Friday, June 30, 2017

The De-Malling of America

Ten years ago, before the Great Recession, I was a consultant to one of America’s largest retail shopping center owners. The stated goal was to see if we could redesign, repurpose, and reprogram the concept of their existing shopping centers to include housing. We focused on two malls, one in Southern California and another in the San Francisco Bay Area. The idea was to include during the remodel of the mall, a significant number of residential units into the property’s footprint. There was all this delicious asphalt ready for housing; all we had to do was set goals and then a direction.

The effort failed, mostly because of the collapse of the financial markets, housing, and the bankruptcy of the client. However, I still believe that these sites are gold mines for the current and on-going realignment of retail and commercial space for two good reasons.
  • 1.     The sites usually have excellent access and are at important and critical transportation nexus points.
  • 2.     In most instances the underlying dirt is either free (paid for out of the old center’s previous life) or at a substantial discount to the nearby costs of land.

Additional bonuses are that many have modern infrastructure (more or less) and willing politics. Nothing gets a city’s attention faster than a decline in sales tax revenues. It is projected that a quarter of all malls will close during the next five years.

In some instances these old malls can be rebuilt as town centers, dense residential neighborhoods, or a mix of commercial, retail (service and restaurant), housing (rental and for sale), and even transportation hubs. The old concept of single use zoning is rapidly fading and new concepts are immerging.

The greatest difficulty I found with many of these development companies is a lack of expertise and imagination. They know housing, they know retail, they know office, but they refuse to understand each other’s land uses. This has to change.

It will also require cities to change zoning and land use models. Many communities built into their General Plans a long term program that is now inflexible and counterproductive. No matter how important, it can take years to modify and codify them – this while everything around them collapses and disappears. The market place is not a kind and benevolent beast. As Ludwig von Mises said in his great book, Human Action, “The market is supreme!” Believe it!

We are discovering that now, it is often a hard slap to the face. Amazon buying Whole Foods is just one example; the real examples are the high-end retailers such as Nordstrom, fighting loosing battles to just stay alive over 6% reductions in year to year sales. Shoppers? If you want loyalty, get a puppy.

I worked for an architectural design studio back in the 1970s that focused on the newest thing in retail shopping, the “enclosed” mall. Our clients were the big boys of the day (they are still around, but certainly not the big boys they were). These new malls destroyed the old town centers and main streets of America, especially in the Midwest and the East. And now, the Internet is doing the same thing; it is a revolution that is both cultural and financial. Sure you can point a finger at Amazon, that’s easy. But in reality, it is every brick and mortar retailer who is offering their products online and with a broader selection and home delivery.

The models are changing, the way we shop is changing, what we buy is changing, and most especially why we buy is changing. Even the way we live is changing.
During the last fifty years nothing has occupied architects, urban planners, and city officials more than what will become of our cities. We have had anti-suburbanists, neo-traditionalists, urban revivalists, edge city believers, survivalists, futurists, and even blow-the-hole-thing-up-ists, telling us how cities MUST be redesigned. Most without a clue or real plan.

I remember a science fiction story from my youth where everyone lived in their own little cell, it was a nice cell, comfortable, with entertainment and all the necessities of life, and everything arrived at the door—all you had to do was ask for it. Paranoia raged, we were defensive and protective of our cell—all because we didn’t go out anymore.

Are we there yet?

Stay tuned . . . . .

Monday, June 19, 2017


I apologize for not keeping this blog up to date - too much going on, as you can see from the blog below. I will try to be better.

I promised a report on our thirty days traveling Europe from London to Spain to France and Italy. Here are my observations, and they are based on a lot of travel over the years. Except two or three western Mediterranean stops, we previously had visited most of these cities over the last twenty or more years. I could have written ten thousand words, so consider yourselves spared.

We have been traveling to England and Europe since 1989. My wife has written four books on the gardens of England, and I’ve included many of these locations in my own stories. 

Sadly, a few events happened in England while we traveled – the Manchester horror, and the killings in London’s Borough Market area (we were visited just a few days earlier). We were also there for the British snap election, the ongoing Brexit issues, and watching their media treat Prime Minister May like Donald Trump. I have to say the Prime Minister reacts with a lot more style.

Regarding the terror attacks, the British seemed resigned, stiff upper lip and all. The press rants and raves but not once did I see a serious discussion of why this is happening, which requires a difficult level of introspection. The press wrings their collective hands and interviews every politician who will sit for their cameras. It was convenient that they were still set up for the post-election interviews only days after Borough Market, and many of these same talking heads – both political and media, said the same things. 

