows us, it is what we think of as the Best Mall in the region. It is big, oversized even, but we live in the land of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, that is how we roll in the Upper Midwest.

I see its merits. It is the epitome of mall-ness. Rosedale (and Har-Mar) are closer to where I live. Frankly the interior of Har-Mar gives me the creeps, though it is better than the Crossroads of Roseville, which was dark and abandoned-ish before its recent remodel. Malls of insufficient scale do not justify entering the common section, since consumers seem to only be interested in surgical strikes on individual stores. Enabling the stores to have their own parking lot entrances benefits the individual store to the detriment of the common mall. Rosedale has the mass, and I am likely to visit more than one store. But even Rosedale is following the trend of turning itself inside-out with its most recent remodel. Rosedale (unlike MOA) has the benefit of not being overwhelming, and even from time-to-time has train rides for the kids on the priciest transit system in Minnesota.

I like Galleria, it seems well scaled, and its narrower walkways make it feel more crowded than the same number of shoppers on a common section that was too wide. But I can’t justify spending the money the stores there demand.

Mall of America Under Construction

Mall of America Under Construction

The MoA came out on top though. There are economies of scale to be had. If you go there, you can get almost anything mall-like, you can see the cool gadgets from Apple, visit an amusement park, get married, and catch 2 films. On our first visit, we spent 11 hours (at least 6 hours in movie theaters). Subsequent visits have been shorter.

The results are:

  • 27.7% Mall of America
  • 20.5% Rosedale
  • 16.1% Minneapolis Skyways
  • 11.6% Southdale
  •  6.3% Galleria
  •  5.4% Har Mar
  •  3.6% Eden Prairie
  •  0.9% Ridgedale
  •  0.9% Maplewood
  •  7.1% Other
    • Victoria Crossing
    • opt-out
    • No such Thing
    • None
    • ugh
    • Burnsville Center
    • They all suck
    • Brookdale

Congratulations to the Mall of America, voted by Streets.MN readers as the “Best Mid-Late 20th Century Enclosed Shopping Mall”


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13 Responses to 2012 Best Mid-Late 20th Century Enclosed Shopping Mall: Mall of America

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke December 19, 2012 at 5:00 am #

    The problem with malls isn't their pedestrian-ness. Rather, its their privatization of the public realm. The 'sidewalks' in a mall aren't public. They don't serve that function well. They're tightly policed and controlled.

    Also, they're designed in a way that limits the kinds of uses of the space. There are precious few places to stop and sit and hang out. Malls are designed to keep people moving, to encourage shopping to the maximum extent. Just try sometime going to the MOA and not spending a single cent. (I guess its possible if you're a "mallwalker.")

    The other big problem is that they have that 'casino effect' of separating themselves completely from the outside world (no windows, no clocks, no connection to the surrounding streets).

    Malls might be an interesting thought experiment, but they're no substitute for a city.

    Also, here's a quote about Southdale from Gruen's "Heart of the city": http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2010/08/victor-gr

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel Hood December 19, 2012 at 8:38 am #

      Try being a teenager and try walking around a mall after 8pm without an adult chaperone. It's an environment that treats teenagers as children who are always on the verge of causing trouble. The reality is that most suburban teenagers have no good urban places to visit – no public space – so everyone flocks to the mall.

  2. Brian Udell December 19, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    To use a word Jim Kunstler throws around a lot, they're "cartoonish". While a suburban tract home is a cartoon house in a cartoon of country living in a cartoon of a neighborhood. A mall is a cartoon of a downtown.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel Hood December 19, 2012 at 8:46 am #

      " A mall is a cartoon of a downtown." It'd be great to get a podcast interview with Jim to hear this thoughts on the Mall of America.

