Blow up the mall

Dear Lord, they’re talking about remaking Downtown Plaza again. They’re talking about a ‘16-hour city’ again. They’re talking about using your tax dollars again. Why not just start over?

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

“We’re going to rock the city, to put it bluntly.”

That’s what one modest marketing director told the Sacramento Bee about plans to refurbish the troubled Downtown Plaza, explaining, “We bring a lot of life into the areas we go into.”

Sacramento’s mayor was equally enthusiastic, saying the mall’s new plans were “a major turn in the road for downtown,” and adding that the mall makeover would boost the nightlife in the area. “You’re talking about really developing the 16-hour city.”

Even the Bee reporter got a little caught up in the hype, enthusing that, “with new upscale stores such Banana Republic and J. Crew, seductive merchandising and sparkling architecture, Downtown Plaza is the type of glitzy, world-unto-its-own project that has helped resuscitate downtowns in Baltimore, Boston, San Diego and other prominent cities.”

That article was printed in October of 1993. The rep who promised to “rock the city” was with America Live, a restaurant and nightclub that went belly up within three years. It was replaced by the Hard Rock Café, which has the word “rock” right in its name but, well, doesn’t. J. Crew held on longer, but left Downtown Plaza in July of this year for the more successful Arden Fair Mall.

The mayor at the time was Joe Serna, a big downtown booster. But the luster of Downtown Plaza barely outlived Serna himself, who passed away, in office, in 1999. Today, city leaders openly talk about their frustration with the mall’s owners, the Westfield Group, and the lack of investment over the ensuing decade, the high vacancy rate and the way Downtown Plaza is losing the mall war with the burgeoning suburbs. “It’s an asset that’s not moving forward,” said downtown developer Sotiris Kolokotronis. “It’s a cancer.”


Last week, the Westfield Group approached the city with new plans to refurbish the long un-furbished shopping center. This time, the proposal is to bring in a Target discount store and an as-yet-unnamed grocery store. The redesign would shuffle around shops, add new restaurants and expand the number of movie screens from 7 to 11. And the mall would get an overall facelift to make it “more porous” from the outside, and open parts of the boxy shopping center up more to the surrounding neighborhood.

In 1993, the Hahn Company remade Downtown Plaza (previously an open air collection of department stores lining a dead stretch of K Street mall) at a cost $157 million, $14 million of that in public dollars. The Westfield Group, the Australian-based mall operator that has owned the property since 1998, would like some public money this time, as well. How much, they aren’t saying at this point. But the folks who work at the city’s economic-development department expect “the ask” to come sometime in the next few weeks.

But like the last remodel, it is part of what Westfield sees as its role in the emerging, revitalized downtown. “The equation everyone is trying to figure out is how to create a real live-work-play city,” Westfield president of U.S. operations Ken Wong told SN&R. “We are looking to create the 16-hour city.”

Sound familiar?

The artificial heart of the city
Let’s just put this out there: Maybe we should blow up the mall. You’re not supposed to say things like that, especially when you’re talking about other people’s property.

But the mall is dead. No one would build a Downtown Plaza today. And as shopping technology goes, the mall is something akin to dial-up Internet, or maybe the fax machine. Or maybe TV tuning knobs.

“The mall is not going to go away for a while. But the one’s that are most at risk are being remade,” explained Michael Beyard with the Urban Land Institute, a land-use and development think tank based in Washington, D.C. In a report from last year, “Ten principles for rethinking the mall,” Beyard and his co-authors argue that, “the age of the cookie cutter mall is over.”

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, there hasn’t been an enclosed shopping mall built in the United States since spring of 2005, and none are planned.

The new trend, particularly in the suburbs, is that of the “lifestyle center,” which is basically a mall with the roof torn off and made to look more like the old Main Street shopping district, albeit a Disney-fied version of the Main Street. Other communities are trying to find ways to better integrate the malls into the surrounding neighborhoods.

