Retrofitting Dead and Dying Suburban Malls: What Works?

Denver is a national leader in retrofitting the Great American Suburban Mall. But how well are these retrofits working? A comparative analysis of field reports by college-age Millennials offers some insight.

10 minute read

January 25, 2015, 1:00 PM PST

By Dean Saitta

Belmont Ice Rink

Todd Carpenter / Flickr

In recent months there’s been a lot of talk about dead suburban malls and what we should do with them. Last September Ellen Dunham-Jones of Retrofitting Suburbia fame (co-authored with June Williamson) got the ball rolling in an interview with Steve Inskeep on National Public RadioPBS Newshour sustained the momentum in December. Earlier this month writers at the New York Times and Washington Post weighed in. 

This topic is of interest because Denver has been retrofitting its dead and dying suburban malls for a while now, on a New Urbanist “town center” model. More than half of our dozen or so regional malls are already retrofitted, and more are being repurposed as we speak. Dunham-Jones routinely identifies Belmar on the site of the old Villa Italia Mall in suburban Lakewood as a retrofit success story, distinguished by green buildings, great connectivity, and a nice “sense of place.” Simmons Buntin concurs in his chapter about Belmar for Planetizen Press’s Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places. He pitches Belmar as “a model for redeveloping suburban malls across the U.S.” Alan Ehrenhalt, in The Great Inversion, casts Denver as “the emerging capital” of America’s suburban town center phenomenon.

Public Plaza at Belmar, with Adjacent Lofts (Photograph by D. Saitta)

Because Denver is such a busy incubator of New Urbanist theory and practice it offers numerous opportunities for students to do original fieldwork in urban anthropology. For the last three years I’ve been sending students in my "Culture and The City" course around town to compare and contrast three suburban mall retrofits. These include Belmar, CityCenter Englewood, and The Streets at SouthGlenn. Their task is to (1) discuss how each project conforms to New Urbanist goals and ideals; (2) critically evaluate their prospects for success in light of current ideas about urban ecological and cultural sustainability; and (3) identify the one development that they would choose to live in and explain why. I ask them to look, listen, and interview the users of each place as the opportunity allows; in other words, I ask them to engage in a little urban ethnography. I urge them to make multiple visits to their field sites, on different days and at different times of day. 

The course enrolls majors from across the Arts and Sciences and students minoring in sustainability. I get a few anthropology graduate students working in the areas of archaeology and museum and heritage studies. It’s not an especially diverse group in terms of ethnicity, given that the University of Denver is a largely white institution. But I do get some minority students, mostly Latinos.  Exchange students from the United Kingdom, Italy, Eastern Europe, and Africa contribute a unique international perspective. Thus, the Retrofitted Mall assignment is an excellent opportunity to learn what kind of urban development best resonates with a demographic that’s migrating to American cities in droves.

Students prepare for the assignment by reading some combination of the following: Charter of the New Urbanism, an excerpt from chapter seven of Phil Wood and Charles Landry’s The Intercultural City, Jeb Brugmann’s chapter on “Building Local Culture: Reclaiming the Streets of Gràcia District, Barcelona” in his Welcome to the Urban Revolution, essays by Mohammed Qadeer on multicultural planning and James Rojas on Latino Urbanism, Allison Arieff on the American Dream, Buntin’s chapter in Unsprawl, and Mike Davis’s chapter on “Fortress LA” in City of Quartz. They’re also urged to dip into a previously assigned classic from Jane Jacobs. I guide students to some concepts in this body of work that strike me as especially relevant. Foremost among these is Wood and Landry’s notion of “cultural literacy” and how the “basic building blocks of the city”—street frontages, building heights, set-backs, public space, etc.—look different when viewed through “intercultural eyes.” I want students to consider the extent to which New Urbanist projects exemplify the Barcelona urbanist’s particular concept of espai public—defined as a distinctive “third territory of streets and squares where private interests and public uses are vitally interwoven." Davis’s book is a veritable cornucopia of useful and provocative concepts. I ask students to ponder his notions of “spatial apartheid” and the “archisemiotics” of built form—the latter broadly understood to cover the meanings conveyed by a project’s architecture, advertising images associated with its effort to create a distinctive identity, and other features of the designed environment. 

