Rise of the Lifestyle Center
Mall Is Dead. Americans Shop at "Lifestyle
By Jeff Hardwick
Santana Row in San Jose, California
Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Joses
Santana Row covers 42 acres. Its dense, high-end
retailing, residences, restaurants and offices create a
city-within-a-city. The architecture - with urban row
houses finished with earth tones and pastel stucco -
overtly evokes Old Europe, and developers brought in
antique metalwork, pottery and stone fountains to further
instill a sense of history (one store even imported the
façade of a nineteenth-century building from France).
Meet the shopping malls hipper, new
urbanist cousin: the lifestyle center.
The form is becoming more and more popular among
developers and shoppers. But while lifestyle centers are
promoted as a 21st-century, community-oriented
alternative to the soulless shopping mall, their
purported Main Street authenticity is perhaps
a new style of retail façade.
A mall or not?
Lifestyle centers are defined by the International
Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) as a specialized
center that has upscale national-chain
specialty stores with dining and entertainment in an
outdoor setting. The ICSC further describes them as
a multi-purpose leisure-time destination, including
restaurants, entertainment, and design ambiance and
amenities such as fountains and street furniture that are
conducive to casual browsing.
Its a description that sounds an awfully lot like a
mall. But there are noticeable differences. Whereas a
mall is traditionally anchored by department stores
(Macys, Lord & Taylor, Sears), lifestyle
centers are anchored by large specialty stores (Pottery
Barn, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma) or movie
theaters. While a regional mall averages 800,000 square
feet in retail space, a lifestyle center is smaller -
The centers have been popping up in affluent suburbs
across the country for the last 15 years, and they are
often mixed-use developments, bringing apartments,
condos, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores -
even hotels - to the malls historically singular
The ICSC estimates that 412 lifestyle centers are open in
the United States today (which only comprises a little
under 2 percent of the total number of shopping centers).
By contrast, not one enclosed mall has opened since 2007.
Some malls, like the Biltmore Square Mall in Asheville,
NC have even taken the radical step of ripping off their
roofs to de-mall.
Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix, Arizona
Attention to detail
Michael Beyard of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) sees the
design of lifestyle centers as a shift from
wow architecture to the
architecture of comfort. According to Beyard,
developers are trading the malls soaring atrium or
the Mall of Americas roller-coasters for the
lifestyle centers attention to detail: cobblestone
sidewalks, cast-iron lighting, or Art Deco-inspired neon
At Market Common Clarendon in Arlington, Virginia -
completed in 2001 - the developers spent more on details
like signage, pavement, facades, plantings, fountains and
sidewalks. However, the price-tag for the extras came out
as a wash: The developers saved significant resources by
not having to build a malls roof.
The architecture at lifestyle centers is purposefully
eclectic, so as to feel
legitimate, explains Robert Koup of Jacobs
engineering. He says that developers either ask an
architect to respond to a certain period of architecture
or they use multiple architects on one project. For
instance, BAR architects of San Francisco, who worked on
two blocks of Santana Row, described their arcaded
loft and retail buildings
turn-of-the-century industrial structures - all
designed to recall historic shopping venues.
By incorporating elements from history into retail
projects, lifestyle centers are designed
specifically to make it look like it all evolved over
time, Koup continues.
The mix of buildings also provides a solution to another
criticism about malls: their homogeneity in both form and
retailing. Its an eclectic antidote to complaints
about the sterility and sameness of chain stores. Indeed,
as the lifestyle centers are dominated by chain stores
(like their mall brethren before them) the quirky styles
of the stores make them seem more unique, local, and
Its one of the lifestyle centers great conceits: It
wants to look like a towns perfectly preserved,
picturesque Main Street from yesteryear, but its
all being created from scratch. Of course, some might see
an irony in manufactured authenticity.
Market Common Clarendon in Arlington, Virgina
Victor Gruens vision fulfilled?
In many respects, lifestyle centers seek to fulfill the
ambitious ideas of 1950s shopping mall pioneer Victor
Gruen. Gruen, a Jewish architect from Vienna who
emigrated to Beverly Hills, promised that the shopping
mall would bring urbanity to the phony
respectability and genuine boredom of postwar
In the shopping center, Gruen saw a means to bring what
he termed community to soulless suburbs - a
place where people could gather, stroll and socialize.