The Shard from Borough Market - London
I think my most interesting observation is that the Moslems in London (visitors, refugees, native born) were significantly more visible than in any of the other countries we visited. Women wore their hajibschadors, and burqas everywhere. I saw no other burqas and very few hajibs anywhere else on our travels, but they were ubiquitous in London. To stroll through Harrods (owned, as I found out, by Qatari royal family), one believes they are in an Arab souk, almost to the point of intimidation. I doubt that Moslems are any less devout in Spain or Italy, but they certainly are making their collective presence known in London. England, for more than a thousand years, has gone out of its way to accommodate everyone who comes to their island. There now appears to be a very palpable wariness and weariness on the part of the English toward Muslims. I believe there are many on both sides who are very afraid, and these “rogue” attacks only heighten that fear.

London itself was extremely busy and almost chaotic, street traffic was the worst of all the cities we visited. To try and reduce the traffic, they tax you for entering the core of the city with cameras checking your license plates or something. A taxi driver said to us, “No one bloody cares, they still drive in!” The stores were crowded, young people were everywhere, the usual tourist venues were packed. The pound’s drop in value to the dollar made things, even in expensive London, more affordable to us. It was twenty-five percent higher during our last visit four years ago. 

The Ramblas in Barcelona
Barcelona was also busy and almost as crowded as London. The beaches (some of the best urban beaches in Europe) were packed, and the international tourists were in full throat and wandered in thick packs. Again the young dominated the streets and restaurants. Everywhere the Chinese (the latest mass tourist movement), moved in busloads, walked in groups, and as the Japanese of the 1990s, were everywhere. I assume that China’s travel agencies are having a great year. Many Russians and Eastern Europeans as well. There were also more families traveling together, from all countries and age groups, than I’ve seen before. Why someone would travel with children under eight years old is beyond me. Hardly the relaxing time you imagined. However, it is a sign of the world’s expansion of wealth; two travelers are expensive, but a family (often extended with relatives and grandparents) is something else again.

The Royal Princess in Cartegana
Our ship for the seven-day cruise during the middle leg of the journey (from Barcelona to Rome) was the Royal Princess. She is one of the twenty largest cruise ships in the world, and even though, at 3,500 passengers, it never seemed crowded. The smaller ships may have lower passenger counts, but there is also less ship square footage – I believe they seem more crowded. An inordinate number of our fellow cruisers were from Australia and New Zealand (it’s their winter right now). Great fun and attitudes, we seemed to have bonded with a few of the Aussies in the laundry room. I’ve never met an unhappy Australian.

We visited small cities on the Mediterranean. We docked at Cartagena, Spain and Gibraltar (still English and proud of it), Marseilles for Provence, Genoa for Northern Italy, and Livorno for Tuscany, and eventually Rome. The ship’s massive size requires significant port facilities, its one drawback for visiting smaller cities.

Cruise Travel Observations:
First off, I realize that there are many who think traveling on a cruise ship is expensive, boring, restrictive, and uncomfortable. I thought that at one time. Now, not at all. We spent far more on land costs (hotel, meals, entertainment) per day than we did on a daily basis for our cabin (which includes room, food, entertainment). If you throw in the air and land travel costs, from city to city, cruising is even less expensive. Essentially you can participate as much or as little as you want. You can engage other passengers or not. It is a wonderful hotel that travels wherever you want to go. There are hundreds, if not thousands of venues (countries, cities, historical locations), on dozens of cruise lines, at multiple price levels, that can literally take you anywhere in the world (including rivers and canals). We are hooked, try it. I’m sure that you will like it.

Gibraltar and Cartagena survive on tourists and the cruise ships. Beyond being entry ports to the inland regions of Spain and their long and important histories, today there is little else in these two cities of serious importance. Cartagena has an ancient Roman amphitheater and museum, a street of shops, and an interesting harbor. Outside of those, not much else. Gibraltar, because of its small size (3 square miles – most of it a mountain) needs to employ Spaniards from the nearby cities for its restaurants and services. We were told that the Spanish cities surrounding Gibraltar have high unemployment so this city is important to the region. The citizens of Gibraltar are concerned by the effects of Brexit – it could be significant for them. Spain is rumbling to take Gibraltar back, though I doubt it will happen. Over ninety-five percent of the residents voted to stay with Britain in a past election. Gibraltar and its famous monkey’s were on my bucket list, they are now checked off.

