Meet Me by the Fountain

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Felix Salmon: Hello. Welcome to the Meet Me by the Fountain episode of Sleep Money, Your guide to what is normally the business and finance News of the Week. But this week is the business and finance news of shopping malls. We are devoting this entire episode to shopping malls, which are the best subject. It’s not just me. Felix Salmon of Axios and Emily Peck of Axios. Hello, Hello and Elizabeth Spiers. But we actually have an expert on Alexandra Lange. Welcome. Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what is this book that you have written?

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Speaker 2: I am an architecture and design critic and I have written a book about the history and the future of the shopping mall.

Felix Salmon: It’s a great book and we are going to talk about that on the show. We’re going to talk about The Gruen Transfer. We’re going to talk about entertainment. We’re going to talk about whether malls are dead, whether online shopping has killed things. We’re going to talk about the human need for proximity.

Emily Peck: And Felix will share a very special mall memory. Oh, yeah.

Felix Salmon: You get after after I do my standard like love a manhattan. I, you know, live in a bubble. I rolling thing about like, I hate all the malls. I will actually at the very end of this show, get dragged out of me. The one lovely moment of shopping mall joy that I remember very fondly. It’s all coming up on Slate Money.

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Emily Peck: Maybe you could start off by telling us sort of why you thought we needed to have a book about shopping malls, because I know for a long time they’re kind of looked down at by the architectural community.

Speaker 2: Yeah, well, the first thing is the last big book on shopping malls was published in the eighties. It’s called the Mall of America. And it was actually pretty popular at the time. And it’s a fun read. So I think any time you’re looking for a non-fiction book subject and you realize the last book was written 30 years ago, that’s generally like a good place to be. But more than that, I just felt like after about 30 years, things become historic and that’s when they become interesting. And a lot of the last great wave of mall building is about 30 years old now. And it seemed like it was time to take a closer look at this architecture, this experience, this place that was so meaningful to me as a child of the eighties and I thought was meaningful to a lot of other people, too.

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Felix Salmon: So one of the things I really love about this is that you are an architecture critic. You think a lot about the architecture and. When most of us, myself included, think about architecture. The first thing we think about nearly always is what does a building look like from the outside and the the renovations and the windows and the, you know, the way it sits on the street and all of this stuff that just doesn’t apply to shopping malls, the vast majority of which basically just look like a massive beige box from the outside.

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Speaker 2: Yes. And that’s the answer to why, which I’m sure was. Your question is that the developers of Mall quickly found out that making the outside of their boxes interesting did not pay. There was absolutely no financial reason to do an interesting outside. So they just slapped a big department store logo on the outside and they put all their money inside to the beautiful fountains and atriums and glass roofs and the rest of it that we know and love.

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Felix Salmon: That was actually one question that I had in the back of my head was, Wasn’t there a famous book by Robert Venturi and Denise to Brown, where they talk about decorated sheds and how like a bunch of like quite cheap but bright and pretty decoration on the outside of a beige box is like this deeply American thing that drives people in. Does that is does that not apply to shopping malls? Somehow?

Speaker 2: That does not apply to shopping malls. I mean, Venturi and Scott Brown designed a bunch of really amazing decorated sheds for best products company, which was basically the target of its era. And one of my favorites had a big wallpaper pattern all across the outside. And indeed, like you can decorate a box on the cheap, but that did not apply to malls in the sense that it just was not necessary and nobody was really asking for it either.

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Speaker 2: If you look at photographs of malls, what you actually see in the foreground is a lot of cars and the the boxes really recede. So there isn’t really so much of a moment where you’re just looking at a mall in isolation without the cars as this purely architectural object. And if you are having that moment, you’re quickly hustling inside and then you’re seeing the good parts. So it’s it’s just a really different architectural experience than something that’s on the street of a city or something that has to attract attention on a roadside, you know, like the original McDonald’s or like, what are burgers, which are in those great A-frame shacks, The mall, you know, you’re going to the mall. It has already attracted you. Maybe there is a large sign slightly closer to the highway, but it really doesn’t need that kerbside appeal.

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Felix Salmon: And weirdly, what you get is sort of faux. Architecture on the inside. I can kind of imagine a quarterback, not an actual quarterback, but some kind of a franchise on the inside or, you know, a restaurant with its only roof, which doesn’t protect you from anything because the wall itself has a roof, but they recreate smaller scale architecture within the larger scale architecture to sort of make you feel like a point of something you’re familiar with, I guess.