The table above presents the results from three years of student reports. Forty nine percent of the students would choose to live in Belmar. However, a slim majority of 51 percent prefer something else or nothing at all. Each development is a mixed bag of development hits and misses. What follows are some of the more typical comments about each that have been collected over the last three years.


Intervisibility of Retail Space, Patio, and Street at Belmar (Photograph by D. Saitta)

Students join Dunham-Jones in liking Belmar’s commitment to green building and environmental sustainability. They like the public plaza and its adjacent restaurant patios. Students identify the “Big Windows” of retail shops that maximize the intervisibility of private and public space as another good example of espai public. They appreciate efforts to soften the edges of parking lots with features like “Lily Pad Lane,” a pedestrian path with a rainforest motif and piped-in nature sounds. However, one student reasonably wonders if Lily Pad Lane is consistent with the developer’s commitment to build a “real” downtown for Lakewood that produces a distinctive sense of place.

Lily Pad Lane at Belmar, with Big Box Store in Background (Photograph by D. Saitta)

Belmar comes up short in several other ways. One British student remarked that its “High Street” was curiously empty on a lovely Saturday afternoon in autumn. American and European students alike comment that there tends to be more activity in Belmar’s Big Box parking lots than on its streets. Most students don’t see Belmar meeting New Urbanism’s call for developments that seamlessly connect to their surroundings. The broad, six lane avenues that border Belmar to the north and west are seen to function as de facto “gates” separating it from the adjacent (and largely Hispanic) neighborhoods. Another British student very perceptively said of Belmar that “I don’t feel that the local area understands it well enough to welcome it properly” and that it lacks a distinct identity (the subtle attempts to “brand” itself reported in Retrofitting Suburbia and Unsprawl notwithstanding). Finally, while students note the diversity of housing options available at Belmar, affordability is another issue altogether. Students often provide comparative data showing that purchase prices and rental costs are prohibitive for most working people. They question whether people employed at retail businesses in Belmar could also afford to live there--a key New Urbanist ambition. When students ask, the answer is invariably no.

CityCenter Englewood

Green Space and Public Art at CityCenter Englewood (Photograph by D. Saitta)

Residential affordability is one of the things that distinguishes CityCenter Englewood (CCE), on the site of the old Cinderella City Mall in Englewood. Retail employees here are more likely to live within walking distance of work. Affordability may explain the rather nondescript architecture, but it does produce a bit more ethnic diversity (a few of the comparisons between Belmar and CCE are briefly addressed in this previous post about Denver placemaking). CCE's collection of outdoor art and Art Shuttle earn praise.  Messages and advertisements on public bulletin boards—which some students use as a proxy variable for taking the pulse of local life—suggest a development that appears a tad more “lived in.” Students report the relatively greater visibility of homeless people at CCE and (perhaps not coincidentally) a greater frequency of Mike Davis’s bum-proof benches. These characteristics suggest that CityCenter Englewood, unlike the other two retrofits, is of a piece with the wider city. 

Light Rail Stop, Pedestrian Bridge, and Bus Stop at CityCenter Englewood (Photograph by D. Saitta)

Students see the multimodal transportation options of CCE as an appealing feature, with accommodations for light rail, buses, and bicycles. Alan Ehrenhalt (in The Great Inversion) argues that CCE “turns its back on the light rail station and on transit oriented development in general.” Students don’t necessarily agree. They value CCE’s light rail connectivity, while Belmar’s eight connecting bus lines do very little for them. However, Ehrenhalt still has a point. One student observed two automobile accidents in the hour that she was visiting CCE. Traffic speeds and pedestrian safety are an issue at some other New Urban developments in town, most famously the widely acclaimed Stapleton neighborhood. Encouraging commuters to abandon cars for other modes of transportation is a tough sell pretty much everywhere in Denver.