One proposal by Westfield is to punch 4th Street through, connecting J and L streets and replacing some of this dead space with new retail and window displays.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

That’s the perverse thing about malls. They became our surrogate downtowns. They are a quasi-public space, only better than a real neighborhood, because they come with security and climate control and convenient parking. In the suburbs malls stood in for downtowns that nobody bothered to build. In the cities, they took the place of main streets that became too gritty, too old, too full of panhandlers and crime, all in all too real to be appealing to shoppers. They have become the artificial hearts of our communities. And Sacramento’s downtown is experiencing heart failure.

Sacramento’s Florin Mall fell into such disrepair that the mall owners took the radical step of tearing it down and building a super Wal-Mart center in its stead. Florin, one K Street merchant told SN&R, “Used to be the mall next to the ghetto. Now Downtown Plaza is the mall next to the ghetto.”

Meanwhile, the suburban communities around Sacramento are raising their mall profiles to baroque new levels.

The Elk Grove Promenade, an open-air mall slated to open at the end of 2008, is advertised at more than 1 million square feet, including a Macy’s, a Barnes & Noble and a 16-screen Cinemark theater—all pretty standard fare. But it would also feature an outdoor performance stage, three parks, bike lockers and showers and even outdoor fireplaces.

Galleria of Roseville, also owned by Westfield Group, recently announced plans to open five new stores, including an Apple Store, next year. The Galleria is already the 800-pound gorilla of regional malls, at over 1.3 million square feet and a much bigger complement of anchor stores—including Macy’s, Sears, Nordstrom and JCPenney.

Sacramento city leaders are constantly irked that Roseville gets the investment and the high-end stores while Downtown Plaza deteriorates.

But the Galleria is different, argues Larry Green, Westfield’s vice-president of development. The Galleria, for one thing, is in a “fantastic location,” in the middle of a wealthy and fast-growing community. And since it was built in a field, the Galleria has lots of room to sprawl out.

The Downtown Plaza is in a neighborhood that is still trying to figure itself out. There are lofts and condos being built downtown, true, but the scale of population growth just doesn’t compare to the gangbusters suburbs. “We have limited land. You’re dealing with much more compact sites,” said Green. “It’s more complicated, and you have to be more surgical.”

Going through hell to get to heaven
After the surgery is over, however, you want a healthy patient. You even want to be able to “rock the city.” City Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy counts herself among those who are yet to be rocked.

Just how exciting is a Target store, she wonders, when you’re talking about what should be the crown jewel of regional retail? Who’s going to drive from the suburbs to buy six packs of socks, diapers and laundry detergent?

“We have a lot of Target stores in Natomas, on Broadway,” said Sheedy. “I just want them to remember that we are the center of this region. People will come from miles around to look for something different.”

And she worries that escaped shopping carts are going to wind up joining the tableaux on K Street. It was shopping carts and the overall feeling that Downtown Plaza was no place for discount retailers that killed an earlier proposal by Westfield to build a Wal-Mart into the space. If Sheedy were Mall Czar, she’d go in the opposite direction.

“First, I’d enclose it, because when it rains, you get wet. And no one wants to go downtown when it rains.” Then she’d go looking for more luxury tenants. “Nordstrom, the Gap, some of the children’s stores that are higher end.”

Midtown developer Kolokotronis agrees that Downtown Plaza lacks a regional draw.

“I moved here in 1985. In those days, the Downtown Plaza was the high-end retail in the region.” The Downtown Plaza boasted a Weinstocks, and an I. Magnin store. Before that, there were at least five or six major department stores downtown in the 1950s and ’60s. “But the day that Nordstrom went to Arden Fair Mall, that was the kiss of death for Downtown Plaza,” said Kolokotronis. He longs for the return of a Nordstrom, a Neiman Marcus, a Saks Fifth Avenue.

“Sometimes, you have to go through hell to get to heaven,” Kolokotronis explained. He thinks the mall ought to amp up its theater component, from the planned 11 screens to 18 or 20 screens. Then he thinks the city could spend $30 million, $40 million, “whatever it takes,” to land that special anchor store and do the mall up right.

Density or dynamite
“I think that’s pixie dust,” said Paco Underhill, author of the book Call of the Mall and president of a consulting firm called Envirosell. Underhill is a sort of connoisseur and critic of malls, and an expert on shopping behavior. Westfield, he’s quick to point out, is one of his clients.