  3. David Levinson
    David Levinson December 20, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    The US (or perhaps North American) obsession with "downtown" as the pinnacle of all things urban is strange. Where is Downtown Tokyo, or Downtown London. Those cities are relatively dense, but also relatively flat (until Canary Wharf, London didn't have skyscrapers, the new skyscraper trend is disappointing, but also interesting, scattered about the city rather than focused on a small area). In London, there is of course "The City", but no one would go to the City for anything but work since the late 1800s. The West End became the entertainment district, and shopping is there and elsewhere. (Notably, the West End in London is much closer to the central city (2.1 miles) than the West End in St Louis Park is to Nicollet Mall (5.0 miles)). What it has is pedestrian contiguity for miles (aside from the period during WWII when the Germans were bombing, until they rebuilt the pockets). Try walking from SLP to Nicollet.

    @Bill and @Nate, yes Mall spaces are private, but how is that different than every single store in downtown. Teenagers should have something to do, but what do they do in small towns or downtown? Where in modern Western Society are teenagers not considered a problem? How do the non-teenagers feel about that? This is why spaces are privatized. The problem is not the privatization, privatization of space is the response by the market to the preferences of adults with money to teenagers (and to other perceived social ills). We can argue whether the cure is worse than the disease.

    What to do with teenagers is a 2 centuries old problem since we stopped letting them get married (or making them get married) and set up their own household. We infantilize for far too long in modern society, but that is beyond the scope of a blog post on shopping malls.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke December 21, 2012 at 2:34 am #

      I guess my critique is that we need public spaces for lots of reasons important to social and individual well being, and that these public spaces should be incorporated seamlessly into our everyday lives. This is what good cities and good neighborhoods do (as you suggest, London is full of such places). Malls are cartoonish because they offer the facade of this kind of urban experience without any of its actual benefits (excluding all sorts of people and types of behavior).

      Call me naive, but I'm also not convinced that teenagers are a tremendous problem. (Granted, I didn't grow up there but) I think of a place like Grand Marais, and how if you go to Sven and Ole's pizza in the evening you will see people of all generations occupying the same space: old people gossiping, middle age families, and teenagers out on awkward dates. There are spaces for everyone, and they can co-exist without too much invasion of privacy. (OK, this might be sounding too romantic, but its something I've noticed there and other well-run private spaces. I suppose malls offer similar benefits, but without the surrounding city. A book I really like on this is Richard Sennett's "The Uses of Disorder.")

      Skateboarders are another good example. They're not an urban scourge, but in fact can be a really healthy part of a city if 'given' some rudimentary autonomy and tolerance. It's a healthy way of using one's time, certainly better than sitting on a huge couch in the burbs surrounded by carpet and hating your life.

      We should be comparing malls not with downtowns, but with the kind of Excelsior and Grand developments that Nate so nicely describes.

  4. David Levinson
    David Levinson December 21, 2012 at 6:57 am #

    See http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/spec

    One second of googling turned up the above about Grand Marais, along with the requisite there is nothing for teens to do comment. I've never been there so won't comment further, but the problem is why you see outmigration from small towns to big cities and their suburbs.

    The problem is humans evolved in a preinfantilizing environment, and many now live at home into their mid 20s.

    Excelsior and Grand doesn't cut it for teens either.

    I like public spaces, I just don't think we need to shop in them. That model is incompatible with most of modern US society, and unless you fix everything else, bolting on public shopping squares will fail economically for anything beyond niche developments. There is a reason all the High Streets in London start to look the same, and all the new shopping more or less follows the same model as the US.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke December 21, 2012 at 8:33 am #

      eeww. Touché.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke December 21, 2012 at 8:35 am #

        Still, the comment discussion there is revealing. It's more of a problem w/ creepy old men. Not all small towns are messed up. I'd say that most outmigration has more to do w/ the economy than w/ society.

  5. Nick Magrino
    Nick December 27, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    I'm a bit late to this, but for what it's worth, I hung out as a teen at Excelsior and Grand when I lived in St. Louis Park. We even rode our bikes there from our neighborhood a couple miles away. It was much better than, say, Knollwood Mall.

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