His ideal mall would include community theaters,
libraries, daycare, bomb shelters (it was the Cold War,
after all), jazz concerts and art shows. By
affording opportunities for social life and recreation in
a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating
civic and educational facilities, Gruen argued in
his 1960 book Shopping Towns USA, shopping centers
can fill an existing void.
While its difficult to imagine now, when suburban
shopping malls first opened in the 1950s, contemporary
observers compared them to the best-known retail
experience of their time: downtown. In Gruens first
mall - the Southdale Center, completed in 1956 in the
suburbs of Minneapolis - most thought Gruen had succeeded
in bringing downtown to the suburbs. Southdale was
more like downtown than downtown itself,
claimed the Architectural Record.
The main appeals of the mall were its commercial density,
pedestrian spaces, cafes and artwork (faux as they may
seem now), which suggested an aura of urbanity for new
suburbanites who had just left the city.
With his Southdale Center, Gruen liked to brag that he
had re-created the ancient Greek Agora, the
Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares. But
while Gruen had imagined Southdale as a mixed-use complex
of offices, medical facilities and apartment buildings,
retail became the predominant focus of the suburban mall.
Many of Gruens less-profitable schemes ended up on
the cutting room floor.
Sitting in the middle of a sea of parking, Southdale
largely isolated itself from the surrounding community,
creating a giant island of retail. Even Gruen
acknowledged that all the trees and flowers, music,
fountains, sculpture and murals were all designed
with an eye towards increasing profits.
Or as he wrote, the environment should be so
attractive that customers will enjoy shopping trips.
This will result in cash registers ringing more
often and recording higher sales.
Nonetheless, Southdale was an immediate success: On its
first day of business, 75,000 visitors stopped in to view
the new phenomenon. The malls grand design proved
that suburbanites could be enticed to stay within a
climate-controlled, private space for hours upon hours of
shopping, and a new model of American retailing was born.
The Shops at Friendly Center in Greensboro, North
A different flavor of the same thing
For decades, the interior-focused, blank-faced suburban
malls - always surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking -
would become characteristic of the postwar retail model.
In the process, malls stole the market-share, tax
dollars, jobs and pizazz of traditional downtown shopping
But malls were eventually doomed by their own success:
The formula became too easy to replicate, and the design
became ubiquitous. With the same chain stores and
cookie-cutter designs, malls came to symbolize both
mind-numbing homogeneity and loss of community.
Suddenly people realized this mall formula is
everywhere and is getting boring, says Beyard.
Its also possible that the sheer size of many malls
overwhelmed shoppers. For instance, the 2.4 million
square foot King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania includes
over 400 stores; its anchored by Nordstrom,
Macys, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, Lord
& Taylor, JC Penney and Dicks Sporting Goods.
Lifestyle centers propose to remedy that mind-numbing
situation. However, Cooper Carry architect David Kitchens
is skeptical of their longevity.
They are a better, fresher mousetrap that will work
for awhile and then go away, he says.
Rather than making real connections with the surrounding
community, he thinks that many of themespecially
the ones devoted solely to retailing - are designed
to be a category killer that will suck the lifeblood out
of everything else.
Yet the shift from large malls to smaller lifestyle
centers is part of a larger story, Kitchens insists. He
sees lifestyle centers as tapping into Americans
emotional desire to rebuild their community.
As development gets larger and larger, he
continues, people now want to decentralize and
build personal feeling back into their lives.
Parading themselves as Main Streets from a bygone era,
these new retail centers hope to recreate what was lost
in the rush to cover America with large malls from the
1950s through the 1990s. Yet at their core, Gruens
ideal mall and the New Urbanists' lifestyle center share
the same aspiration: a thriving community center, yes -
but one that ultimately turns a tidy profit.
And whether we like it or not, suburban Americans have
been building community on a foundation of commercialism
for the last sixty years.
This article was
originally published on The Conversation.