The Slow Death of the Shopping Plaza

By Addison Del Mastro

I have written previously about some pleasant and nostalgic aspects of suburbia. Putting aside questions of wise land-use planning, much of what remains from our mid-century suburbs is harmless. The buildings are quirky, often include kitschy salutes to their particular locales, and are built at a human scale. That sort of architecture is long gone, but suburbia is still with us, though with much less of the charm.

Case in point, the Sully Place Shopping Center in Chantilly, Virginia. This strip mall is built along a major intersection on Route 50—known to locals as the endangered Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway (the name, of course, is endangered—not, unfortunately, the highway). Across the street is a collection of car dealers and an apartment complex called “The Fields of Chantilly.” On the other side, Sully Place butts up against a cul-de-sac neighborhood of mostly identical homes. The plaza is quite large and oddly designed; an American farmer from the days of the Founding would easily mistake it for an alien structure.

The anchor stores in the plaza are currently occupied, and there is none of the loitering or petty crime that tends to hasten the deaths of these places; this is no dead or dying mall. Yet the accompanying strips of smaller shops in between the anchors are one-third vacant. Of about 40 small storefronts, 13 are currently sitting empty (the number of vacancies has actually ticked up in the last several years). One or two stores that are occupied are “marginal” businesses, like the closeout warehouse stocked mostly with returned electronics and smashed cereal boxes. This is in one of the richest parts of one of the richest counties in the nation—the households within five miles of the mall sport a median household income of $110,000—during a supposedly thriving economy. That suggests that the high watermark of the massive shopping plaza is probably behind us, though whether greater blame belongs to e-commerce or to the defects of the sprawl model of development is up for debate. In any case, one wonders what the original builders were thinking in 1991 when the plaza was built.

Three consecutive vacant storefronts in Sully Place. Credit: Addison Del Mastro

One of the anchors, inhabiting what used to be an unusually large K-Mart, is a massive home decoration store, with the distinctly uninspiring name At Home. Imagine dozens of aisles of garden gnomes, welcome mats, rugs, brass urns, and hundreds of other tchotchkes and trinkets. Then imagine, if you will, the tens of thousands of similar stores across the country, filled to the brim with the same junk, accounting for most of what is left of brick-and-mortar retail. As James Howard Kunstler puts it, wave your flag over that.

Where could all of this have possibly come from? The answer is not dynamic, value-generating “capitalism.” It is rather that this endless array of stuff is the home-décor equivalent of junk food. Anyone who studies American food and eating habits knows that most of what occupies the …read more

Via:: American Conservative


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