The storefronts of a handful of surviving tenants are festooned with signs announcing special sales. Their neighbors are padlocked, windows papered over — the only advertising message is the name of the leasing broker. There are plenty of parking spaces and in the farthest corners of the lot, weeds peek through the cracks.

This is a dead mall. And there are hundreds of properties that could wind up in this sorry state — victims of competition from nearby fortress malls, the failure of regional department store chains, the loss of a national anchor and shifting demographics. Many of these endangered properties occupy an untenable middle ground — not big enough to attract the national credit tenants of the Class A malls and not convenient enough to compete with thriving grocery-anchored neighborhood centers. According to a 2001 study commissioned by PricewaterhouseCoopers, about 400 such regional malls in the United States could reach economic obsolescence by 2005.

What can be done with theses properties? The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design asked the architecture and urban planning communities to dream up new possibilities for dead and dying properties as well as for those they feel might just need improvement. The Dead Malls Competition was an exercise in planning and architecture, not a business-school case study. In fact, two of the projects that winning entries said should be razed and converted to other uses have been revived by their owners.

LA Forum Board Member and competition supervisor Warren Techentin explains that the nonprofit group initiated the program to start a debate about retail space, which he says many architects consider the most formulaic of design disciplines. He also hoped to find ways to bring more community activities into enclosed malls — an objective, he notes, of Victor Gruen, the father of the enclosed mall (see What Would Victor Gruen Say? page 90).

“These malls really do become a very important part of everyone's life, whether we like it or not,” says Techentin. “So it was very important to the LA Forum that these spaces begin to become ingrained into the community a little more than just purely retail.”

The competition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Like the LA Forum, Mark Robbins, who was NEA director of design at the start of the competition, was intrigued by the possibility of creating more community-oriented malls. “Elements of community life and other noncommercial uses are already beginning to infiltrate malls — post offices, daycare centers, even churches,” he says, “and that's something that can be built upon in a more concerted way by designers working in partnership with developers.”

In March, the LA Forum announced the five competition winners, whose designs are featured on the following pages. The winners suggest creating parks, mixing uses, running streets through the mall site or even creating a windmill farm to produce energy for the community.

Again, none of these ideas should be mistaken for actual business plans. For such radical projects to come to life, says Mark London, president and founder of mall consulting firm Mark London & Associates Inc. in Lake Bluff, Ill., “somebody has to be able to take the writedown in terms of property value. Another entrepreneur has to come along to buy it at that lower value and be able to invest in it at that lower basis.” For the original owner “to take that writedown and reinvest is almost a double-jeopardy kind of situation,” he says.

Indeed, London rarely advises clients to completely alter the function of the property. For most properties, an update of the format and retenanting works. “Hybridization is often the best response, and that usually will include some addition of big boxes,” (For more on demalling, please see The Art of Demalling on page 98).

On the other hand, failed malls have, indeed, been turned into office parks, even high schools. So, let your imagination run along with the winners of the Dead Mall Competition. There are some provocative — if not totally practical — ideas here.

The Dutchess is dead

“That mall was a dog from the start,” a county official told Christine Williams, Tobias Armborst, Daniel D'Oca and Georgeen Theodore, as they researched their project for the Dead Malls Competition. Despite an enviable location at the junction of Interstate-84, a major east-west thoroughfare, and Route 9, the main commercial strip paralleling the Hudson River in the rapidly developing exurbs of New York City, The Dutchess Mall in Fishkill, N.Y., never prospered.

Demographic and economic growth favored Poughkeepsie to the north, where the Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall is dominant. And, with highly productive strips just moments away, the Dutchess Mall fell to 50 percent occupancy in the early 1990s and the mall officially closed in 1998.

As early as 1999, a proposal called MetroCentre was floated that would have turned the Dutchess Mall into a mixed-use development, but financing was impossible without a major anchor tenant. None took the bait. Current owners, New York-based J.W. Mays and Hudson Properties, are biding time until the economic environment justifies major reconstruction, they say.

The four designers, teaming up under the name Interboro for the competition, envision a series of small changes that would alter the appearance and function of the Dutchess Mall. These, the team emphasizes, would not require a substantial investment so that the owners could make some interim improvements and still proceed with a grander remalling project, la the MetroCentre, down the road.

Moreover, team members say a radical transformation would disrupt the activity that now takes place at Dutchess. Three small tenants are still doing business. Driving tests take place in the empty parking lot, the Dutchess Flea Market occupies the abandoned Service Merchandise anchor on weekends and another portion of that anchor is home to a U.S. Postal Service remote processing center.

This winning scheme comprises two sets of changes. First is the creation of so-called hot boxes — freestanding structures built around the mall that serve as small offices for tenants that occupy interior space as well. Clusters of similar tenants (see page 112) could form the equivalent of business or cultural districts on the site.