Speaker 2: Yeah, well, the best design balls are really a container for all of these brands. So the mall architecture itself, even on the inside, tends to assert itself in the atrium and maybe a little bit in the food court. But the rest of it is meant to be a pretty bland container that then different brands can pop in and out of because, yeah, they’re going to have their own mini architecture and that’s because, you know, the mall in essence is recreating a downtown street or a main street, which again has a kind of recessive basic architecture with glass show windows that you don’t really pay attention to when there’s something much brighter and more attractive in the windows or in the signage on the storefronts.

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Emily Peck: One part of your book, you sort of go into detail on how the mall owners have a lot of say over each of those individual brand spaces, like telling stores what kind of flooring they can use and how their spaces can be designed and all that. Can you talk about how much control the mall owners have over like the look and feel of the stores in the mall?

Speaker 2: That part was a tour that I got with Nancy Nasher, the longtime family owner of North Park in Dallas. And that is a very high end mall. And they have especially strict standards like they don’t allow you to put a sandwich board outside your store. They don’t allow your signage to overlap. The architecture of the kind of tablature around the entrance to the boutique at all. But a lot of other malls are a little bit more or less fair about it.

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Speaker 2: But indeed, the owner of the mall can say you can’t have, you know, plastic decorations out outside your store. You can’t put up Christmas decorations until one week after Thanksgiving. You can’t have a sandwich board. You can’t have, you know, half naked models standing outside and spraying people with perfume. All of this is within the purview of the lease agreement with the mall owners. And so different brands know going in and kind of what they can get away with and what they cannot get away with.

Felix Salmon: So that kind of implies that you don’t have perfectly aligned incentives between the store owners and the mall owners that, you know, left to their own devices. The store owners who are presumably trying to maximize profits would do one thing. And the mall owners who are also trying to maximize profits would do another thing. So where does that disconnect come from, given that the mall owners, you know, ultimately make money when the store owners make money?

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Speaker 2: Well, I think it’s really ultimately about cacophony. And if you have every brand in your mall that has 200 stores doing the most, it’s really going to be too much. Nobody’s going to be able to see anything. So I think what the mall owners are trying to do is give each brand the space to showcase itself, but then not compete so much either visually or only in terms of sense, even with the stores that are adjacent to it. So it’s really trying to achieve this balance where everyone can establish their own identity but not be yelling over each other.

Speaker 4: And you’re in the beginning of the book, you talk a lot about these early malls where they’re all very innovative. And, you know, there’s a lot of design considerations that go into them. And the owners seem to North Park is a good example of it. They seem to conceive of the model as a kind of grand social experiment. So each of them are designed in very unique ways. The owners think a lot about how the model approximates the public square and so on. My impression as also a child of the eighties is that at some point models just became very cookie cutter. You know, they all kind of looked the same. They had similar design. Food Court What was the inflection point there?

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Speaker 2: The inflection point is really in the 1990s where models started to be bundled together in to these real estate investment trusts and you start having a lot fewer, you know, kind of owners of ten malls in a geographical area, you know, owners of 20 malls across the Midwest. And you start to get a company like Simon, which now owns 100 malls all across the US, and they have a certain amount of kind of regularity that they want across their models. They don’t have the kind of fine grained understanding of exactly what that community is and what it might want that those family oriented model companies used to have.

Emily Peck: When you’re talking about family oriented, it reminded me that I wanted to have you tell listeners a bit more about kind of the origins of the Mall, how it sort of the mall kind of grew hand-in-hand out of the suburbs in the United States and is really in the early days, I think developers were thinking of it as a place mostly for white housewives with with children. Right. I mean, can you talk more about that for listeners? Because I thought that was just really hadn’t thought about it quite like that before.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And that was actually something that was kind of a revelation to me when I was doing my research. Like, I knew the history of the American suburbs, but I hadn’t really thought about what role the mall played in the development of those suburbs. And so, you know, in the post-war era, it’s 1945. The soldiers are coming home from the war and the government is investing in a lot of big projects. And the two things they’re mainly investing in is the building of the interstate highway system, and then they’re also subsidizing mortgages. So a lot of the soldiers coming home, though, primarily the white soldiers could get low interest mortgages and buy new houses in the suburbs. So the government is paying for the roads and the houses, but they aren’t paying for a space in between those two things. They aren’t paying for a communal space for people who well, women and children who are at home during the day to come out of those houses and gather. And so that’s where the mall comes in.

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Speaker 2: And I think that’s really the brilliance of Victor grew in the father of the shopping mall who designed the first indoor shopping mall in a diner in Minnesota, Southdale, which opened in 1956. And he really saw it as this community space where mothers would come during the day with their children and eat at the so-called Sidewalk Café and play on the carousel and kind of, you know, be together.

