From Shopping Malls to Lifestyle Centers

On why structured parking is allegedly problematic for regional retail in general, which is causing problems at West End.  This installment will look at the overall evolution of regional retail – from downtown, to the regional malls, to lifestyle centers like West End. 

Downtown 2.0: The Mall

With the massive movement of people to the Twin Cities suburbs, shopping followed, including attempts to create a downtown. Southdale was the first attempt in the Twin Cities ‒ and indeed, in the entire United States ‒ to recapture the spirit of downtown, albeit in a drastically different form. Early on it was full of regional retailers like Dayton’s as well as everyday retailers like a Red Owl grocery store. There were plans for a library, town hall, and police department that never were implemented, and over time it evolved into exclusively regional retail as the everyday stores closed. It’s always been a place where people pretty much exclusively drove their cars to. Even Southdale’s architect, Victor Gruen, was not happy with what he had wrought.  Instead of building a new downtown to combat car-centeredness, he had created nothing close to a downtown that was the epitome of car-centeredness.

Southdale Center

Southdale Center. | Minnesota Historical Society

Meanwhile, cities saw the success of the suburban malls and tried to replicate it by bringing malls to the city: Gavidae Common, City Center, the Conservatory, Town Square, Calhoun Square, to name a few.  The land that was eventually occupied by the Lake Street K-Mart was originally cleared in anticipation of something akin to a mall. There was even an ill-fated plan to convert the south end of Nicollet Mall into an indoor shopping mall.  In 1985 the city granted a development contract to La Societe Generale Immobiliere, a French development company. After a decade of bickering and lawsuits, in the end, nothing was built.

Of the indoor urban malls in the Twin Cities that were built, none have been as successful as hoped, and some have been complete disasters. I was told by a friend that did shopping center development that the Conservatory had a fatal flaw in that there were no sight lines between floors. But there is a more general flaw affecting them all: the success of suburban malls is tied intrinsically to free, abundant surface parking – an element that could not reasonably be duplicated in the cities. I wrote in part one about all the reasons people hate parking ramps; multiply that by 10 if you charge for parking. Even validated parking is no substitute for free parking. Meanwhile, not enough people actually lived downtown to support this regional-type shopping from foot traffic alone – possibly not even now, and certainly not then.

Paid ramps can and do work if the destination is unique enough, like a Wild game. The problem with having a Gap or Applebees in a downtown mall is, at the end of the day office workers either want to “get out of Dodge” and back home to their families in Burnsville, or they want to hang out at the unique bars, shops, and restaurants in historic buildings like in Lowertown or the Warehouse District. It’s not on the radar to go to Applebee’s or shop at the Gap in a suburban mall-like setting. When it comes time to go to Applebee’s or Gap on the weekends, why drive downtown and have to pay for parking in a ramp when you can park for free in a surface lot at Burnsville Center?

Uptown in particular has attempted to shoehorn suburban-style regional stores such as the Gap, Columbia, North Face, and Famous Dave’s into its high streets. In the long run, these weren’t able to compete. In my opinion, the biggest issue was a lack of free parking. The second-biggest issuewas it was a royal pain to get there, since it is miles from a freeway. Uptown has nowhere near the density to support these regional shops from just local foot traffic.

The Decline of the Malls and the Rise of the Lifestyle Centers

Back in the suburbs, there have long been signs that the mall format, while initially successful, is fading. Although forecasts of disaster for the Mall of America proved to be anything but correct, predictions that it would be the last regional mall to be built in the area proved true. And then the decline of existing malls began as wealth moved farther out, anchors closed, and commerce moved online.  Apache Plaza was demolished in 2004; Brookdale in 2010.

Apache Plaza

Apache Plaza in it’s prime. | Vintage Postcard

The remaining traditional malls have adapted by filling with nontraditional anchors and selling off excess parking. With a fitness center, DMV, housing, and soon to be a library, Southdale is getting much closer to its original vision. Even the Mall of America knows times are changing. It has always had options to expand, to the site across 24th, but those expansions have been long in coming. The new airport runway made the site essentially undevelopable, so in compensation they obtained a site across Lindau Lane once the city got involved in a complicated land swap deal. In the mid-90s came the concept of an $800 million “Hyperport”. Although vaguely defined, it seemed something like Epcot, a place for corporations to showcase their wonderful technology.  From the Twin Cities Business Journal (paywalled) article:

At the center of the project would be a satellite-computer network called the HyperCore Power Plant, which would be an information and communication center providing speedy Internet access. The developers envision companies, from Sony and Boeing Commercial Space Co. to Silicon Graphics, providing products for the plant.

As I recall, this would have also included a small hotel with a waterpark, as well as offices and substantial retail. But, fortunately, nothing happened. It seemed like a good idea at the dawn of the information age where everyone was excited about the future. But the concept of Hyperport would have aged laughably, given that the internet in your pocket is now so ubiquitous even kids have it.

