Business Insider must have been channeling some urban planning magazine last week when it asked what could be done with the hundreds of shopping malls suffering from the great retail apocalypse caused by Amazon and other on-line retailers. The publication’s answers leaned heavily to uses that need government subsidies, including art galleries, classrooms, community gathering spaces, indoor farms, farmers markets, public libraries, public walkways, and other public spaces.
The Antiplanner remembers when Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, decided it needed new office space, so it bought a former Sears Roebucks building. It could have torn down the building and built a new one for $15 million. But to prove its commitment to reuse and recycling, it converted the existing Sears store into an office building. The cost? $30 million.
The humorous postscript was that the Sears building was so old that its toilets had never been hooked up into Portland’s sewer system. For years after Metro–the agency whose mission was to protect the region’s water, air, and land–moved in, it was dumping raw human sewage into the Willamette River. If they had simply replaced the building, they would have discovered the need for hook ups right away.
So why does Business Insider, or anyone, think that it needs to come up with ways of reusing old shopping malls? Instead of reusing them, tear them down. Selling the reusable pieces will return enough to pay the demolition costs, and then the property owners effectively have a greenfield on which they can do what they want.
Back in 1972, architect Robert Venturi and some of his colleagues suggested that architects and builders could learn a lot from Las Vegas because the city was built, and rebuilt, and rebuilt again, to please American audiences. What made Las Vegas’ rapid evolution possible was that permitting was easy, construction was cheap, and so buildings that in another city would be repurposed were simply torn down and replaced with something newer and more advanced.
Too many cities have put up barriers to new construction. Among those barriers are lengthy permitting times and high housing prices that can increase the cost of labor by 40 percent or more. In some cases, old shopping malls might be effectively repurposed. But in most cases, the most efficient thing to do would be to tear them down–if the government gets out of the way.