The Streets at SouthGlenn

Commons Park at The Streets at SouthGlenn (Photograph by D. Saitta)

The Streets at SouthGlenn (SSG), on the site of the old Southglenn Mall in Centennial, gets the toughest critique. Virtues include an elongated Commons Park with water fountain, fireplace, coffee and snack shacks, comfortable seating, and abundant plant life. The Park succeeds in creating a pleasant “outdoor room.”  SSG overall is perceived as being relatively more family and kid friendly than the other retrofits. It is described as having more active public spaces, which may be a function of its kid-friendliness plus its greater compactness. Terminating vistas (albeit focused on Big Box Stores) earn some kudos, as does the more colorful and “kinetic” architecture. What Spiro Kostof might describe as “Grand Manner scenography” is counted by students as a SSG plus. The use of one-way streets and roundabouts to control traffic produces a greater sense of pedestrian security. One student identified SSG’s branch of the Arapahoe Public Library as best exemplifying the “spaces of day-to-day exchange” that Wood and Landry have found to be among the most popular for multicultural populations in Britain.

Life Imitating Art on The Streets at SouthGlenn (Photograph by D. Saitta)

But there's a flip side. Students often make some very perceptive comments about the archisemiotics of built space at SSG, which also hold for Belmar. Retail advertising in both places is targeted to white people, especially young, well-heeled women. Indeed, the photo above is an almost perfect encapsulation of how life mirrors advertising at SSG. Some students suggest that the “Street Life” and “Life on the Streets” slogans used to market SSG take on entirely different meanings given the serious issues of homelessness that plague other parts of Denver. The SSG soundscape also draws fire: the music that’s piped into The Streets (as well as Belmar) produces space that’s as clinical as that of the old indoor malls that they’ve replaced. Finally, “The Wall” (below) that separates SSG from residential neighborhoods to the west is seen to function much like the broad avenues that surround Belmar, signaling closure and exclusivity.

Archisemiotics of Built Space: "The Wall" and Bus Stop at The Streets at SouthGlenn (Photograph by D. Saitta)


In a recent public lecture at the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning Ellen Dunham-Jones applauded Denver for being a leader in suburban mall retrofits, going so far as to suggest that we’ve “figured it out.” This assessment might be a bit hasty. The main lesson of this exercise is that Denver’s mall retrofits have a decidedly mixed appeal for college-age Millennials. Their experience in, and evaluation of, these places can be very different from those of professional planners and opinion-shapers. In class discussion it’s often hard for students to remember which retrofit is which. They blend together in the mind and are often confused, the starkest differences between them notwithstanding. Formulaic plans widely applied aren’t conducive to creating a unique “sense of place.” Still, students are inclined to be charitable. They see each of these developments as a work in progress. Their biggest challenge is attracting ethnic diversity and a mix of incomes. Over time students seem to be noticing more Latinos patronizing the shops and open spaces at Belmar. At The Streets, however, ethnic diversity is primarily observed among the custodial and landscaping staff. It’s safe to say that Denver’s New Urban mall retrofits still signal—to Americans, Europeans, and ethnic “Others” alike—homogeneity and exclusivity. 

The accumulated results of this class assignment give one pause to wonder whether New Urbanism as applied to dead suburban malls can really succeed in accomplishing, at the same time and within the same program, its diversity, equity, and community-building goals. Wood and Landry challenge planners and architects interested in intercultural city-building to either structure space so that different cultures might see and use it in a variety of ways, or create more open-ended spaces to which a broad variety of intercultural Others can adapt (perhaps along the lines of an entropic urbanism). Some students wish to challenge New Urbanism in the same way. Alternatively, one student questions whether New Urbanism is capable of producing an intercultural city at all. As she puts it, perhaps an intercultural city already exists in the urban fabric and just needs some poking and prodding—using other varieties of urbanism as a guide—to draw it out.

Dean Saitta

Dean Saitta is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Denver. He teaches courses in urban anthropology, archaeology, and evolutionary anthropology. He writes about issues facing the contemporary city from an archaeological, historical, and cross-cultural perspective. He is a co-author of "Denver: An Archaeological History", and author of "Intercultural Urbanism: City Planning from the Ancient World to the Modern Day."

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