One of the things I always check out whenever I visit a metropolitan area are the malls. Yesterday I was talking about Cincinnati, OH, which has a lot of interesting suburban malls as well as a pretty decent downtown shopping experience, which you do not get in Ohio cities like my hometown of Akron. The way things are now, only the largest cities, such as the big three (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus) offer a diversified enough experience and have the economic cash flow to still support malls downtown. This is a far cry from the eighties and nineties when some shopping still existed downtown, at least “detached” department stores.
One of the major things you notice here, as opposed to up North, is that major department stores do not exist outside of shopping malls. There is also an absence of regional department stores, such as Elder-Beerman in Dayton, OH, and an aggregation of national department stores like Macy’s, Dillard’s and Nordstroms. Of the seven cities, some have one shopping mall, like Portsmouth, with Chesapeake Square Mall, others like Virginia Beach, have two (Pembroke and Lynnhaven), your older cities have an odd mix of “ghetto malls” and upscale shopping (the contradiction in Norfolk where MacArthur exists downtown but Military Circle exists at the edge of town), and minor diversions, such as the Town Centers in Newport News, Hampton, and Virginia Beach that have shopping but aren’t necessarily, shopping malls in the traditional sense, but lifestyle centers.
The contradiction of seven cities that do not act as a cohesive unit (though are arguably in the same metropolitan area), leads to the reality of a mixed shopping experience that should appeal to everyone. You have ghetto malls, upscale shopping centers, strip malls, tourist malls, and everything in-between in this area. No this area does not have Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman or Neiman Marcus, and quite honestly, the average income in this area, even among the more affluent, plus the laid back lifestyle here (with the absence of the mega-rich feel of Los Angeles) does not really support such retail anyway. A lot of this type of shopping can be found in Richmond and Northern Virginia, that have a different aesthetic. Most upscale shopping, with respect to urban wear, can be found all over the area, both in shopping malls and centers and inconspicuous stores in plazas as small as five stores anchored by a gas station.
Unlike other metropolitan areas, the outlet mall is actually within the boundaries of the urban region. A designer junkie with a car can find anything they want or need at the outlet mall in Williamsburg. It has also been said that the Hampton Roads area actually has more retail per person than other metropolitan areas. So no you aren’t going to find the over-saturation of shopping malls that older metropolitan areas have, but there could be a very good reason for that. Many of those regions over built and a lot of the shopping malls that were abandoned for greener pastures are now dead malls. Take Akron, OH, my hometown; the metropolitan area is 600,000 people and they had three malls. One of those malls was built in a declining area, and is now a dead mall so they are back to having two malls. On the other hand, Cleveland, a larger metropolitan area of 2.2 million with 9 shopping malls has about one mall per 244,444 people, which isn’t that much higher of a saturation than the Akron metropolitan area. When they had ten, the one that was arguably the largest shopping mall in the world at the time quickly declined into a dead mall that is now used for educational and religious purposes.
In this area there are arguably eight actual indoor shopping malls, which translates roughly into one mall per 200,000 people. This is actually a greater saturation than you see in other metropolitan areas. Until average incomes rise considerably in this area, of which I would not hold my breath, you probably are not going to see the high-end luxurious shopping those from other metropolitan areas are spoiled on. If you really want to know, Connecticut has the most shopping per capita, Virginia has more than Ohio (even more than Washington DC), and South Dakota has the least (after West Virginia). Having driven through West Virginia many times, I can attest to that fact.
So why does California have 6,379 shopping malls and Wyoming have 55? In fact California almost has twice as many malls as Florida. Why does New York only have 11 more malls than Ohio? What is the definition of a shopping mall anyway, from this web site, that obviously lumps outdoor shopping centers like plazas and strip malls into the equation. I have also heard that the Arcade in Cleveland, OH is the first indoor shopping mall, and opened in 1890. In truth, there are around 2,000 indoor shopping malls, out of over 47,000 shopping centers total. If 96% of the shopping in the United States is in outdoor or detached shopping centers, perhaps the indoor shopping mall was a niche evolution of the shopping experience for diehards that never really mattered much to begin with. After all, shopping malls have been in decline since the eighties.
Perhaps the real answer is that generic outdoor shopping plazas never intrigued me the way that indoor shopping malls do. They do not make the sweeping architectural statements of indoor shopping malls, lack continuity, and discourage the makeshift communities that congregate at the food courts inside of indoor shopping malls. Teenagers are not going to exchange phone numbers, and young men are not going to make a pass at females at these outdoor malls. The experience of visiting all of the levels, riding in elevators or on escalators, and seeing the cool water displays is lost on outdoor malls. For whatever reason, a single inside mall is supposed to support a populace of 200,000 people. When it does not, and more people are forced to use the same mall because of dead malls or other unsuccessful attempts at creating an indoor retail space, something is lost. That is the reason we are fascinated with malls, outside of the calculated religious shopping experience …