Phase I would also include a nightclub on the mall's inline corridor. The port cochere of the abandoned Jamesway anchor store would be converted to a summer stage. The summer stage schedule would sync up with the periods in which the flea market takes place outdoors. In addition, a car wash could capitalize on the heavy traffic that comes to the site for driving exams, or bus and carpool pickups.

A second series of improvements would take a greater commitment. The old movie theater would become a daycare center, and an adjacent structure could house a fitness center. Around all of these clusters of activity, Interboro imagines that Dutchess Mall, through a series of baby steps, may become a viable commercial district again.

What Interboro's plan intentionally lacks is retail of the old-fashioned mall variety. Christine Williams says, “We felt the area was very well served by retail already, so the retail we do have builds on the little pieces we've observed,” Williams says. “We reuse the space at the mall to introduce some program the community needs.”

Meet me at the mall

Different strokes for different consumers. That sums up the guiding principle behind the winning design for the Hawthorne Mall, in Hawthorne, Calif. The winning team of Central Office of Architecture, a Los Angeles-based firm, with designers Heather Flood, Gavin Farley and Sameena Sitabkhan, studied the different types of consumers who might patronize the mall and then proceeded to envision spaces for each. These interior spaces would partially overlap so that the different groups could mingle.

The areas that came out of this exercise are crafted to four behavioral groups. “Big box cathedral” shoppers are middle-Americans who appreciate value retailers and architectural simplicity and “global vortex raving” is about jet-setting types who seek out entertainment and pleasure from the shops and spaces they occupy. “Elastic bazaar wandering,” refers to the fashion-conscious shoppers who roam the couture districts found in the world's greatest cities. And “smart mobs swarming” is for tech-savvy Generation Y.

The results are not like anything they've seen in Hawthorne, a middle-class suburb south of Los Angeles. In the “smart mobs swarming” model (pictured on page 114), for example, the team took its inspiration from the Japanese teenagers who mobbed the set of a Mariah Carey video. Central Office Principal Eric A. Kahn says that, although the event was not publicized, one high-tech teenager found out about the pop star's pending appearance. Her instant message led to an email, which led to a cell phone call, which led to a swarm of plugged-in teenagers crowding the sidewalk and begging for autographs.

In the “smart mobs” portion of the re-imagined Hawthorne Mall, the large, open space is a venue to allow for these kinds of events. Shopping is limited to trendy electronics and music stores.

By giving four very different types of consumer a district for shopping and gathering within the same mall space, Central Office of Architecture's proposal approximates a diverse city within a dense, enclosed building. But because swarming teenagers could come in contact with people shopping at the Costco (in the nearby “big-box cathederal gathering”), the competition participants hope the confluence of personalities and behaviors would foster social interaction as well as influencing tastes in how and what patrons buy.

Kahn says: “Culture innovates space and not the other way around. The fact that you have swarmers there making and innovating culture would somehow influence the other economies.”

Central Office's scheme will have to remain the stuff of “paper architecture,” however: The Charles Co. is converting the Hawthorne Mall, which closed in the mid-1990s, into a 900,000-square-foot mixed-use project. The former Montgomery Ward anchor, for example, has already become offices for 700 Los Angeles County employees.

Back to nature

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, marsh to marsh. That could be the theme of the winning design for the 22-year-old Vallejo Plaza, in Vallejo, Cal. The 20-acre site is located next to a wetlands remediation project, from which designers Stoner Meek took their cues. Their proposal would be to submerge much of the site to blend into the wetlands. Islands of commerce would be maintained for retail development.

When Stoner Meek, a young San Francisco-based architecture firm that includes Susannah Meek, Jill Stoner, Katherine Fauret, Dan Perez and student intern Heather Moore, first assayed the project, Vallejo Plaza was in sorry shape. The mall had lost anchor tenant SavMax — after a series of other disappointments. The freestanding Kmart across the street had already closed, as had the Mare Island Navy Base, a source of jobs for the community. And newer regional malls, located in communities closer to the freeway, drew tenants away.

So they came up with this plan (pictured on page 116): Convert Vallejo Plaza and the neighboring Kmart into a giant green space, a public area similar to the Mall in Washington, D.C. Surviving businesses would remain in buildings scattered across the site. The rest would be razed.

One problem of executing the scheme, though, is that Kmart and the mall owners would have to donate the land. And to pay for the expensive conversion, Stoner Meek proposes a subsidy from public funds. Private contributions would also be accepted. Additional capital could come from turning part of the dry land into profit-making areas, dubbed the Car Mall, the Wind Mall and the Muddy Mall.

The car mall would be made up of islands of car dealers — selling alternative-fuel vehicles to stay true to the environmentalist spirit of wetlands reclamation. Giant windmills would be spaced throughout the site to generate electricity for the city of Vallejo. And donations would be requested for visitors to the muddy swamp; the adjacent White Slough estuary is home to such endangered and threatened species as the Tundra Swan, Brown Pelican, Golden Eagle and Peregrine Falcon.

