We have too much retail space in the United States: 8.5 billion square feet of dedicated space, or upwards of 25 square feet of retail space per person. That’s an astonishingly high number, especially in comparison to other countries. The average square footage per person in Europe is 4.5, or about five times less than in the U.S.
How did we get here? On October 8, 1956, in front of 40,000 visitors, America’s first indoor mall, Southdale Center, opened in Edina, Minnesota. Southgate Architect Victor Gruen, considered an innovator in retail, first began to ideate the prototype of the future shopping “center.” He envisioned spaces where libraries, civic uses, and even postal services could be brought together inside within the new future mall. What a concept! When Southdale opened, it was largely modeled after European communal gathering spaces. It was, in Gruen’s words, “a new outlet for that primary human instinct to mingle with other humans.”
A novel concept. While Mr. Gruen was well-intentioned, we’ve strayed far from the course. In the decades following Southdale’s opening, we’ve opened millions of feet of strip malls, regional malls, lifestyle malls, town centers, and several other fancy-named versions of the same thing: product-driven buildings. As more of America suburbanized, more retail opened. Within real estate, the typology became synonymous with “highest and best use—the more stores, the better.