Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Owings Mills Mall: Doubling down on mono-culture

Life in the fast lane of American retail can be short. 30 years short to be exact. 1986 a celebrated shining star on the sky of consumerism with 155 stores and anchors such as Macy's, Boscov'sLord & TaylorSaks Fifth Avenue, and Sears  Owings Mills Mall spreading over 45 acres commanding 5,300 parking spaces was nothing but a pile of rubble at the end of 2016.
46 acres of mall reduced to rubble (Photo: Philipsen)

What went wrong?

America is over-retailed with retail space per resident many times higher than Canada or Europe while online sales squeeze brick and mortar further. Isolated single-use fortifications such as Owings Mills Mall surrounded by ring roads and seas of parking were the first to fail as soon as one of their anchor department stores went out of business.

But the Owings Mills mall site is located near a Metro station which now sprouts its own New-Urbanist town-center ("MetroCenter)", has fabulous interstate access and is surrounded by a still growing "new-town". One would think that the site would be a priced piece of real estate ready to become a benchmark for the reinvention of the sprawl suburb with a dense walkable mixed-use "downtown" that would expand on MetroCenter and finally give the new-town of Owings Mills a true heart  in form of a traditional urban center similar to what Columbia tries to retrofit around its still functioning mall. Good examples of mall redevelopment can be found in many places, especially out West (Scottsdale, Kierland Commons).
Mall replacement: A Lifeless open air shopping center (BCT Architects)

But that is not what property owner Kimco thinks. Instead, the owners doubles down on single-use and isolation by replacing a 1 million square foot mall with a 575,000 sf open air shopping center with a measly 30 stores scattered among a sea of surface parking. Cost $108 million. The AMC multiplex movie theater and the ring-road of the old mall are kept in place.

The proposed redevelopment is like replacing the doomed hydrogen filled Zeppelin Hindenburg with the same model but half the size and hope for a better future. The new center's main anchor will be a 148,000 Costco store, the type of big-box store, a retail concept that is nationwide in nearly as much trouble as the mall.
County Executive Kamenetz with Kimco representative Simmons (right) and
Councilman Jones and councilwoman Almond (left).  (Photo: Philipsen)

The open air shopping center dubbed Mill Station is shockingly unimaginative judging from the renderings prepared by BCT Architects, Baltimore which were on display during the press conference held on site on Tuesday. The proposed shops don't even pretend to form a main street or Avenue as in the case of White Marsh, the regional grand-daddy of the so-called lifestyle centers dating back to 1996, a model that was replicated from Laurel to Hunt Valley ever since. In fact, compared to the Owings Mills plan, the old White Marsh Avenue looks outright innovative.

It is as if Mill Station is out to prove that nothing can be learned from the demise of the mall. All principles of good urban-design, such as transit orientation, placemaking, walkability, mixed-use, and integration of surrounding developments continue to be ignored. Even the suggested green-spaces are not used to create a memorable place or to anchor the development. Instead green decorates the edges like parsley on a plate of Wiener schnitzel. One can only hope that reality will outshine the renderings.
"Lifetstyle center" rendering (BCT Architects)

Councilman Julian Jones spoke enthusiastically about the "triple crown" when he referred to the explosion of shopping opportunities in Owings Mills, the trifecta of MetroCenter, Foundry Row and now Mill Station. County Executive Kamenetz  expressed hope that these three centers are not out to compete but to provide synergy when he emphasized that these three developments represent a combined $750 million of investment in the area. Asked how these three centers are connected, Kamenetz admitted "this is difficult". In reality, the three centers are not really connected and in no way the result of a bigger masterplan but are what one gets when large retail developers fight their turf battles and two different council districts are trying to each catch the bigger fish. The result is not what the people of Owings Mills truly need, nor is it any more sustainable than the mall of the past, destined to an equally short life span by its very DNA.
ULI brochure about mall redevelopment

Not all retail has to die after only 30 years. Wanamakers in Philadelphia dates back to 1877 and still is a beautiful department store. Les Galleries Lafayette in Paris fall in the same period and still represent a tourist attraction, so is Macy's in New York (1902).
The "triple crown" of Owings Mills: Foundry Row (right), Metro Center,
(center and the mall (bottom left)

New towns across America from Reston to Columbia and even Tysons Corner are working hard on building true urban mixed-use downtowns. Owings Mills just missed a 46 acre opportunity to embark on lasting, attractive and sustainable change.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Owings Mall Opening news report (1986 video)
Baltimore SUN: Redevelopment of Owings Mills Mall site starts
ULI, Ten Principles for Rethinking the Mall
Related articles on my blogs:

The Mall is Dead (2012)
A New Town form the Seventies (Owings Mills, 2015)
Revisiting Odenton (2017)

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