The Death Knell of the MegaMall?

Next American City’s Danielle Zimmerman offers her thoughts on a new-concept “mall” in Philadelphia.

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Malls have become essentially obsolete to me. Since I don’t have regular access to a car, just getting to them becomes a hassle. Once I’m actually there, I find myself passing by store after store without much need to stop. Since I’ve grown accustomed to shopping online, I hit the stores I want without endless escalator rides and the instrumental music that sedates America’s mall shoppers today.

Recently posted on the New York Times blog of Sunset magazine’s editor-at-large, Allison Arieff, was the account of her involvement as a juror at the 2009 International Council on Shopping Centers convention. Excited to get a peek at innovative, new ideas that strayed away from “national sameness,” Arieff ended up disappointed. She was presented with blueprints for malls that included ballparks, Olympic-sized swimming pools and massive digital billboards – not quite the product of observations of modest consumer trends she’d expected.

A few of the entrants actually seemed in tune to current realities. Arieff particularly liked CommArts’ “Crossroads City,” which imagines future malls as a locally based, multi-use social centers. She describes the success of one such mall in Portland. But I was immediately reminded of the Piazza at Schmidt’s, recently opened in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.

The Piazza is the latest completed step in a decade-long project taken on by Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments, which began with his purchase of the former Schmidt’s Brewery site in 2000. Some of the new properties have been renovated from existing abandoned buildings on the site; others are new construction. Recycled materials are incorporated as often as possible – sometimes as benches or fountains. Visitors have the choice of browsing one of the 35 new galleries and stores (all locally owned), dining at one of the four new restaurants, or even renting out one of the 500 new apartments or 50,000 sq. feet of office space. Perhaps they want to rest awhile in the patch of grass and watch a Phillies game on the 26 by 16 ft. screen. On weekends, artisans and craft makers are invited to set up flea-market-style, while local bands entertain from the plaza stage.

This isn’t how I originally imagined the Piazza upon first hearing about it. I was less than thrilled about additional development by Tower Investments, Inc. Not because of some personal vendetta, but just because things over in Northern Liberties are beginning to look pretty generic. My pessimism was struck down during my first visit. It’s still Tower’s unmistakable architectural design, but it was created with the interests of the community in mind. It’s a community gathering space available to host free events and provide local businesses with exposure.

As Arieff said about CommArts, “Utopic? Perhaps, but with dried-up financing, minimal consumer demand and the Chapter 11 filing last month by the second largest mall-operator in the country, it’s time to think differently.”

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Tags: philadelphiabuilt environmentportlandretail

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