Two weeks ago, you may recall, architect EG Hamilton received a lifetime achievement award from the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Hamilton’s cityscape-changing design, of course, was NorthPark Center — the rare shopping mall that turns 50 next year and still feels fresh. That’s partly Hamilton’s clean, sunlit design, partly the way owners Raymond and Patsy Nasher cultivated the space over the years, displaying their significant sculpture collection, expanding the center with consistent additions, even carving out a ‘central park’ with outdoor art.
But NorthPark Center is also rare because of how the great mass of other malls have seriously declined. According to The New Yorker, they may well disappear in the next ten to fifteen years. So many have already died, reports Amy Merrick —
… there’s a Web site devoted to “dead malls” that are out of commission. In some cases, the buildings have been converted into community colleges, corporate headquarters, or churches. Others, like the Woodville Mall, have become so damaged by water, mold, and asbestos that city officials are glad to demolish them. In January, Rick Caruso, the C.E.O. of Caruso Affiliated, one of the largest privately held American real-estate companies, stood on a stage at the Javits Center, in New York, and forecast the demise of the traditional mall. “Within ten to fifteen years, the typical U.S. mall, unless it is completely reinvented, will be a historical anachronism—a sixty-year aberration that no longer meets the public’s needs, the retailers’ needs, or the community’s needs,” he told his audience, which had gathered for the National Retail Federation’s annual convention.
This death spiral isn’t relevant to North Texas simply because of places like NorthPark or Dallas’ well-earned reputation as a shopper’s high-end heaven. Think of J. C. Penney’s, for instance, which Merrick does, precisely because it tried to re-invent the mall experience: “Ron Johnson, the much criticized former C.E.O. of J. C. Penney, understood the warnings. He re-envisioned J. C. Penney stores, with their enormous—and enormously dated—open spaces, as places for people not only to shop but to hang out, drink coffee, and surf the Internet.”
If you guessed internet sales are making malls obsolete, you’d be picking only the most obvious culprit. There’s also something akin to “outsourcing” — meaning the big pickings for mall developers remain with the wealthy and overseas, like China. Older, down-market malls in America — the “grayboxes” — are quite deliberately being left to die.