Don’t Eulogize the Shopping Mall Yet. It’s Morphing Into Something Else

The advent of the Amazon giant and proliferation of logistics centers in Israel are welcome additions to a revolution-in-progress heralding new and expanded social, commercial and transport roles for existing complexes

Tel Aviv's Azrieli Mall, April 9, 2019.
Meged Gozani

Retail chains and malls are under pressure; mall shares are plummeting; the spread of logistics centers constitutes a real danger; shopping centers are dinosaurs on the verge of disappearing – this is a partial but representative selection of panicked reactions from industry executives to the advent of e-commerce giant Amazon on the Israeli shopping scene. Will the mall really become extinct like those primeval creatures? Will it be Amazon that will fulfill the dream of neo-urbanists who consider the mall to be the enemy of city life if not of all of mankind, and ultimately remove it from the stage?

The likely answer is yes and no. Yes – because the mall as bastion of consumerism may indeed begin to disappear from the landscape and from the lifestyle it inculcated, and shopping will withdraw to the private space between the consumer and his internet, thanks to Amazon and similar companies. No – because the dinosaur will turn out to be, and is already becoming, a phoenix that will rise from its ashes and has a long life ahead of it, even if not in its original format.

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Despite its image as a “big box” divorced from its surroundings, the mall is flexible and can be converted to new uses with relative ease. Many commercial centers in the country are located near or within cities or in industrial zones with a much more urban character than any new “city,” and they are already part of the urban fabric.

As far back as a decade ago, Elad Horn, then a student at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and today an architect and manager of the Built Heritage Research Center of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, spoke of the potential of malls in terms of renewal and urbanization.

Horn's vision for the post-Amazon mall
Elad Horn

The test case examined in Horn’s final project at Bezalel, entitled “Suicidal Malls,” was Hazahav Mall, part of “mall city” in Rishon Letzion West. It’s the only successful mall in the entire complex, having eaten into the business of its competitors in a process dubbed “cannibalization” in the professional jargon. In order for Hazahav Mall to justify its economic existence in the future, Horn suggested a number of possibilities: adding residential units above the commercial floors, converting the central space into a public park, or turning the complex into a public transportation hub, including a train station.

Sound like a fantasy? Not necessarily. In the United States, Horn’s ostensibly futuristic visions are already facts on the ground. In the country of origin of the modern shopping mall, these complexes died, closed up shop or were abandoned long before Amazon came on the scene, for various and sundry reasons. Their collapse not only caused many people to lose their livelihoods, but was also detrimental to local communities for whom the mall was a popular meeting place.

Online commerce and closure of giant chains like Macy’s, Sears and their ilk, former “anchors” of every American mall, have only accelerated the epidemic. However, this so-called retail apocalypse has also gave rise to unexpected means of resuscitation, under the slogan,“The mall is not dead. It’s only changing. Give it a minute to get organized properly.”

Many former U.S. malls have already moved on. The Westminster Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island, considered the first mall in the country, today houses residential loft properties, affordable homes and small businesses, and is a venue for film festivals and food fairs. The Cinderella City Mall complex in Englewood Colorado, near Denver, has morphed into a multipurpose urban center that includes a light-rail station, government offices, residential housing, a public library, local commercial ventures and an art museum. Other malls have become well-planned shelters for the homeless. And that’s not even in a nutshell.

On a return visit last week to Rishon West’s mall city, in the company of Horn, one could already discern the first signs of “organization,” albeit not yet a critical mass. The fall of the malls is only a first stage in a far more significant revolution being fomented in the built-up landscape by online commerce. The last word after malls is logistics centers – “and we are going to have to deal with them,” says architect Yehoshua Gutman, head of the Department of Interior Building and Environment Design at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, in Ramat Gan.

A logistics center is basically a warehouse: a building totally sealed off from the outside, which is operated automatically or by means of robots by one worker, or five at most. The Tempo center at the Poleg Interchange in Netanya is a prominent example. Amazon will build logistics centers wherever it so desires, and no mayor will turn it down, according to Gutman, who adds, “now we have to think about how to turn that into urbanism and integrate it into the urban fabric.”

At such critical moments, city planners “have to wake up and prepare for changes,” says Gutman, who anticipates a promising future. It will include the disappearance of the “mall experience” in its typical historical format and the start of a new era – not only in urban design terms but socially as well.

In general, he predicts, consumerism “will be replaced by leisure time activities, creativity and work. That doesn’t mean a textile plant in Dimona, but work on a smaller scale, and traditional handicrafts and livelihoods combined with advanced technologies. This will benefit mainly the peripheral areas in the country, because the wealthy central part of it has everything in any case.” After such processes take hold, Gutman notes, “we will once again become a productive and not only consumer-oriented society.”

I am reminded of something I wrote along this vein several years ago, in an article that ended with the words, “But just a moment. One more walk around the mall, and then we’ll go.”