I went to the Mall of America yesterday, and it’s an interesting sight from an urbanist perspective. The first thing that struck me was that it’s so big that it actually lacks the main virtue of a shopping mall, which I think of as being that you have a whole bunch of stores close to your parking garage. If you park in the east garage and want to go to a store on the west side of the Mall of America, you have a long walk in your future. By making the place so big, you’ve sort of lost the virtues of the shopping mall and really kind of just reinvented the city.
On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly the point and the Mall of America is basically just a case study in urban agglomeration benefits. You’re basically looking at an extremely dense network of pedestrianized streets oriented around a central plaza. But since it’s a privately provided city, the plaza can feature what people genuinely want from a public gathering point — roller coasters, apparently — rather than the more edifying features that the public sector offers.
Matthew Cameron helped me take a cut at whether large scale helps or hurts a mall operator by checking out the 10 shopping malls with the highest revenue per square foot of retail:
These are all big malls, much larger than the average American shopping center, though it’s hardly a list of the biggest malls in the country. Part of the issue is that, obviously, location counts. Minneapolis is a pretty small city to feature the largest mall in America, while the Westfield San Francisco Centre is presumably so lucrative in part because San Francisco is so rich. The Queens Center mall makes a very healthy product on a relatively small footprint, but it’s not as if there’s some other, larger mall right by a subway station in New York to compare it to. So I find myself coming back to what I said about Gurgaon, namely that the private sector seems to be held back in its ability to create privately owned cities by the fact that private firms can’t do the land assembly or raise the necessary capital. And, indeed, the Mall of America saga is full of stories about government subsidies usually with a focus precisely on the cost of capital. And we see much the same thing with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s effort to subsidize a super-mall project back to life.
So this gets me back to where I started. In a weird way, what you’re looking at with giant malls is a reinvention of the wheel. Rather than have the government guarantee loans necessary to build giant malls, why not have the government build transportation infrastructure that would be appropriate for density (i.e., train stations plus a dense grid of small streets) and then let the private sector fill in the holes at a scale where private finance is feasible? They could call it a city.