Much of Downtown Plaza’s perimeter is dead space and imposing blank walls.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

“One of the realities of a Neiman Marcus is that they just don’t generate that much traffic. Those stores open on the habits of about 100 really wealthy women. A luxury merchant only needs four or five terrific customers to have a great day,” said Underhill. And Westfield’s Green complained that “Neiman Marcus serves an income level and a psycho-demographic that doesn’t exist in this area.”

Underhill said that rather than high-end department stores, cities need to emphasize the urban in their urban malls. “What I tell my clients is ‘density or dynamite.’”

“For an urban mall to succeed, it has to build density,” Underhill explained. Target and a grocery store are a step in the right direction, he maintained.

“But once you start talking about Target and a grocery store, why not start talking about residences?”

In other parts of the world, and more recently in the United States, shopping malls are being converted into what are essentially “vertical neighborhoods,” with housing, shopping, dining, car-free transportation options, and “great views.”

“There are a whole bunch of us who are aging and are kissing our homes in the suburbs goodbye,” he explained. And even not-so-aged folks might find living in a safe, car-free environment close to shopping pretty desirable.

According to the city’s Downtown Division Manager, Leslie Fritzsche, Westfield has toyed with the idea of building residential into its downtown plaza, and with the idea of building a small hotel onto its property—but neither of those elements are in their current plans. “Right now downtown residential is sort of an unproven market,” said Fritzsche.

If Westfield were to consider a housing component, the public price tag would surely go up. But it’s worth considering, according to Underhill.

“We’re talking about building four 20-story towers here. We’re not talking about building a stadium. ”

Local architect David Mogavero agreed that housing would be a welcome addition. “The key for downtown is really getting more people living down there. I think Downtown Plaza would benefit greatly from helping to facilitate that. I think the office piece on the north side of the mall would be a natural place to do something with housing in the future.”

But on a smaller budget, Mogavero said the most important thing Westfield can do is to increase the mall’s “transparency.”

“They need to open it up substantially more than it is now,” he explained. “And they really need to do some more ground-floor retails. They need the uses lining J Street and the numbered streets to be uses that have people coming and going, in and out.”

Fourteen years ago, the mall actually got more enclosed, less urban—as the collection of shops and department stores were consolidated into the great box that it is today. It’s not exactly an enclosed mall, but it’s not open, either. As it’s currently designed, the mall is all about what’s happening inside. The box doesn’t talk to the street, and the street doesn’t talk to the box. You can drive your car right into the mall’s underground parking lot, like an astronaut docking into the space station, and have no interaction at all with the outside neighborhood.

“It’s not really an enclosed mall, but it certainly could be more porous,” agreed Wong, the Westfield president.

As this story was being put together, Westfield was still fine-tuning its application to the city. But SN&R was able to review some of the drawings and some of the details of the proposal given to city planners.

Tentatively, the new plan includes extending 4th Street, now an uninviting cul de sac on the mall’s west end, through to connect J and L streets. Along the 4th, L and J streets sides, there would be new window displays and additional entrances into the building. A new restaurant on the ground floor at 4th and J would help snag more foot traffic into the building. According to city planners, Westfield also wants to “open up” its 7th Street side to K Street, using lighter, brighter colors and removing some of the “ornamentation and clutter” from the mall’s entrance. No word yet on whether the Hard Rock’s giant guitar will stay or go.

It’s not blowing up the mall. It’s not tearing the roof off, or turning the great box inside out, but “there’s going to be more openness, more connectivity to the surrounding streets of downtown,” Wong explained.

Westfield has proposed to put a new restaurant on the corner of J and 4th streets to lure in more foot traffic.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

The mall is dead. Long live the mall!
“I suspect there was a fundamental flaw in the mall from the very start, something that virtually guaranteed their growth cycle would last just a few decades,” Underhill writes in Call of the Mall. In the 1970-80s boom years, he reports, a new mall would open somewhere every few days. Today, “new ones succeed only by cannibalizing old ones.” Malls with great locations and wealthy customer bases do well. “Failures may go through two or three incarnations as malls, but then, inevitably, some other use comes along to ‘repurpose’ what would otherwise be a very large white elephant.”