IKEA finally opened in 2003, primarily due to a contract that “Mall of America Phase II” had to be underway by a certain time or the Mall owners would lose development rights. After some hotels and offices came a modest retail expansion on the original property, intended to lure luxury retailers (who never came, and it now seems mostly vacant). Now the Mall owners are trying to shift more towards 50% retail, 50% entertainment. Their new waterpark proposal is an example of that shift, with the only new retail being a few shops selling hot dogs and swimming suits to waterpark visitors.


Proposed Mall of America Waterpark

Proposed Mall of America Waterpark. | City of Bloomington

The Lifestyle Center

With no new malls being built, and existing ones shifting away from retail, the problem remained of where to put still-viable retail stores. Rather than build enclosed malls without anchors or have American Eagle and Forever 21 locate in a typical strip mall, we made another attempt at building faux downtowns: the “lifestyle center”, where retail shops line I haven’t found a good written source as to why this form developed as opposed to some other form factor, but myself and others have considered some ideas:

  • Traditional mall stores consider themselves too conceited to locate in a strip mall next to a dollar store or dry cleaners.
  • City officials want something more “cute” than yet another strip mall for their city.
  • Consumers have nostalgia for something that existed where they or their parents grew up, but never existed where they now live in the suburbs
  • To the extent people still shop at mall stores, they’re less likely to spend all day marathons doing so. If you want to shop at American Eagle and Forever 21 it’s nice to walk between them in comfort, but if you just want to try on a pair of jeans from Forever 21, it’s rather inconvenient to get in and out of a regional mall even if they were built without anchors.
  • There’s the oft-repeated phrase that the younger generations crave “experiences” rather than “stuff”. So I guess marketers and planners create an “experience” for them so they can dine in a 5 year-old building that’s a parody of a 100 year-old building, next to a 5 year-old street that’s a parody of a 150 year-old street.

Whatever the reasons, Arbor Lakes  in Maple Grove marked the beginning of the Twin Cities’ transition away from the regional mall . The first phase, which Wikipedia describes as “a simulacrum of a traditional American Main Street designed in neotraditional style,” opened in the late 1990s, and while not technically a true lifestyle center (that would follow with phase II in 2003), it contains major elements: the neotraditional (or fake historical if you’re less kind) architecture, the contrived “Main Street” (and I insist on using scare quotes), the sea of parking in back.

Following Arbor Lakes Phase II, another prototype lifestyle center – Woodbury Lakes – was built. The next two broke with the pattern; the troubled West End was built with parking ramps and Central Park Commons dispensed with the integrated anchors and instead plopped down “Main Street” in the middle of what is otherwise a regional power center (a cluster of big box retail). And there are more of these types of retail developments on the horizon, as a new lifestyle center is planned in the Rosedale Center parking lot.

Homage, Tribute, Parody, or Mockery

I’ll digress now and state how much I absolutely hate the fake historical architecture. Although all lifestyle centers use it, this style isn’t limited to  lifestyle centers. Some of the worst offenders in the metro are the Stillwater Mills building, the downtown Minneapolis Target Store, and the previous version of the Block E building in Minneapolis. Here’s a picture of the Arbor Lakes “Main Street”.

Arbor Lakes Main Street

Arbor Lake “Main Street”, a mockery rather than an homage or authentic recreation of a real main street. | Google Street View.

We see second story windows that go nowhere, multiple elevation changes and false fronts that attempt to convey different physical buildings, a cornice on buildings only a few decades old. I count seven different exterior finishes; it looks like the builder got a deal on remnants at Home Depot and then slapped them on at random. It’s fully possible to build a building that’s true to its time that doesn’t come across as looking like a communist block flat. Just use time-tested, quality materials in a way that’s not intended to deceive. Here’s an example of what I mean– an interesting design that ‘s true to its era even down to the modern lanterns instead of fake history Victorian style acorn globes.

RBCU Credit Union Building, Bloomington

RBCU Credit Union Building, Bloomington. | Monte Castleman

There seems something architecturally dishonest about the overall form of lifestyle centers also, building a “Main Street” in a cornfield. I’m not sure what form would be better but don’t do something like the Twin Cities Premium Outlets in Eagan, which manages to combine the worst element of strip malls (being exposed to the elements) with the worst element of regional malls (the long walk to parking) with having to deal with a parking ramp and the complete lack of character. This whole fake history point may be the subject of a future article, but I thought I’d mention it briefly here because it’s so integral to lifestyle centers.

Part Three of this series will take a detailed look at each of the Twin Cities lifestyle centers and try to gauge their convenience in objective terms. Part Four will conclude with a look at the parking issues in Stillwater. 


About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.

8 thoughts on “From Shopping Malls to Lifestyle Centers

  1. Elizabeth Larey

    Just interested in what you think is going to happen to retail now. It always seemed overbuilt to me. The problem with the Conservatory was you couldn’t figure out how to get from one floor to the next. Because the Historic Preservation Society made them build it around an existing building.
    I live in Jacksonville. FL in the winter, and they built the Town Center, one of the most successful retail hubs in the country. Because there wasn’t anything else in this entire area. It works well. I think there was just too much in the Twin Cities.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      I don’t pretend to be an expert at commercial property leasing, but I do think there’s too much retail, especially at the high end. When low end retail isn’t leased, there’s usually a reason for it, like the neighborhood is grossly unsafe, the building is literally unsafe, or the landlord is actively trying to drive out tenants with an eye to redevelopment (this seems to be what’s going on in Bloomington’s Clover Center).