Felix Salmon: So we’ve mentioned Victor Graham. We need to talk about the GRU and transfer, which is this, which is like the most American thing in the world. There’s nothing more American than the growing transfer. And not being an American. I don’t I’m not sure I entirely understand it, but explain it to me. Is it basically the idea the shopping stops becoming something you need to do and starts becoming like an entertainment thing?

Speaker 2: It’s less about entertainment, though, that that comes in later actually with John Gertie and the eighties ball and you know putting a roller coaster in the middle. It’s more about shopping changing from being a task into a pleasure or you’re at the mall and you have your list of errands, but you find that you’ve kind of forgotten about the list and you’re just browsing. So it’s a moment where your mind kind of takes, takes leave of your rational economic self and you’re just wandering around the mall for the pleasure of it.

Emily Peck: Yeah, it’s, you know, you go shopping for shoes, but you come home and you have a new shirt, a new hat, you’ve bought lunch and an ice cream or a big price.

Felix Salmon: Looking at me like I’m meant to relate to, you.

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Emily Peck: Know, You know this. Yeah, but then you’re like, Wait, I forgot the shoes.

Speaker 2: And it’s even nicer when you’re with a friend. I just get that’s a really important part of this whole story is our human need for things to do with our friends and a place to do them in the combination of kind of wandering and, yes, getting some things done, but also chatting. That’s just something we all want to do. And that’s part of the reason I think that we will go back to the mall because I don’t see humanity changing that much.

Felix Salmon: And it’s not it’s not just friends. I think this is one of the things that really struck me in your book. It’s also strangers or neighbors that you don’t necessarily know their names for. You might recognize their face if you’ve seen them often enough that in thousands of years of humanity, if you look at the way that cities developed, there was always some kind of Zocalo. There was some kind of public square in the middle, and there was always a natural inclination of the inhabitants of those cities to gather in the squares, in those parks, in those public spaces, to see and be seen and to, you know, engage in the social animal ness that we are.

Felix Salmon: And that natural inclination had no natural outlet in the suburbs. There were no such squares in the suburbs and the mall just perfectly filled that need or maybe it didn’t perfectly fill that need, but it was the capitalist answer to filling that need. It was a way to make money out of feeling that.

Speaker 2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s exactly right. And I have to say that a lot of the other mall history books that I read in the first chapter, they would talk about the Agora in ancient Athens as being the template for the mall. And honestly, that just kind of made me roll my eyes, like, why do we always have to have free things able to make ourselves feel better? So I didn’t put that in my book. But what you just described is, is basically that. So maybe I should have. But it’s also important that Victor Gruen was a Viennese immigrant. He was Jewish. He fled the Nazis and came to New York in 1938. So his model was the charming sidewalk cafes of Vienna that he had grown up with. So this sort of more ancient model of the European small scale city that has a lot of street life.

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Felix Salmon: If only he brought the Soviet auto with him at the same time, America would be so much better.

Speaker 4: We were all talking about the book before we went on the podcast, and Felix mentioned that when he heard you talk about the book before, people just invariably launch into their own memories of malls when they were teenagers. And, you know, we’re all Gen-Xers. And so I think the Mall was a very formative experience for us. And you have this really fun chapter in your book where you talk a lot about the pop culture significance of the mall and the store, where the idea of the ball, you know, fits into the experiences of Gen-Xers growing up because it was a place you went when you were a teenager.

Felix Salmon: Yeah, and this is one of the great themes running through the book is the Mall as a place for teens. Again, the teens had nowhere else to go, so they kind of adopted it as their own. And the mall owners have this fascinating relationship with the teens where they kind of want them to come in and spend, but they don’t want them to be teens.

Speaker 2: Yeah, it was really fascinating to go back through a lot of those kind of movies that embody teen culture in the in the nineties and 2000, Clueless being my favorite. And just take a closer look at the mall scenes and where in the mall those scenes are set and how the mall is being used. In the chapter on Teens. I talk a lot about the atrium because that really is the place to see. And be seen. And in fact, if you then look at the history of teen stars who did these mall tours, they were all doing their tours in the atrium. So it was kind of amping up what was already a teen pattern of clustering around the edges and watching people going up and down on the escalators and, you know, commenting on their outfits and that whole thing. And you see that played out in the teen movies.

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Speaker 2: I think it’s really interesting. I was you know, I really like the more recent teen movie to all the boys I’ve loved before. And that movie has no mall scene. And I just it’s like, why doesn’t have a mall, see? And it’s very I feel like it’s very Pinterest because all the design emphasis is on Laura Jean’s bedroom. So it’s definitely a sign of the times. But I feel like that movie is a little bit calling out for a mall scene.

