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Transforming malls into lively downtowns

by Jay Walljasper - July 31, 2008

Taking a quick glance across the American landscape, it appears we are ill prepared for a future defined by rising energy costs and the urgent need to contain global warming. 

Our communities have been built entirely around the automobile, with little thought given to how people could walk, bike or take the bus from place to place. This is true not only in suburbs and small towns, but even in most cities, where over the course of the 20th century, traffic-clogged streets and strip malls replaced trolley lines and corner stores.

But don't despair. Americans are enterprising people, always ready to roll up their sleeves and tackle the problems ahead. It's the same can-do spirit that enabled us to accommodate throngs of cars and trucks in old towns that will also serve us in remaking our communities for the 21st century.

Indeed, that's already happening in places that once stood as the symbol of our auto-oriented society: shopping malls. Nineteen percent of the country's 2,000 largest regional malls are failing, according to OnEarth magazine, with many soon to join the list of obituaries at DeadMalls.com.

Empty malls provide a grand opportunity to showcase how low-density, car-dependent suburbia can be transformed into the kind of environmentally responsible communities we now need.

In suburban Lakewood, Colorado, the Villa Italia mall--the biggest west of Chicago when it opened in 1966--is being transformed into Belmar: a lively, tight-knit neighborhood that will have 1,300 apartments, town houses, single-family homes; nine acres of parks mixed in with shops and a busy train station. It's become the downtown of Lakewood, which never before had one--even though it's the fourth largest city in Colorado.

The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which operates 38 malls across the Eastern U.S., announced this past March that it will retrofit its properties into mixed-used centers along the lines of Belmar. Their plans include adding new housing above the stores, opening up comfortable pedestrian connections to the surrounding neighborhoods and positioning their developments as town centers for the local community, according to New Urban News.