What Main Street Can Learn From the Mall

A guided tour with a landscape architect and retailing specialist who believes that shopping malls -- vilify them though we might -- can offer moribund cities what they desperately need: practical lessons in the psychology of commerce

S hopping with Robert Gibbs is like being shown around a museum of retailing by an eccentric curator. He mutters frequently, counting under his breath and pointing vaguely at store windows. He expounds enthusiastically upon footcandles and price-point-to-aperture ratios. He is cast into gloom by what he calls internally illuminated signs.

Gibbs has the sort of occupation Anne Tyler might invent for a character in one of her novels. He is a retail consultant who travels the country telling towns and small cities how to survive and prosper by learning the lessons of the shopping mall. Trained as a landscape architect at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Gibbs worked for a dozen years as a retailing specialist in the service of strip-shopping-center and shopping-mall developers, studying, debating, and adjusting virtually everything that might affect a shopper's mood in the marketplace, from color schemes to the location of escalators. In a well-run mall, Gibbs says, even the benches are positioned so that the shopper at rest cannot help gazing at the wares offered in store windows. The overriding imperative is to lose no opportunity, no matter how small, to make a sale.

Gibbs walks down Clematis Street, the main shopping street in West Palm Beach, Florida, as if he were navigating a maze, seeming utterly distracted even as he searches intently for clues to the street's secrets. At forty he still has something of the smirking manner of the high school wise guy. But on Clematis Street he is all business.

Gibbs is impressed that most of the trash cans and newspaper vending machines have been painted the same dark green, a fashionable hue now used in many malls. Even a pair of two-by-fours supporting a tree have been painted. "A little detail you would expect in mall management," Gibbs says approvingly.

At the corner of Clematis and Dixie Highway, one of the main intersections in town, a new gym has opened, its large plate-glass windows displaying its clientele to passing pedestrians and motorists. The gym is what Gibbs calls a "generator": the traffic it draws will help attract related businesses, such as restaurants, fast-food outlets, perhaps a sporting-goods store, to the empty storefronts nearby.

The gym is also a brilliant piece of street theater, telling all who pass its windows that West Palm is young, hip, and attractive. It is not here by accident. Borrowing a page from shopping-mall management, the city's Downtown Development Authority and the City Center Partnership, an allied local nonprofit organization, have used loans and other incentives to manipulate the "tenant mix." They worked for four years to lure the gym to this important location. The DDA is a significant advantage to West Palm Beach, as is the energetic mayor, Nancy M. Graham. The city has attracted several plum projects in recent years, including a massive new county courthouse. In 1992 the city council approved a $12 million bond issue to renovate the downtown district. Other money was appropriated to convert Clematis from a one-way into a two-way street and to install new sidewalks, lights, and palm trees.

Half a block east of the gym, at 331 Clematis, Provident Jewelry & Loan offers more evidence of the city's ability to shape the street. A pawnshop that once lent a vaguely disreputable air to the neighborhood, Provident has been transformed with the aid of loans from the City Center Partnership. With a fresh coat of paint, a dapper awning, and a prim new sign that doesn't shout "pawnshop," it has become an upright citizen and an asset to Clematis Street. The Imperial Gallery, a frame shop, and The Last Resort, a Generation X clothing store, both opened up with loans and other help.

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Elsewhere on Clematis a large old building is being carved up into smaller stores. To lend their operations a bit of local flavor, well-managed malls often create tiny low-rent spaces called "incubators" and recruit local entrepreneurs to set up shop; some of them will thrive and open bigger stores. West Palm Beach is doing the same thing.

There are reasons to be hopeful about West Palm Beach, and about other towns and cities that are willing to borrow intelligently from the lessons of the mall. For the first time in decades strong trends in the national retail market seem to be working in their favor. A reaction is setting in against the monotony and homogeneity of the shopping mall. People are spending less time in malls--an average of only an hour and a half to two hours a month this year, according to one source, as compared with three and a half hours a month in 1990--and few new malls are being built. Only four new regional malls (800,000 square feet or larger) opened in the United States last year, as compared with twenty-seven in 1989.

Part of the explanation for this change is simply that suburban markets have become saturated, and part is that strip shopping centers, "big-box" retailers, and "power centers" that bring high-volume discounters together in one location are drawing customers away from the malls. But mall fatigue is a potent factor. In focus groups people tell Gibbs that they are tired of shopping in malls filled with the same stores that they can find everywhere else in the country. Many say they want to shop in downtowns, in quaint, one-of-a-kind stores. Gibbs does not have a monopoly on this intelligence. Retailers are already responding. Nordstrom has recently agreed to open a store in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. Even major discount retailers like Caldor and Kmart are feeling the lure of downtown markets. Kmart plans to open a store in Manhattan next year, in the historic Herald Square shopping district. "Signs of an urban boom can be found almost everywhere," the trade publication Shopping Centers Today reported last fall.

Gibbs came to West Palm Beach, a city of more than 70,000, two years ago, to work on a new master plan for the city with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the Miami-based pioneers of the New Urbanism. This small but influential movement among architects and urban planners proposes to revive nineteenth-century town-planning principles, using denser development and gridded street systems, among other things, as an antidote to suburban sprawl. Duany and Plater-Zyberk's greatest success so far has been the much-publicized new town of Seaside, a resort community in the Florida panhandle. But Gibbs's enthusiasm for the New Urbanist cause and for downtowns in general doesn't stop him from working for the occasional shopping-mall company that seeks his services. And his own office, with its small staff, is located not in a gritty city but in the genteel downtown of Birmingham, Michigan, an affluent Detroit suburb.

What Gibbs contributes to complex cooperative projects like the one in West Palm Beach is a commercial sensibility unlike anything possessed by the urban planners and architects who usually design downtown-renewal efforts. Addressing audiences of such specialists, Gibbs takes a puckish delight in shocking them with his views on conventional urban planning. He shows them slides of a generic "success" in street design and then points out, feature by feature, how the design actually hurts the town's businesses.

The shade trees and planter boxes? Lovely, he says, but they block shoppers' view of shop windows and signs. Those handsome groupings of benches and tables? They seem inviting until Gibbs points out that they often attract teenagers and other loiterers, who scare off shoppers. The elegant Victorian streetlamps, the expensive trash cans, and the distinctive granite paving stones--"so beautiful that people will stare at them as they walk by the storefronts," Gibbs says--are little more than money down the drain. Their costs must be amortized over many years, but long before they have been paid off (and before the town can afford to replace them) they will be old-fashioned, marking the entire street as out of date and out of step.

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