Emily Peck: Yeah, well, then you wonder. I mean, malls don’t seem as relevant now as they did when we were growing up, Partly because you don’t need to go anywhere now. Right. You can just go on TikTok or Instagram. You can text or face time your friend all day. You don’t need to actually meet up at the mall.

Speaker 4: Yeah, the town square is online now. If you’re a teenager.

Felix Salmon: I don’t agree, but I want to know what Alexandra says.

Speaker 2: I’ve written a lot about teens and their online behavior, and I’ve talked to people who study it, and they say that teens are online, but often they’re online and together at the same time, like they’ll go to the mall and be sitting in the food court and be looking at tiktoks together, or they’ll be texting their friend that couldn’t come out with them so that they’re kind of part of the conversation so that it’s not necessarily a one or the other thing.

Speaker 2: I would also say that, you know, my niece and nephew are growing up in Durham, North Carolina, which is where I grew up, and my niece is 15. And pre-pandemic she would go with her friends to the shops at South Point, which is the kind of fancy new mall that was did not exist when I was a kid and wander around in just the same way that I used to wander around South Square Mile, which it kind of cannibalized and replaced. So I think that there are definitely differences now, but I think that teens are still seeking, you know, in-person hanging out.

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Felix Salmon: So I want to know when you when you talk about the fancy new mall cannibalizing the old one, what is it about the new mall that makes it fancier than the old one or more desirable? Or why would people go to that one rather than the one you grew up in?

Speaker 2: Well, it has a Nordstrom and it has a Williams-Sonoma. So first of all, it just has higher end stores. And the other thing was it was built, I think, in 2000, and it is what’s called a lifestyle center, which is actually partially indoor, partially outdoor mall. But basically it has an uncovered, quote unquote, street running down the center of it. And many of the stores open off that outdoor sort of pedestrian street rather than being under cover. And that’s partially made possible by the fact that there is a pretty temperate location. There have always been a lot more of those types of outdoor malls in California and Arizona, for example. But that was definitely a mini trend in the early 2000 to replace what we’re seeing as the kind of old, elephantine, enclosed malls with these indoor outdoor spaces.

Emily Peck: And they don’t call them malls, right?

Speaker 2: You have no they’ve called them sales centers. Yeah, they’re always trying to. I mean, the powers that be of mall dumb are always trying to change the language. So it seems like they’re providing something new. But I really think that the lifestyle centers are just an indoor mall with the roof taking off and sometimes some kind of architectural nods to wherever it is. So, you know, in Connecticut, some of the outdoor stores will have a white painted pediment like it was the town hall and some colonial town. And I mean, there’s just kind of very silly vestigial architectural features that kind of tell you where you are.

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Felix Salmon: I have this feeling the outlet malls are nearly always outdoors. Is that right?

Speaker 2: That is correct. And I actually decided not to talk about outlet malls in the book because they are quite a different business model and have a different story.

Felix Salmon: Is there a reason that all outdoors it’s less.

Speaker 2: Expensive and I believe the individual brands own their individual outlet location.

Felix Salmon: Oh, totally different business. No one owns the mall.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I mean, I would want to check that because as I said, I’m not an expert, but that is why I didn’t include those. Another thing that someone else brought up is airport malls, which are actually organized by many of the same entities as off airport malls. But again, I still like to talk about the rise of airport malls involved, talking about a bunch of airport history. And that was just going to take me too far off the path.

Felix Salmon: People like airports when they bring in a bunch of new shiny retail, you know, like people like, Oh my God, have you been to the new LaGuardia? It’s got like shops and and there’s a water feature in the middle of it. And doesn’t that like in and of itself make it a better airport like it does somehow there’s the the shopping improves the experience even if you don’t go into any of the shops.

Speaker 4: So they airports are now basically malls with a side business and air travel.

Speaker 2: Yeah I think that is again the through and transfer at work that suddenly you’re not heating your layover in that airport as much because you have things to look at.

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Felix Salmon: And so we should since we’ve mentioned the growing trends that you should mention as well what the the gen the transfer is.

Speaker 2: Journey.

Felix Salmon: The journey, the journey transfer.

Speaker 2: The journey transfer. So John Journey was California architect who comes in the in the eighties and is like okay this grew in model of shopping is kind of getting old and tired. We need to take it up about 25 notches. Now, the mall is not about shopping, but it’s about entertainment. And I’m going to put an entire theme park in the middle of my mall. And that mall is the Mall of America.