Anybody remember the plan to put a new Kings arena in the mall?

One byproduct of the decline of the mall is a sort of nostalgia for them. There’s a popular Web site,, whose curators travel the country to bring readers “the stories and history behind the great era of store chains that defined retail.” The site features dozens of pictures and vignettes about shopping centers that have failed, been shuttered or just entered a sad old age. So far, Downtown Plaza’s not on DeadMalls’ radar.

A couple years ago, the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design sponsored a “Dead Malls competition,” where architects and urban planners from around the country tried to imagine new uses for dead and dying malls in their communities.

One contestant re-imagined the Cloverdale Mall in Toronto as a giant art mall, filled with galleries, a branch of the MoMA and “arts related services.” The dying Westfield Mall in Culver City was reborn as the “Geri-Mall” with housing, gardens, medical facilities and, of course, mall-walking for the booming elderly population. And a firm called the Central Office of Architecture in Los Angeles refigured the Hawthorne Mall as an intact mini-city. The bottom floor is populated by big-box stores, like Wal-Mart and Target. But other parts of the mall would include nightclubs and casinos, and still other space would be reserved for “wandering” uses and park-like spaces.

“The idea is to put more diversity in that single place,” said COA principal architect Eric Kahn. “Malls tend to be top down. It’s a command and control model. Malls, because they are artificial, tend to go through these cycles where they fail. That robustness just isn’t there.”

For example, Kahn said that the old town bazaar, on which malls are based, are much more adaptable over time. “If one part of the bazaar closes down, the rest of it doesn’t just die.” A mall that loses an anchor store is in a more precarious position, however.

The Dead Malls competition was just a theoretical exercise; these aren’t the kinds of ideas mall operators and developers are likely to snap up. “But you need to put the default scenario on the table and then play with it,” said Kahn.

For example, Deanna Marquardt with the Sacramento Urban Design Alliance said she’d like to see a residential component to the mall, but she’s also been thinking about the lack of schools downtown. “This has become kind of an obsession of mine,” Marquardt explained. “I don’t think we will have the kind of city we want until we have a generation of kids who live in a city and feel comfortable living in a city.” What better place, she said, for “a vertical school, a truly urban school.”

That may not be as esoteric as it at first sounds. Westfield’s San Francisco Centre, opened about a year ago, boasts its own branch of San Francisco State University.

The Westfield group talks about their property as if it were endlessly renewable. “We tend in our culture to think of retail real estate as being infinitely improvable,” Wong explained. And Westfield thinks of itself as “the more creative re-inventors or retail” around.

But are Westfield’s new plans for Downtown Plaza creative enough? Or do they amount to a multimillion dollar paint job?

“The question people in Sacramento should be asking,” said the Urban Land Institute’s Beyard, “is what’s different about these plans than the plans from before? What is different that is going to make this place sustainable?” Online retailing, specialty and big-box stores, and an overabundance of retail in general are all contributing to the decline of the mall, he explained. But troubled malls can be successfully remade, especially if they add the secret ingredient that’s missing in most older malls.

“The key to successful retailing is the public realm. The public realm is the new anchor,” said Beyard. He means it literally. Good, working public space is just as good as, even better than, a Nordstrom or a Gap.

“People like to be in touch with where they are,” said Beyard. “When you are in an enclosed mall in Sacramento, you could as easily be in Jacksonville.”

Underhill similarly said tenant mix is only a small part of the problem facing urban malls. “What does it take to make it a place, rather than just a shopping mall?” Underhill suggests we ask ourselves. “There has to be a space for making events. You want to be able to host a car show or a farmers market if we wanted to, to have a theater festival,” or, and this is perhaps too heretical, “Maybe even a place to incubate small independent businesses.”

Targets and grocery stores aren’t so bad, said Kahn. “I heard once that if you live within a mile of a Whole Foods, your property value goes up 10 percent.”

But then, thinking of food, he started playing with the idea, thinking bigger. “What if you had the whole roof as a sort of farm? Where people could go and pick their own fruit, and that could become sort of an event. It would become this new strange sort of public space. I know it sounds crazy.”

Or we could put a Target in there. Or we could blow it up.