Saturday, June 28, 2008
New Lowe’s at former Richardson Square Mall site signals decline of indoor malls
Richardson Square Mall flourished when it was first built, but outdoor malls such as Firewheel Town Center have come into favor in recent years.
RICHARDSON On Thursday, June 26, Lowe’s Home Improvement held the grand opening of its new store on the site of the former Richardson Square Mall. The neighborhood and Richardson leaders welcomed the opening wholeheartedly. A single retail opening might not usually be a tremendous occasion but this one marked the final chapter of Richardson Square Mall moving into the dustbin of memory. It is not only the story of one retail location but it is also a microcosm of the entire saga of the indoor American shopping mall.
Richardson Square Mall, located at the corner of Belt Line and Plano Road, was opened in 1977 during Richardson’s growth period as a leading suburb of Dallas. Many of the homes immediately surrounding the area were built around the same period and location was a short distance from Berkner High School. Richardson was ripe for an indoor shopping mall because of the old saying in retail development “retail follows rooftops.” Richardson was putting rooftops up and they were being filled with families that needed local shopping.
Richardson Square Mall boasted the usual trappings of a suburban shopping mall: movie theater, video arcade, food court, and all of it anchored by two large retailers Sears and Montgomery Ward. Joske’s and Dillard’s would soon follow. On its back, retail around the area flourished accordingly including supermarkets on two other corners. Even the opening of Collin Creek Mall in Plano in 1981 did not really slow it down. (This writer must admit that he zapped endless numbers of Space Invaders there, after traveling to the mall from across the universe on his bicycle. All of that was punctuated by a slice of pizza or two at the food court, of course.)
The area eventually succumbed to the typical fickleness of American retail trends as well as the demographic trends of the area. Local families grew up and nearby homes gradually became homes of empty nesters. As is typical of American demographics, many newer affluent families started having fewer children. That and the emergence of newer discount retail operations like Wal-Mart and category specific outlets like Best Buy and Toys R Us spelled doom for the likes of Richardson Square Mall.
Americans have a great fascination with simulating other places. From apartment complexes named after far away places, or Las Vegas showcasing resorts modeling New York and Paris, or even houses in Dallas that are alleged to be reasonably authentic Tudor style homes, Americans are as much simulators as innovators. The American shopping mall is no different.
The invention of the American enclosed shopping mall is credited to Austrian-American architect Victor Gruen. He designed the first fully enclosed shopping mall in Edina, Minnesota in 1956: Southdale Mall. He intended for the mall to be a microcosm of European compact urbanism and contain not just retail but other usual urban trappings such as apartment housing, schools, and parks. However, those were not added and the American shopping mall became an automobile centered retail destination alone with smatterings of entertainment and restaurants. An article in Architectural Record proclaimed Southdale Mall to be “more like downtown than downtown itself.”
Gruen brought about not only an attempt to simulate Europe but America itself: downtown shopping without the negative inner city experience of downtown. However, instead of the eclectic social mixing of a cosmopolitan urban center he created an architectural and commercial phenomenon where suburbanites could insulate themselves from the “undesirables” of downtowns. Malls came to represent one facet of so-called “white flight.” Gruen’s invention did not bring about the social atmosphere he had envisioned.
Richardson Square Mall was no different. It flourished when Richardson was primarily a white affluent suburb. Now upscale retail takes different forms including “walkable” urban shopping found in places like the West Village in Dallas or Firewheel Town Center in Garland.
Former Mayor Gary Slagel who was mayor when Barnes and Noble moved in and when Firewheel opened told us, “We knew that the location of the mall was no longer consistent with current high volume retail which is along major thoroughfares. As a result, when Simon announced Firewheel, we felt that the use of the property would change.”
And change it did.
Several retailers including Barnes and Noble, Old Navy and Dillard’s relocated to Firewheel. This effectively killed Richardson Square.
Slagel told us how he felt at that time: “I was disappointed that the inevitable had happened.”
Firewheel, however, follows in the footsteps of simulation once again. It contains the same sort of retailers one would expect in today’s mall environment but the shops are located on faux streetscapes accessible from the outside. It is still automobile centric requiring one to drive and park in a vast concrete sea of parking. Upon visiting Firewheel for the first time two things struck me. First, was that if I stood at the edge of the parking at the point where the retail shops began and faced the parking, it looked exactly like it would if I was standing with my back to the typical indoor shopping mall. The second was that the faux streetscape was yet another attempt at simulation but simply without the enclosed air conditioning. Outdoor Bose speakers played tame pop songs including some “classic rock” from the 1960s. The irony is that these now tame 1960s relics emerged from a subculture that was rebelling against American middle class excesses. Now these songs were used to enhance the very consumer culture they were meant to criticize. Another irony: The major electronic retailer has an exterior façade that resembles an old downtown movie theatre wherein one can purchase home theater equipment that effectively replaces most of the need for a real movie theater. Simulation upon simulation. Irony upon Irony.
The indoor shopping mall is now so far out of favor that not one will be built in the entire United States during all of 2008 and only three have been built since 2005.
Now enter Lowe’s. The transformation from enclosed mall to retail space for Lowe’s Sears, Super Target, and Ross is typical of transformation of American shopping malls and it is a welcomed one.
The grand opening of Lowe’s is greatly welcomed by those around it.
“We are thrilled to welcome Lowe’s as part of the exciting redevelopment taking place at Richardson Square Mall, which has been a fixture in our community for many years,” said Richardson Mayor Steve Mitchell. “The arrival of this high-profile retailer is further proof that the City’s collaboration with developers and businesses results in Richardson’s continued growth, evolution and prosperity.”
Operations Manager Justin Baker thinks the future looks bright also. “We feel very fortunate to have established this location,” he said. “The local community from the neighborhood to business leaders have been welcoming. The turnout has been great.”
One person close to the situation spoke to us and told us that the new store appeared to be exceeding sales of the McKinney location that is apparently a top performer in the chain.
Slagel said, “I like the retooling. There is a nice mix of quality retail now in place
that will better serve those who live in our community.”
Council member and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Townsend whose council district covers the location stated, “This is a great asset to all of Richardson. We think it will further encourage other retail like restaurants in the area.”
Let’s hope so. Welcome Lowe’s and rest in peace Richardson Square Mall. You served us well.
Pegasus News Content partner - Richardson Echo
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