What to Do With Strip Malls

Death, taxes, and new strip mall construction, the inevitabilities of life. I’ll leave it to the eccentric billionaires of Silicon Valley to try and tackle the whole death problem, and let the libertarians handle taxes. Strip Malls, on the other hand are a much more complicated phenomena, one as American as apple pie eating contests.

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In a car centered universe, strip malls make perfect sense. The convenience factor can’t be denied, but within an urban setting they tend to give off an impression of cheapness. Nobody loves a strip mall, they go there for a particular business within it. Strip malls are often left abandoned because they cannot be sustained without a constant flow of customers coming specifically to shop there. There is no built in customer base because these strip malls are a result of stringent commercial zoning, preventing apartments from being built above or around them.

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This area of lower Magazine street in New Orleans, although clearly not a strip mall, is a great example of a successful mixed use main street. Businesses thrive with apartments above and mostly residential neighborhoods surrounding them. Businesses fail on Magazine street, but the ones around them are not affected, because the area is dynamic enough to survive as a self sustained entity.

Strip malls can easily be turned into thriving retail spaces if the parking lots are developed over, creating a cohesive urban space out of a previously singular use development. Most strip malls come equipped with walkways shaded by awnings, which could serve as comfortable sidewalks for shoppers. Expanding upon this, and building retail spaces with apartments above directly across from the strip malls will turn suburban sprawl into a cohesive urban environment that will draw people in from the suburbs around. The first step is the willingness to build over parking spaces, which is a hard sell for many.

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I know I’m not the only one who is constantly redesigning things in my head as I drive through The United States of single use sprawl. Instead of thinking of them as strip malls, I try to imagine them as partially finished streets. All we need to do is step in and finish the job to move closer to an culture where the built environment is designed to be experienced and explored. Rather than being reduced to individual boxes we drive to and from without any meaningful interaction with the pavement beneath our feet, businesses within these strip malls could be parts of new communities that rise from the ashes of the mundane.

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