death of the urban shopping center?

Is the era of the suburbanized urban shopping experience coming to an end? One can only hope so especially because American cities are enjoying a moment right now. Many popular articles and demographic studies show the American populous, especially young adults are more favorably inclined toward city living than older generations. This is a good thing because cities as an urban form are far more diverse, efficient and long-term sustainable than the low-density, auto-centric, quasi-urban experiment that our country has engaged in over the past sixty years or so. Maybe now with this growing trend toward whole urban centers, those downtowns wherein people choose to reside and live out full, multi-faceted lives rather than visit only for employment or entertainment, will spur a rethinking of (I hesitate to say “return to”) a more authentic urban shopping experience. The reason I don’t say “return to” is because the American city and retailing in general has changed too much. Gone are the days of the large, central department store. No, Ralphie won’t have the chance to pine over the Christmas display at Higbee’s anymore.

In its place, the post-suburban American downtown attempted to attract customers by catering to the needs and buying habits of an increasingly non-urban customer through the replication of shopping malls in downtown. Most of these were a dismal failure. Some of the more recent versions, like Denver’s Pavilions shopping center, have managed to linger – not fully leased to the extent one would call them a success (for example, the giant former Wolfgang Puck restaurant space has remained empty for a number of years now) but also not so hopelessly lacking in customer appeal that their death is past due or at least foreseeable. To put the idea of success in context, the highest sales grossing retailing center in Denver, in fact, all of Colorado, is still the Cherry Creek Shopping Center which while located in the city proper is about three miles outside of downtown.

What then might possibly become of the downtown shopping experience? And how might the urban shopping experience begin to catch up with the needs and buying habits of a new generation of urban dwellers? I think the future of urban retailing will be smaller, more diverse, and more integrated into the urban fabric primarily through the continued development of mixed-use properties. This is no relevation in design however, cities have developed this way for millennia.

So, what then is “future” about this approach? The future part is how some retailers will need to adapt their dog-eared economic models to the revitalizing urban core and the changing retailing environment. A few of the national leaders have already begun – no more than a decade ago the idea of an urban Wal-Mart was an unthinkable concept, yet now the company is touting its “neighborhood market” as if it somehow discovered the urban customer. Wal-Mart didn’t discover anything except that they had saturated their core market and acknowledged where their growth opportunities lie. Whether cities will want them or not is a whole different question. Smaller retailers, by contrast won’t need to confront the same sort of outmoded economic models. Restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, grocers, etc., all those retailers that help to define and give character to a place struggled, when they did so, for lack of one thing – a strong enough customer base. This changes when people with choices choose to live in and around downtowns. Denver, for example, has a thriving craft beer brewing industry. Many of these companies, located in an around downtown, are growing along with the city’s resident base. And this is not the only sector experiencing growth opportunities, restaurants and speciality retailers are popping up too. You haven’t heard of many of these establishments unless you have visited this city. That, I think, is a good thing.

pavilions 2

So, what of the urban shopping center? Is it dying a slow death or no? This I cannot answer but know this, the future of these hybrid developments says little if anything about the future of the urban shopping experience.

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