Felix Salmon: And that was then copied across. He then we built that in various different forms in various different states with various different like very explicit entertainment options in it where people would go. The ostensible reason for going stop being the shopping and started being the fun.

Speaker 2: Yeah, just the fun. And those what I call very big malls became tourist destinations in themselves. Like you could fly to the Minneapolis airport and stay at a hotel next to the Mall of America and spend your whole weekend at the Mall of America with your kids. Like that was considered a completely, you know, reasonable vacation in the 1990s and an exciting vacation because you were getting some of the thrills of Disney plus the different wings of the malls were themed to different other tourist destinations. So there was kind of a New Orleans weighing and there was sort of a European wedding. So you were getting that also under one roof. So it was a whole thing. And actually, you know, I wrote this book mostly during the pandemic, and I had a spring break trip to the Mall of America with my family planned for April 2020 that I had to cancel because I wanted to I wanted to have that experience, even though I was a little bit nervous about the whole thing.

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Emily Peck: I remember covering malls a little bit like back after the financial crisis and all the stories that got all the most page views online at the Wall Street Journal were like, Malls are dying, malls are dead. Look at this slideshow of dead malls. But but I don’t think the malls aren’t dead now. Like, that’s that’s like what everyone thinks.

Felix Salmon: So you do have a wonderful chapter on slideshows of dead malls. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I had.

Speaker 2: To. I had to grapple with that because that that is what people still think. But, you know, you were writing those stories in 2008 and now we’re in 2022. So that’s actually a long time. So, I mean, the number one thing I would say is that visuals are incredibly powerful. You know, like I I’m a visual person. Like I write about visual and spatial things all the time. So those dead mall photographs went viral and people just assumed that that meant all malls were dead from now forever going forward, because the photos are in fact very beautiful. And as I write in the book, they they are part of this long tradition of ruin porn and are kind of attraction to these slightly scary, slightly spooky places. So they fit into this established visual pattern. Many of them went viral. A lot of the dead male photographers are very famous now and so on and so forth.

Speaker 2: But the truth is that, yes, many malls are dying for a variety of reasons, but there are also many malls that are still very popular and are minting money. Those tend to be the high end malls, like basically malls with a Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus, which are among the few department store chains that are still doing well, and malls that have really kept up a good tenant mix that includes higher end destination stores and a lot of the designer brands.

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Felix Salmon: So what then happens to the need for a town square among lower income suburbanites?

Speaker 2: Well, in some cases and I write about these the the dead malls have been taken over by the population of newly diverse suburbs and have been turned into ethnocentric marketplaces that have become that town square. I talk about this one Plaza Fiesta outside Atlanta that is basically a Latin American mall. It has a huge playground in the center. It has travel agents that help people fly to Latin and Central America. It has everything you would need for your kids. And yeah, it has great food. So like it’s become that town square for the population that now occupies the suburbs around it, which are so far from the population that Victor grew and was originally designing for. You know, the suburbs have changed so much since the 1950s, and another branch of the mall tree that’s very successful are malls that have kind of grown with their suburb and and change with the times.

Emily Peck: I was thinking about that chapter a lot recently because we’ve been talking a lot about office space now and how, you know, companies don’t need as much office space as they used to. And it kind of feels like maybe that offices will go through a similar kind of transition where like the high quality spaces will remain and companies will still want those, but then the lower end office spaces will kind of become lower priced and maybe they’ll be. Felix was saying, you know, other companies will move into these office buildings or something and I guess you don’t have to worry so much about commercial real estate staying empty for long in the United States. Something comes along to fill it up.

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Felix Salmon: Where it is in the suburbs. You need to worry. If you need to work in the city, in Manhattan, you don’t need to worry. Okay.

Emily Peck: But I mean, it does it sounds like what Alexander is saying, you don’t need to worry because the suburbs evolve to become more diverse than the malls evolved along with them. Some died, but not all of them.

Speaker 2: Yeah, well, it’s interesting. There’s definitely a parallel between dead suburban malls and dead suburban office parks. And I don’t know if you all read Emily Badger’s story in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Yeah. Which is really good. And actually, Emily and I are friends. And what she was working on the story and I’ve written about corporate open space also in the past.

Speaker 2: So she sent me this really interesting piece of legislation that is in front of the New Jersey Assembly right now, which is basically lifting the single use zoning rules for dead malls and dead office parks and suburbs so that they can more easily be redeveloped as mixed use places. And I thought it was it’s it’s really interesting to read because it talks explicitly about how these things become these kind of black holes that drag the community around them down. And it starts to undo all of these decades of single use.