      But you see a lot of vacant high end retail. It’s been discussed here and the forum all the retail vacancies in newer mixed use developments. If there was actually a market for all this new construction retail, developers would gladly build them without being forced to by the city. But the city, with idyllic fantasies of cute coffee shops, bodacious bars, unique boutiques, and roaring with activity restaurants has to force them to as a condition of building the rest of their project. So developers do, and the retail spaces stay empty because there’s no demand to lease them yet the developer are willing to take a loss on them since they can make money with their luxury apartments.

      As the future of retail, I don’t have a crystal ball. Obviously a lot of shopping is moving online, and I think coronovirus is going to accelerate the trend. People that are now just starting grocery delivery or taking quality restaurant food home to eat out of fear are going to continue to do it out of convenience, having gotten into a habit out of it. I also see restaurants and retail that got caught off guard this time change their operations so they’re in a better position if it happens again. At the minimum by offering online ordering and payment. A lot of people don’t like to try to order over the telephone and there’s risky contact with in-person payment.

      Fast food restaurants, which always did most of their business via the drive-thru, were in the best position. So you might see other restaurants offering that option. Next to paying exorbitant delivery costs, drive-thrus are probably the safest way possible to obtain food in a pandemic and there’s no reason places like Chipoltle couldn’t adapt to them.

      Drive-thrus could be made even safer by doing the payment via app or a card reader at the menu board, and having the window be automat style. Employee puts your food in through a sliding window, as you pull up another window opens when you get close.

      1. Mark

        We’d need to close most stores in the US to be inline with of the rest of the world in terms of retail square footage.

        US retail was headed towards a massive correction even before Covid-19, We have WAY too much retail space; 10x more than Germany per capita.

        We built a way way way too much shopping space over the past 70 years. A market correction is underway and we have a long way to go before retail space supply is inline with demand.

    2. Bob Roscoe

      There was no “Historic Preservation Society” that had any regulatory power to dictate design of the Conservatory. A developer for an ill-fitting building near the riverfront used the same preservation-nazi (yes – those were his words) to blame his mistakes. Preservationists were also blamed for an expensive irregular skyway extension from the Dome to Nicollet Mall. I was on the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission at that time and they never asked HPC if they could have connected through the Armory in an appropriate place.

  2. peyaya

    Not sure I’m seeing why the downtown Mpls Target store. It isn’t trying to be something it isn’t. It doesn’t look like it’s trying to emulate a Main Street, or anything else for that matter.

    1. Joe

      It was all built as one building, but has different fronts in different styles to appear as those it was multiple buildings. But it’s mostly just switching the color of the brick. I think it looks fine. Not great, but not terrible.

    2. Monte Castleman Post author

      From south to north we have a sequence of non-matching finishing on the building:

      A light colored stone on the bottom combined with yellow brick on the top, then
      A red brick on the bottom combined with light colored stone on the top, then
      Light colored stone on the bottom and glass on the top, then,
      Beige stone on the bottom and red brick on the top, then,
      Beige stone on the bottom, and yellow brick on the top, the
      Beige stone on the bottom and different red brick on the top.
      Then the whole thing is topped by a old-fashioned cornice.

      I’m sure it wasn’t a matter of getting a bunch of random finishes that Home Depot had on sale because there was only a pallet or two left of each- not enough to do an entire building, but an attempt to lie and deceive architecturally. Maybe getting a Target store was worth allowing a low, monolithic building, but if it was we could at least be architecturally honest about it.

      Look across the street, the different finishes are honest because they were built at different time by different people. Or down a block towards the Target Headquarters where a monolithic building wasn’t built to lie, but instead used a mix of timeless and modern materials, and not in way that attempts to deceive and fake history.

  3. GlowBoy

    Outside climate-challenged Minnesota, the “outdoor mall” with a fake Main Street with some on-street parking was already a trend. In the Portland area, where I used to live, two existing malls were torn down and replaced with this concept. It’s a lot cheaper to build a bunch of standalone buildings and a parking garage off to the side. Only four indoor malls remain there, and I have to wonder about their future.

    I agree we were due for a retail correction, especially with the rise of online shopping, and of course many malls have already failed. After the pandemic, we’ll probably lose most of the remaining ones. The only ones left will be the repurposed ones, like Southdale with its destination Lifetime, its Service Center and future library, and tons of new satellite housing, that successfully draw people in for reasons other than retail. I think Southdale will be one of the very few that makes it.

    MoA is such an outlier I have a hard time seeing its future, but if post-COVID it is still seen as a tourist destination worth coming here for, it will survive.

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