Proposing a new way to shop

Built in 1951, Valley Plaza predates the era of the enclosed mall. Its 15 buildings sprawl across five city blocks, or 47 acres, in North Hollywood. Despite the massive regional malls that sprung up just north of Valley Plaza in the booming San Fernando Valley, the old shopping center held on through the 1980s. But the Northridge earthquake in 1994 dealt a fatal blow. Anchor JC Penney's left shortly afterward, and the owners, according to the winning design team of Pierre De Angelis and Carmen Suero, couldn't reach a consensus on how to repair damage from the quake.

The architects wanted to keep retail as part of their redevelopment plan, but realized that traditional mall tenanting would not work. There would be no anchor stores, for example. They proposed demolishing the dumbbell-shaped enclosed mall and replacing it with a long, narrow building housing a series of five-by-five modules. Retailers could take one or more depending on how much space they want (see illustration, p.110).

Different sections of this mall would be devoted to different product types, such as pants, tops, electronics or cookware. Because the tenant modules are impermanent structures, different tenants and product sections can be reduced or increased in size, or replaced altogether, according to community needs and trends. De Angelis' and Suero's strategy also eliminates the need for permanent walls. The space that this “slim fit” mall saves goes instead to public amenities outside.

A park would surround the new Valley Plaza; the old mall had a park that had been pushed to the margins of the parking lot. Covered walkways, stands, street furniture, carts and kiosks for food and other merchants would also be outside. The goal throughout, says De Angelis: “a mix of both local and prestigious retailers taking part of a bazaar-like environment.”

A new lifestyle center

By the time that Elizabeth Meyer and Anne Rosenberg took on Westfield Shoppingtown Eagle Rock for the Dead Malls Competition, the 470,000-square-foot mall just north of Los Angeles in Eagle Rock, Calif., was already undergoing a transformation. In 2002, Target filled the former Montgomery Ward anchor, which comprises more than 25 percent of the center's square footage, and according to Westfield America, the U.S. arm of the Australian developer, the new addition boosted co-tenants' sales by 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2002.

Meyer and Rosenberg's ideas go a good bit farther than Westfield's, however. Their scheme rethinks the mall as an environment that, they say, responds better to “American living habits, spending patterns and shopping behaviors” by being more flexible and culturally-attuned than a double-loaded corridor of shops.

To do that, Meyer and Rosenberg relied on a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the moniker “lifestyle center.” They impose the local lifestyle — the suburban car culture — onto the new Eagle Rock mall, which will be at least partially underground (pictured above). Structures won't be any taller than the surrounding houses, and the curving suburban streets can weave through the site.

Just as De Angelis and Suero would create sections of Valley Plaza devoted to singular products, Meyer and Rosenberg would cordon off the new buildings according to consumer groups: ecologically conscious shoppers, sports adventurers, hip-hoppers, fashionistas and tech geeks, for example. By traveling to a different section of the mall, visitors would be able to immerse themselves in the merchandise and culture of a completely different American lifestyle.

The only permanent feature of Meyer's and Rosenberg's “Field Eagle Rock” would be its infrastructure. The clusters of products and cultures, dubbed “lifestyle parks,” can morph infinitely, changing in size and placement as market trends and demographics demand.

MAKING ROOM

Who needs walls anyway? Not North Hollywood's Valley Plaza, according to one of the winning design teams. They propose configuring the building so that it covers less of its existing site. With no department stores, or walls, to contend with, the new Valley Plaza would have a much slimmer footprint, and the excess space would be returned to the community as a market and park.

GOOD DEEDS

The proposed revival of the Dutchess Mall will calls for a number of small changes that would serve community needs. “Hot boxes” (above) would provide small businesses and local artists much needed affordable space, while a daycare center (right) would give kids a safe place to play.

POP CULTURE PLAYGROUND

Did you miss Madonna at the mall? A new plan for Hawthorne Mall insures that won't happen again. The futuristic space is appropriate for what these design winners call “smart mobs,” technology-savvy consumers of all things pop culture. In this part of the mall, this breed of shopper would be allowed to go bananas over the latest recording artist or movie star. And there would be plenty of terminals at which people can “ping,” or e-mail, their friends with updates on the action.

REUSE, RENEW, REMALL

A San Francisco-based architecture firm imagines bringing the beleaguered Vallejo Plaza back to nature. Literally. According to their plan for the shopping center, Vallejo Plaza would be selectively demolished and parts of the site then submerged as part of an estuary remediation plan. In that same environmentalist spirt, the site would then be used as a wind farm, park and electric car dealership.

MODERN-DAY BAZAAR

With a decreased footprint in place, Valley Plaza's outdoor marketplace would attract local merchants and food carts, just like the bazaars of yesteryear. But it would also be stylish enough to attract national names, so that there would be something for every price point and interest.

BURIED, AND ALIVE

One design team thinks Westfield should get into the lifestyle center business — their way. For Westfield Shoppingtown Eagle Rock, a proposed new building, mostly underground, would group tenants together according to the lifestyle they cater to. In this corner Martha Stewart, in that Carrie Bradshaw.