walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

What to Do with Inner Ring Malls?

Here's a set of ideas from the tail end of the boom:


The author is quoted extensively in this interview from earlier this year, in the extremely wonderful NYT blog, The New Old Age:


"Failed malls offer an unparalleled opportunity to bring services to suburban neighborhoods, Ms. Dunham-Jones says. “The idea is to demolish a dead mall and build the downtown area a suburb never had,” she said. “Three or four stories of apartments above the retail on the ground floor, providing an option where people can walk to most of their daily needs. And they have more opportunities for social interaction. They get a more urban lifestyle, but in a familiar place.”"

It sounds lovely, if unlikely. The most glaring issue is the idea of "three or four stories" of apartments above the ground floor retail; it just doesn't sound like enough units to justify the expense involved. 6-7+ floor midrise zoning is what got this kind of development moving in Seattle, and even there, it has preferentially happened not in aging neighborhoods, but in neighborhoods that had aged past the move-to-the-nursing home phase, and were being replenished by young couples starting to have children.

Worse, her favorite example is Northgate in Seattle:

"Ms. Dunham-Jones’s favorite example of a retrofitted retail center is the Northgate Mall in northeast Seattle — in this case, it was not a dead mall but a “thriving mall that wanted to expand,” she said, located “in a very suburban, auto-dependent area with a large senior population.”"

Northgate is a _terrible_ example of what she proposes, _not_ because the redevelopment of Northgate was undesirable (altho knowing Seattle, I'm sure you could find someone to take that position), but because Northgate is one of the oldest malls in the country and it never died. Both parts are important. And for all she says it is an auto-dependent area, it is also an area which benefitted from the oldest, most detailed transit development on the north side of the city.

As is typical with this blog, the comments thread is worth reading. Numerous commenters pointed out the same issue with using Northgate as an example. To be fair, "Jim from Baltimore" has an even sillier takeaway, concluding that planning/zoning is counterproductive (Northgate/Seattle _is_ an excellent example of how the planning/zoning process makes everything take longer and cost more -- to good effect). The developer on the Northgate project (Lorig) is local/regional and is used to dealing with Pacific Northwest zoning/regional planning. And having seen a little bit of what passes for zoning in Yankeeland, I feel compelled to point out that as heavyweight as the Seattle process can be, at least it's rational: you can figure out who you need to get permission from and you don't have to go to the governor to move a project forward after you've jumped through all relevant hoops.

Another commenter points to corporations being reluctant to change their strategies. "Mike in San Francisco" is completely incomprehensible: this is about suburban development, not urban, and if Mike looked out at the relevant comparators for his area, he'd be looking at things like San Jose's Santana Row.

The very weirdest of all the comments, however, is "Steve in Los Angeles": "Here in California, this concept has been going strong for several years now. An old defunct mall in Pasadena was transformed into an open air mall and apartments. Great in theory, but where are the grocery stores, the pharmacies, the drug stores, the DMV, the churches, the hospitals, the veterinarians and all the other places that people need on a regular basis?"

He's talking about the Paseo Colorado development which I blogged about. A few minutes on google maps produces: Paseo Colorado has inside it a Gelson's Market (an expensive supermarket, but a supermarket). Inside the Gelson's is a pharmacy (I'm going to assume that a supermarket with a pharmacy has at least a couple aisle of drug store like products, and there is always the internet). Huntington Memorial Hospital is less than a mile and a half away. The DMV is under 3 miles away (what the hell do you need a DMV for if you can't drive three miles? Oh, wait, state id card so you can vote. Maybe you'll have to call a taxi or arrange for paratransit, but hell, if you can avoid to live in the Terraces at Paseo Colorado, you can afford a taxi -- and there are taxi stands in the area). There's a library about a quarter of a mile away. There's a _theological seminary_ nearby, as well as a half dozen churchs within a half mile.

The real problem with Paseo Colorado and other malls + residential _is_ obliquely captured by the rest of Steve's comment:

"Let's call this experiment what it is--a final attempt to squeeze the last bit of money out of elderly people before they die."

Except the Terraces aren't really marketed to the elderly anyway, which is another issue with this retrofitting suburbia as a way to help the aging idea.

Other comments question where the money would come for to do this redevelopment. If the focus _weren't_ on the elderly/aging in place, the answer is obvious (and the basis for Paseo Colorado, Santana Row and other developments asking for and getting quite astonishingly high rents): a wide range of people who have jobs and want to live in a lively, walkable neighborhood with public transit options and/or is close to their job. While the early 2000s instances tend to be for lease variations and there is an ongoing focus on DINKs and singles, I can't help but think that future incarnations -- further out than Santana Row, Paseo Colorado and Northgate, but well within the edge defined by the Big Recession -- will also market to young families.

The policy analysis is kinda poor, but occasionally someone is piping up with examples that match what is in Dunham-Jones book (college opening up in a former mall). Inevitably, someone mentions Nanuet as needing this kind of refreshing (got news for you: it won't happen until more of the current population ages out).

I particularly love the image captured in this phrase: "the 'boomer housing sell-off crisis' will make the dot-com debacle look like a walk in the park." Really? You're harkening back to the early 2000s for a scary crisis? Did you not _notice_ the one that just happened?

I find it utterly amazing that I was completely unaware of this mall + residential trend, and deeply comforting that I'm not the only one missing the point. I knew about Northgate. I saw the massive buildings next to Solomon Pond. I laughed when the Natick condos went to auction. But I _still_ didn't notice the trend until recently. But at least I never operated under the delusion that this would somehow be services provided to aging-in-place elderly. When development is privately funded for profit, no one targets the middle-class elderly.
Tags: our future economy today, real estate
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