Portofino near Genoa
Genoa was a surprise; visually it’s a magnificent city that climbs the hills that wrap the ancient harbor. Traffic was intense and, as I found throughout Italy, seems to belie the reports that Italy is a financially sick country. The roads were busy with bright new cars, the restaurants wonderful, the trains beyond full, the people seemed happy – but what do I know. Italy is a major (if not the number one) world destination for travelers and tourists. The major cities are intense, noisy, and exciting. However, hotels are popping up that are marginal and some, absolutely god-awful terrible (we found this out in Rome and left one after one night), never believe the internet or even the reviews. Stick to the big hotels and brands – it is worth it, spend the bucks, you usually won’t regret it. Taxis are affordable, there is buses and transit in all the cities, but they are beyond crowded. Taxis, while costly, make better use of your time.

Visit Lucca; it is worth the quiet and the chance to reflect and wander a city that once was an important Roman city. During the Renaissance, it had a history of battling Florence and other of Italy’s city-states. It has surrounding defensive ramparts and earthworks that are now trails and parks, all very cool. Some famous Italian musicians and composers came from Lucca.

Rome is eternal—there I said it. Unfortunately, I grew tired of the rough cobblestones of the streets and sidewalks. The number of sprained tourist ankles has to reach the thousands every year. The buzzing of a million scooters and motorbikes, tiny cars, taxis, buses, and crowds all add to the cacophony. Everywhere there are tour guides holding up some type of flag, pompon, or number. They (yes, we did it in Lucca) all wear little radios around their necks to listen to the live commentary in their own language. Some are very good, others not so much.

The Pantheon - Rome
A fun moment was over a pizza we were having in Piazza Navona. We were in a corner bistro watching tourists – and Rome is very good for watching tourists, even if you are one yourself. Groups, one after the other, came through a nearby passage, stopped, took a breath and then collectively raised their two hands in adoration of the magnificence of what lay before them. Like a prayer was being offered to the gods that were once worshiped here. Well, actually they were all raising their phones to take a picture or a selfie. The preening and posing, especially by the girls before a selfie, is actually quite humorous – we are a very self-absorbed species, I can tell you that. Must see locations are the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon, and the small neighborhoods that make up the city’s older parts—but be prepared for crowds.

The Vatican

Regarding my comments that led off this article, I saw little of the ethnic and religious posturing in Spain and Italy that I saw in England. Why I’m not sure. Italy has absorbed ten of thousands of refugees from Africa (and buried thousands that drowned trying to escape the strife of the North African nations). Every plaza and venue in Rome and Florence had well-armed police and army personnel patrolling. While there’s some petty crime, pickpocketing, and the usual gypsies, I never felt the same fear that one can get in some big American cities. Maybe it’s the swarm/school mentality of travel; in great packs of tourists you feel safer, it’s the old and wounded that get picked off.

Florence, Italy and the Arno River
Florence and Venice are delightful, but I suggest traveling in winter or early spring. Like other places, they were crowded. Food, when traveling can be hit or miss. We were lucky, and the best meals were impromptu affairs. A delightful discovery is the Padua, Italy made, Aperol aperitif. This spritzer is a bright, orange-colored aperitif, mixed with Prosecco and club soda, add an orange slice for effect. I’m a scotch drinker, but in London, we were offered an Italian martini made with Sabatini gin. That and another discovery, Vallombrosa gin, are now on my menu.

The ability to travel and see the world is a luxury we have during this brief period of world history. There were times during the last century when our adventures were almost unheard of and impossible. Today, the common person can pack up, safely and economically travel almost anywhere in the world. We met people from Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, American expats in Barcelona and a couple that spends six months a year on cruise ships. The staff on the ships and at the hotels are from dozens of countries. Conversations were often too brief, we wanted to know more.

I saw more expensive automobiles in London than anywhere else I’ve traveled. There were more Bentleys, Ferraris, Rolls Royce’s, Maybachs, Aston Martins, Porches, and other types of autos I never knew existed; we watched four (with very stupid drivers) Lamborghinis race through Hyde Park in London. The highpoint was the Bugatti Chiron (3+ million dollars) parked in front of our hotel. This is “in your face” display of wealth, and may also contribute to the tensions…just saying.

Never stop traveling, get out of your rut, look around, talk to people, eat strange food, discover gins made in Tuscany, realize that there are hundreds of types of wine out there (beyond California boring basic four kinds), and sit and watch the people. And above all, enjoy.

We traveled on a Boeing 787, an Airbus A-346 and two A-319s, sped across Italy on high-speed trains at almost 200 kph. Jumped in and out of taxis, limos, buses, escalators, elevators, ferries, water taxis, vaporetti, and our 1083-foot long cruise ship. The hotel rooms were suites and one-room disasters. The bathrooms were always an adventure; the showers, an exercise in cautionary entering and exiting. However, all were clean and very neat.

And someday, we will learn to travel light.

Bon Voyage!!