Speaker 2: Suburban zoning that’s been really difficult. And as part of why so many suburbs are still very hostile to pedestrians, why they don’t have enough retail outside the mall in some cases. So I think it’s really smart legislation and it explicitly connects those two kinds of suburban architecture as a problem and a problem with a similar solution.

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Felix Salmon: And the solution, just to be clear, is to just jumble everything up and get not only the retail and the offices in the same place, but even have residential in there as well.

Speaker 2: Yeah, Yeah, definitely. I mean, as part of the diversification of the suburbs, one of the things that’s part of that diversity is different types of family structures and also just increasing density. You know, these suburbs were built at a time when the idea was, you know, heterosexual couple and their two kids. But that’s not how most people are living now. And so more different types of residential architecture is really important for the future of suburbs. And those mall parking lots are just crying out for new housing to be built on the blacktop closer to the edges so that there’s actually a sense of quasi urban pedestrian fabric, you know, the whole nine yards. There’s so much that you can do with the amount of square footage that is embodied by a dead mall and its parking lots.

Emily Peck: I’m also thinking as you’re talking like because of the pandemic, these formerly bedroom communities aren’t that anymore. Like people live in the suburbs in a way they didn’t used to. Right. There’s fewer people commuting into the city every day. So and there’s more need for sort of mixed use real estate. If more people are working from home, they’re going to want to, you know, go into town and get a coffee and maybe sit somewhere with their laptop or meet up with coworkers and stuff like that. So there’s even greater maybe demand for mixed use kind of buildings and stuff. And also when you’re working from home one day, you don’t want to go to a mall that like takes a big chunk of time. It’s an a time investment to go to the mall. You can’t just like zip in and out of the mall.

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Speaker 2: Yeah, no, I think that’s absolutely true. And even before the pandemic, some of the malls that were contending with the demise of the department store, which I think is a true death, were thinking about putting co-working spaces in some of the boxes that formerly held department stores. And I actually think that could be a good idea. I think that even if people are working from home, sometimes they have to go out, they want to have coffee with someone. They want to have a business lunch in their suburb. But a lot of people don’t have homes that are really sized for long term work. And so they might want a desk somewhere that is walkable or is not that far from their house. And so, like they might want an office park, but it’s really like a lot of people co-working in an office park.

Speaker 4: Yeah.

Speaker 4: You talk a little bit in the book about the difference between malls and other countries and malls here and then the evolution, how, you know, sometimes the evolution of malls diverge depending on where you are. What are some of the more high end evolutions that you’ve seen where you know, that are very different from what we have here?

Speaker 2: Well, I mean, the malls, the people kept saying to me, like, why aren’t you writing about X where the malls in Asia, which I have only experience a little bit. Most recently, I went to Seoul in 2019. But malls in Asia tend to be much more vertical. They are usually embedded in the city. They are usually served by public transportation. And that I think that kind of hyper dense but also hyper networked mall is much more where they need to go in the future as we try to kind of move the country away from the automobile or quite so much automobile dependence.

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Speaker 2: And you know, one thing that someone said to me who’s lived in China for a long time is that the streets outside in China can be really cacophonous and really traffic. So the mall is like an easier version of the street. And people do use it to walk around and have better air quality and have that kind of ease, which is, I think, something that always called people to the mall. And it’s something that mall workers, for example, always talk about being part of the mall, like it’s just easier than walking on the street.

Felix Salmon: One of the things I remember from Steph and Ellsberg about super tall skyscrapers is that that kind of vertical mall where you have a. Subway station at the basement, and then you have a bunch of levels of retail and then it becomes offices and then a hotel and then residential at the very top. That kind of super big building like that is an amazing way. At least in Hong Kong and I think in a few other cities. Of subsidising the public transport system. The Hong Kong metro makes a profit because it actually gets a bunch of that revenue from all of that subterranean space that used to be just like dirt and is now super valuable retail.

Speaker 2: Yeah, and basically transit oriented malls and adjacent development is also the business model for mall development in Chile and in the Philippines, which actually has some of the largest malls in the world. So that’s definitely something that people are very successfully doing elsewhere. And I think one of the things I say in the book about Seoul is it felt like everywhere was on top of the mall. Like any time I exited the subway system, there was at least a single story of like really cool bookstores and coffee shops before I went upstairs and I was in an office building or I was in a museum or something else. And it was just very natural. And I mean, there are a few places in New York that have those kind of underground concourses, but they tend not to be the nicest stores or I guess there was that one bar that people used to like.

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Felix Salmon: On 50th Street.

Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. They were like that. But I felt like in Seoul it was just a matter of course, and the options there were very cool and very up to date and I wanted to check them out. And so it was just this very natural layering of a different kind of retail into the city. That then was very convenient when you went up top and went about your business. I mean, I think you can see that a little bit in the popularity of the ongoing popularity of the Winter Garden and then the food court at Brookfield Place that a lot of magazine editors have their offices upstairs go to for lunch. And I guess.

Felix Salmon: When Condé Nast moves in next door, you know, it’s going to be cool.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Emily Peck: Is that right? The Winter Garden? Yeah, I.

Speaker 2: Think it’s right off of it. But you see how that is so much more popular than the mall that’s in the Oculus, which is a terribly designed mall. And just like as in the could.

Felix Salmon: And has.

Speaker 2: No heat and all of the bad guys. Yeah.

Felix Salmon: Because people if there’s no food, no one’s interested. So I just want to finish by by asking like if this is the case and, and the vertical mall with the subway station and the ground and the retail above that, and then the hotels and the residential and everything in the same place. If this is the vision of the future, then how is it that absolutely everyone, yourself included, hates Hudson Yards so much?

Emily Peck: What should you tell listeners? What? Hudson Yards?

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Felix Salmon: Yeah, tell us what Hudson Yards is and that tell us how terrible it is.

Speaker 2: So Hudson Yards is the mall and mixed use high end retail development that opened in 2018 on the west side of Manhattan. And today it’s often best known for the terrible Thomas Heatherwick sculpture, the vessel that is now closed because it turned out to be a suicide magnet. So the problem with Hudson Yards is it is terribly designed. I mean, it’s terribly designed. The most fun part of it is Mercato Little Spain, which is the high end food court developed by Jose Andres, which is stuck underneath the wall so that you have to go to it through a completely different entrance and you can also completely avoid the rest of the mall. So none of the kind of design and conviviality of that space bleeds into the mall.

Speaker 2: And then when you go into Hudson Yards, there is no central atrium, there is no fountain, there’s nowhere to meet. There’s just this stacked vertical space that’s designed in a very kind of mundane luxury way that is confusing to navigate. And you never feel like you’re there’s a there there. You never feel like you’ve gotten to the good part.

Felix Salmon: I think I think you mentioned in the book that you’d been there like half a dozen times and you got lost every time.

Speaker 2: Yes. And I’m I mean, so many people said, oh, I find Miles so confusing. And I’m like, really? I don’t find malls confusing at all, but I find Hudson Yards confusing. And, you know, I got a tour with one of the related execs and he explained it all to me. And I was just like, I don’t believe you. Like, you’re telling me something that I am personally just not experiencing at all.

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Speaker 4: What it was. What was his logic?

Speaker 2: He says that each floor is kind of for a different demographic slash income level and. You just kind of keep wrapping around on the escalators and. Yes.

Felix Salmon: What’s it like the J.G. Ballard book High Rise, where depending on how much money you have, you’re on a different floor.

Speaker 2: Like an.

Emily Peck: Apocalyptic train where each car is like Tilda Swinton.

Felix Salmon: Yeah, exactly.

Speaker 2: I mean, that that is actually true about other models. Like at a North Park. North Park is kind of a square donut, so. And Neiman Marcus is in one corner of that square, and all of the luxury brand stores are right outside Neiman Marcus. So if you’re a really rich person, you only need to go to Neiman Marcus and luxury road. I mean, they have like Dolce and Gabbana and Tiffany, they’re like the highest end brands which are and Hudson Yards. That’s all on the first floor. Sorry, I haven’t been there. That’s on the first floor.

Speaker 2: So if you’re a luxury shopper, you only have to go to the first floor and then it’s like one level up you get like the Zara’s and the Fritos and things like that. And then one level up from that, there are cheaper things. And then when level up from that, there’s actually food, but you can’t see the food from the bottom and there’s no sort of communal eating space up there. And that’s also where they stuck their Neiman Marcus, which didn’t do very well because again, it had no presence. So there were a lot of like highly paid retail experts who put their $0.02 into that mall. But I just do not personally feel it makes a lick of sense.

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Felix Salmon: And it was not just me personally, but literally everyone agrees with you.

Speaker 2: They just did a very bad job.

Felix Salmon: But this is kind of reassuring to me in a weird way that, you know, we still don’t know so much about malls and shopping and human behavior that it is possible to spend $40 billion on something as enormous as Hudson Yards or whatever the total budget was and just get it completely wrong like there is there is an ability to this is not settled science like there is this idea, I think, sort of running through the back. The you know, Victor grew in kind of like found the formula and then people, you know, expanded on the formula. But the formula is known. And I think this is proof that the formula is not is not quite as deeply understood is as you might think, given that it’s possible to fuck it up so spectacularly.

