• U.S.

Environment: A Pall Over the Suburban Mall

5 minute read

Burlington, Vt., defeats a competing shopping center

They had glamorous names like the Miracle Mile, Fashion Island and Greenacres. Away from decaying downtowns, offering ample parking space, often lined with shaded walkways, they were gleaming oases of retail chic among the growing, monotonous tracts of ranches and split-levels that spread out from the nation’s cities after World War II. Now, more than a generation after the first sprawling shopping centers began sprouting up in suburbia, these great concrete meccas of merchandising are coming under increasing attack.

Many of the malls were convenient, innovative and handsome. Indeed, the shopping center became a glittering symbol of a modern, efficient America. But even some of its early promoters have had a change of heart. Architect Victor Gruen, who designed suburban Detroit’s Northland and Eastland, Chicago’s Randhurst and Philadelphia’s Cherry Hill, as well as other successful shopping centers, is disillusioned with the ugliness and fast-buck approach of many projects. Says he: “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”

Critics also note that malls are voracious consumers of electricity and—because they can usually be reached only by automobile—of gasoline. They gobble up valuable farm land, pollute the environment, overtax local services, create great traffic snarls, and all too often are vast asphalt eyesores. Worse still, by encouraging the exodus of both shopkeepers and shoppers to the suburbs, they only hasten the decay of downtown areas.

The Federal Government, too, apparently wants to discourage the proliferation of suburban malls that threaten the vitality of urban centers. Several federal agencies, by refusing to provide money for access roads and other necessary improvements, recently helped block proposed malls that would have competed with the redevelopment plans of Charleston, W. Va., and Duluth, Minn. The Government has also pitched in more directly, providing grants to over 100 cities in hope of helping downtown store owners. Meanwhile, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is encouraging big retailers like Sears, Roebuck to expand operations within the cities. This need not involve economic sacrifice. Such highly successful downtown malls as Houston’s glossy enclosed Galleria, Boston’s colorful new Faneuil Hall Marketplace and San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square restoration show an appreciation of both architectural and bottom lines.

In a classic example of civic self-defense, Burlington, Vt. (pop. 38,000), has now dealt the suburban mall still another blow. Overlooking Lake Champlain about 40 miles from the Canadian border, Burlington is an old port and mill town that has been enjoying an economic and architectural renaissance. Prestigious firms, such as IBM and Digital Equipment Corp., have moved into the area and built plants. The seedy waterfront is undergoing a face-lifting, and many of the city’s Victorian buildings have been transformed from shabby relics into stylist shops, restaurants and dwellings. But Burlington’s boom was threatened in 1976 when a major shopping-center developer the Pyramid Companies, decided to build an 82-store complex on an 80-acre hayfield in the town of Williston (pop. 4,000) only five miles away.

Many of Williston’s property owners welcomed the center; it would have increased the tax rolls and, by one estimate, cut real estate taxes by 30%. But others, alarmed by the size of the mall, sent out an appeal to nearby communities to help in the battle against the project. Burlington needed no real urging. The city’s financial advisers figured that the Williston shopping center would be too much competition for Burlington’s new downtown mall and would drain off some $25 million in sales from local merchants (about 40% of Burlington’s retail business), reduce property tax collections by 14% and confront the town with severe budgetary problems. Pyramid, which had already built more than two dozen shopping centers, was far from a pushover. Its arguments were so persuasive that after a year of public wrangling, the pro-mall forces in Williston won a referendum forcing their local government to cease its opposition to the center. Fortunately for Burlington, there was another recourse.

Under a 1970 environmental protection act, Vermont had created nine district commissions that are required to review the impact of all projects involving ten or more acres of land in their areas. The commissions can either reject or approve such proposals. Pyramid, which had sharply revised its original plans to meet environmental objections, promptly asked for the panel’s endorsement. Burlington, joined by such allies as the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth, resisted fiercely. During 50 public hearings, anti-mall forces warned of “the threat to the Vermont way of life.” A local folk group weighed in with a ditty entitled The Mall That Ate Williston.

After reviewing thousands of pages of testimony, the commission acted. Although it applauded the developer for its landscaping, water pollution control and energy conservation efforts, the commission noted that by dictionary definition, the environment is an “aggregate of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community.” By that standard, the commissioners said, the mall would indeed have an adverse environmental impact on neighboring Burlington, not only by stunting its own orderly growth, but also by affecting its entire social fabric. The decision: no mall.

Pyramid, which has invested some $2 million in its proposal, quickly announced that it would appeal the decision to the state’s environmental control board or the courts. But whatever its outcome, the case has already had an impact far beyond Vermont. Burlington Mayor Gordon Paquette says he has received requests for advice from Helena, Mont., and New Hartford, N.Y., among other cities that have decided to fight for their lives against suburban malls. –

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