Boring, old-fashioned, dirty, necessary. These are the words that might come to mind when Americans today think of a traditional strip mall. Ever thought about the work that goes into designing a strip mall? It may be hard to fathom that there is any sort of methodical reasoning that goes into the physical design of these classic shopping centers, especially the ones that haven’t been remodeled since the early 70’s.
The Old American Strip Mall
Dating back to the 1880’s, utility always dominated architectural design or style when it came to erecting a strip mall. At this time, the streetcar made urban expansion possible. This new transportation allowed residents to enter the perimeter of cities where it was assumed that land values were higher. Due to sprawl caused by the streetcar, speculators erected single-row shop fronts and were cheaply built solely to produce enough revenue to pay the land taxes. Coined as “Tax-Payers”, these buildings were meant for easy destruction at some point in the near future. However, with the introduction of the car, the intended sprawl strips were changed and the Tax-Payers weren’t demolished. More of these buildings were established to accommodate cars in the fashion of the “Main Street” commercial site, with room for perpendicular parking along the facade. As Tax-Payers became more popular, they began to be moved to the rear of the property line with a parking lot separating the façade from the street to accommodate more vehicles. The Tax-Payers would continue to thrive and become precedents of many of today’s strip malls. Many iterations of the strip mall would come from this, including the enclosed shopping mall and power centers.
There are many commonalities of strip malls across the nation. They are between 5,000 and 100,000 square feet and are of plain style, most likely to keep costs down. Many have flat roofs and are 1-story, as in the tradition of the tax-payer. They include asphalt roofs, painted block, metal-framed windows, concrete sidewalks, and asphalt parking lots. This may be the case for strip malls designed in the latter half of the 20th century, but what about strip malls today?
Shifting Toward the New Strip Mall
As consumer interests start to change, the type of stores that go into strip malls change, and in turn change the design as well. One may think that strip malls are failing due to the ease of online shopping; however, it is the opposite. Strip malls are thriving today because many have transformed to become more service-oriented; they include interests such as yoga, salons, spas, urgent care facilities, and insurance. Becoming more service-oriented involves much more of an experience over the normal goods-oriented strip mall. This experience is reflected in the design of the mall’s exterior design and layout in addition to what its tenants may offer. The priority has now shifted to match the aesthetics of these new tenants and the surrounding neighborhoods. By doing so, it can attract more consumers from the outside in, contributing to an already prosperous industry.
Shopping centers are still thriving in an upward trend largely due to a more extensive design process. It all starts with the idea of a concept that matches the needs of the area, followed by an extensive research of market trends, surveys, mall positioning, retail circulation, zoning, and more. Choosing the right architect is also crucial to convey a concept and could contribute to the success or failure of the shopping center. Though this may seem like a simple task, it is beneficial to have a special team and or expert mall adviser to conceptualize, efficiently manage, and coordinate the design planning phase. Up until recently, it was not understood by many that there needs to be an organized approach towards shopping center design and planning. Better shopping center development is crucial and is becoming more apparent across the country, contributing to a better, more enjoyable, and more efficient shopping experience.
Strip Malls are an important part of American history and have completely altered the experience of shopping for many people since their creation. While homogeneity has cast its shadow on many strip malls throughout America, today’s centers involve a much more extensive design process that attempts to imitate the design of the neighborhood and create an experience for many service-oriented businesses. Strip malls have thrived since their creation, and their success will continue far into the future. The new American Strip Mall: enjoyable, unique, and of course, still, necessary.