Suburban Nightmare: To go urban
Oh, the love for suburban shopping paradise, a consumer mecca that drained so many downtowns of their vibrancy with their air-conditioned interiors, polished floors, water fountains and department stores all in one convenient, drivable location.
Towne Mall was one such example, having been completed in 1977 on the outskirts of Middletown, Ohio adjacent to Interstate 75. The one-level mall opened with over 450,000 square feet with three anchors: Sears, Elder-Beerman and McAlpin’s, along with 50 tenants. Twenty years later, after having siphoned business away from downtown and causing City Centre Mall to languish in a hellish, barren state for years, Towne Mall was in a dire predicament. Vacancies were rising and the mall was aging, no longer relevant to a population that was willing to drive to Dayton or Cincinnati for something new, hip and exciting. By this point, indoor shopping centers, symbols of sterile experiences and homogenous merchandise, were starting to fall out of fashion. Outdoor lifestyle centers, or shopping centers that were glossed up without roofs, became a hot commodity.
In Columbus, Ohio, the indoor Northland Mall along Morse Road was abandoned in favor of the outdoor lifestyle center mecca Easton Towne Centre. In Dayton, the Dayton Mall was functionally replaced by The Greene, although the Dayton Mall has reinvented itself by adding an outdoor component in an effort to stay current with current shopping center trends. And in countless other cities across the United States, the idea of an outdoor component has literally become a “do or die” item. Reinvent yourself or fall victim to what is essentially a glorified downtown.
The difference between a lifestyle center and a traditional downtown, or one that is more mixed-use and varied, is that the lifestyle center caters to a very specific demographic and offers almost a singular function. It presents shopping and dining pleasures, but rarely do they contain residential properties above storefronts or within walking distances, or integrated office developments. It’s almost as if the lifestyle center acts as the indoor shopping center it functionally replaces.
Towne Mall faced that. In 2007, plans were floated to replace Towne Mall with a lifestyle center. The three anchors would be saved, but the remainder would be demolished and rebuilt with the preference on the outdoor. Storefronts facing an open concourse towards a surface lot, which was supposed to be better.
The county balked at the proposal. The owner of the mall, CBL & Associates, wanted tax incentives to complete the renovation, although the county replied that such incentives were simply not offered for retail-oriented projects because of their expected low return on investment. After all, retail jobs are typically minimum-wage and the buildings relatively inelastic, inexpensive and temporary – much like the indoor mall that was only 30 years old at the time.
In 2009, three alternatives to the proposal were offered, each adding a degree of urbanism to a suburban landscape. One called for more park space and a small lifestyle center while another featured density. Apartments, condominiums, office blocks and retail all facing the street in a traditional grid design, surrounded by park land and civic structures. The third offered retail and office space, along with multi-family housing in a suburban campus design.
It is humorous to think that these indoor fortresses, designed to be windowless to eliminate the illusion of passing time, built with simple steel framework but clad in thick brickwork, only last several decades before needing replacement. And it is too often that these replacements are the very things that the shopping centers once helped kill: urban, walkable environments.
Why not replace Towne Mall with a park and a lake, and reinvest in the quiet, empty downtown? It is cheaper and more cost effective!
You can view the rest of Towne Mall’s history and redevelopment proposal on the Towne Mall page, along with photographs. Enjoy!