Speaker 2: Right. I think there’s economics and science and studies of human behavior, but with all retail and all brands like there is some kind of ineffable, like cultural quality, like, does this feel good that you have to make happen? And sometimes it does not happen.

Felix Salmon: But if it does happen, it happens in North Dallas, right? That’s the the spiritual home of the great shopping mall. Yeah, I.

Speaker 2: Really love North Park. And I, I now I’ve studied it a lot, but I remember the first time someone told me, Oh, you have to see this mall. And I walked in and I was like, Oh my God. Like, What is this place? Like, I just had a completely authentic joy reaction. And everyone I know who’s been there has had the same reaction. So it is legitimately a beautiful place and a beautiful shopping experience.

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Felix Salmon: Elizabeth, have you ever felt authentic joy into walking into a shopping mall that wasn’t on, you know, I mean, how about you, Emily?

Emily Peck: Yeah, When I was growing up, we would go to different malls and it would be exciting because one mall we’d go to would be really nice somehow would have a fancier department store or something, and you’d be like, Well, this is a nice mall. And I don’t kind of remember the design elements that me feel.

Felix Salmon: That happened to me once when I moved to Palo Alto as a teenager and we walked into the Stamford shopping Center for the first time, and that was amazing. Like, I didn’t realize how old that was. That was very, very early on, right?

Speaker 2: Yeah. Stamford Shopping Center is a great example. That’s kind of the template for those lifestyle centers that I was talking about earlier. And it is really beautiful. I also love the Stamford Shopping Center.

Felix Salmon: So there you have it.

Emily Peck: Felix You have a mall memory you shared with us.

Felix Salmon: Oh my God. We used to go to Gaylord Indian Restaurant in the Stanford Shopping Center, and it was it was my favorite thing in the world.

Speaker 2: I got you in the end.

Felix Salmon: Alexandra. Thank you for getting me in the end. I have come around to your way of thinking. Thanks for writing this book, which is fantastic. Meet Me by the Fountain and yeah, thanks for coming on. State my name.

Speaker 2: Thank you for having me.

Felix Salmon: So can I ask you about the rise of e-commerce and the way that has affected malls? Because it seems to me that there is a big trend and I live in a manhattan bubble and I am not going around the suburbs very much, but I have seen a big new shopping mall spring up not far from me at the South Street Seaport, which has as far as I can make out no shopping at all.

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Felix Salmon: There’s just no retail and there’s all restaurants and there’s a big like music venue on the roof and there’s public installations and opening up this whole new building, the tin building, which I think has 12 restaurants and five bars in the market, you know, food market, but branded national franchise store type stuff just isn’t there. And what fascinates me is you were mentioning how the Mall of America used to be a tourist destination. The South Street Seaport, back Green 911 was a big tourist destination. I never understood what the tourists were doing down there, but they would go down and they would go shopping in shops. Apparently that’s something you do.

Emily Peck: And there was a boat.

Speaker 4: You would say they would see the two ships.

Emily Peck: That are there when that was like seven and you went on the boat.

Felix Salmon: But that transformation from a place which was full of shopping in which I vividly remember had a Thomas Kincaid store to a place that basically has no shopping at all. My question for you is, is that related to the rise of online shopping or is that kind of orthogonal?

Speaker 2: Yes, it is related to the rise of online shopping. The other thing that people said, you know, in the early 2000 was that online shopping was going to kill the mall. And that didn’t happen because pre-pandemic online shopping was still like 15% of retail sales. It’s gone up to, I think, more like 30% during the pandemic. I think that not all of that is going to be dropped, like a lot of people have started ordering a lot more things online and found it to be fine. But online shopping wasn’t as much of a mall killer as it was initially thought to be. However, I do think that shopping as an activity is a less important part of future malls than it used to be. And food is a huge driver of a lot of the new repositioned malls.

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Speaker 2: One project that I talk about briefly in the book is Northland, which was a shopping center that grew and designed that opened outside Detroit in 1954. So kind of the direct precursor to Southdale, and that’s empty for a long time. And now a development company has bought it and they’re building housing in the parking lot and bringing back the 1954 architecture. But where there used to be a J.L. Hudson’s department store. They’re going to put in a whole food hall and marketplace, which is basically exactly what they’re doing at South Street Seaport. So, like Smart Mall, investors are looking at things that are different kinds of experiences that you can’t do at home. So that can be coworking, that can be food. There’s also a lot of gyms going in, but maybe gyms with a really fancy climbing wall. And then also kids play gyms and trampoline parks. So, you know, things you have to leave the house for.