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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Retrofitting America's Malls

Air Date: Week of

Many of the first generation of America's shopping malls are too small or too old-fashioned to attract top retailers. They end up as outlet malls, discount centers or just plain empty. In Chattanooga, the new owners of one mall are trying to turn it into a real town center. David Pollock reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Sprawling development can seem unstoppable. Like so many cities years ago, downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, went into decline as businesses and homeowners expanded out to the suburbs. And before long, that inner ring of suburbs tumbled into decay as well, as developers sought more space further out for newer and bigger shopping malls and homes. But things are turning around in Chattanooga. Its downtown now has plenty of busy restaurants, stores, and entertainment. And Chattanooga's inner ring of faded strip malls is the target of a unique suburban renewal project that holds plenty of promise. David Pollock reports.

(Voices echoing)

POLLOCK: Sitting in the middle of the once-thriving Eastgate Mall, a group of long-time residents sips coffee and laments the slow death this mall experienced over the last 10 years. One man says the decline of the mall reflects the decline of the neighborhood.

(Echoing voices and music in the background)

MAN 1: It's old and run-down. It's low-income families for a large part. There are some pockets of places that are well-kept, but there are many pockets of places that are run-down, and people just stay away from there.

POLLOCK: This mall was once part of a lively suburb. When it was built 35 years ago, it contributed to the decline of downtown. But now the mall, and the neighborhood around it, have become victims of suburban sprawl, themselves.

MAN 1: Restaurants, your nice restaurants. You don't have all those along here any more. They all moved out there.

POLLOCK: "Out there" is 5 miles further out of town, where 10 years ago a newer, bigger mall opened and subsequently drained much retail activity from Eastgate Mall and the entire Brainard community. Property values fell and the mall virtually closed.

Recently, city and business leaders have come together to reverse the decay of this suburb and slow the city's outward sprawl. The effort began when Jerry Shovin's company, Eastgate Enterprises, bought the mall with intentions of turning it into an office park for several major clients. But when the company asked residents of the area what they thought the mall should look like, Shovin says they clamored for more than offices.

SHOVIN: They wanted to see grocery. They wanted to see a dry-cleaner. They wanted to see a drug store. They wanted to see some restaurants. They wanted to be able to come here and congregate, you know; they wanted to come here and enjoy retail without going out to other locations.

POLLOCK: What they wanted, Shovin concluded, was a new town center. Brainard, like many suburbs, has no social or business center, so the mall redevelopment evolved.

SHOVIN: We can create, in essence, a neighborhood within a neighborhood. We can take this center with its surrounding parking and its 65-70 acres, and transform it into an urban-looking, mixed-use center.

POLLOCK: The project is similar to many downtown renewal efforts, except that it is attempting to recreate a downtown in the suburbs.

SHOVIN: When we're done, we will have approximately 45,000 office workers. They can come to work in a safe environment, geographically close to where they live, drop their child, go to work, see their child at lunch time, get their nails done, go to the dry-cleaner, stop at the grocery store, and go home. One-stop shopping, and the conveniences of connecting to amusement, entertainment, you know, back to Main Street USA.

POLLOCK: The town center plan appealed to local officials, because the development could occur using infrastructure that was already in place around the mall. Unlike with the new suburban subdivision, the city doesn't have to invest in new roads, sewers, and other public services.

(Traffic sounds)

POLLOCK: Driving through the neighborhood of small, working-class box homes, city planner Rick Wood says that by creating a downtown-type Main Street, he hopes local residents will join office workers there in making the place a lively and functioning town center. If Wood has his way, neighborhood roads that dead-end at the mall parking lot will be reopened to connect the main street with the neighborhood.

WOOD: As you can see, when we're sort of driving down this street, you saw a big Dead End sign on the end of this street. We don't think that there's nothing dead at the end of the street, you know; we want to focus on connecting the houses and the people that live here and the residents to the activity and the new activity at the mall.

POLLOCK: Mall activity will now focus on pedestrians. The redesign includes turning stores outward toward the sidewalks and providing angled parking in front of them. The most visible part of the redevelopment will look like a small-town Main Street with 2-story shops on a town square. The city of Chattanooga will build a park, and on the park will be perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the Eastgate redevelopment.


MINGUS: If we kind of cross this roadway, which will be approximately here, then we've just about now walked onto the site. And so the sanctuary will be just about where that red car is parked right now.

POLLOCK: Pilgrim Congregational Church plans to move onto the new town center square. The Reverend John Mingus says that being in the middle of things enables his church to be a vital park of the community.

MINGUS: We have a particular thing, a thing that people need in their lives, a place to connect with their life, to connect with their faith. And it just makes sense to me to put it downtown. This is a downtown for this part of the city.

POLLOCK: Reverend Mingus says that with the work already begun on the project, the beginning of the town square, new facades on the mall, an ice- skating ring in the mall's center, for example, new life is already coming to the area.

(Voices and laughter echo)

MINGUS: Six or 8 months ago there was nothing in this place. Now we've got this skating rink. There's a dad holding his daughter's arm going around the skating rink. We've got families here.

POLLOCK: Creating this new town center is a work in progress. The dead-end streets, for instance, may or may not be opened up. Efforts to bring new residential housing onto the property are stalled for now. And owners have balked at the suggestion they cut a street right through the center of the mall. But the developers are confident their new town center will work, not only for the Brainard community but for their business as well. In fact, they are so confident for the idea, they are planning to create another town center: an old mall in a run-down section of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For Living on Earth, I'm David Pollock in Chattanooga, Tennessee.



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