For decades now, people have done most of their shopping at sprawling, suburban malls that offer plenty of free parking and shelter from the weather. But now, people are heading back outside to shop, to places reminiscent of quaint downtowns. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
For decades now, people have done most of their shopping at sprawling, suburban malls that offer
plenty of free parking and shelter from the weather. But now, people are heading back outside to
shop, to places reminiscent of quaint downtowns. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin
It’s a sunny day in March. But, as anyone who lives in the Midwest knows, a sunny day this early
in the Spring is rarely warm day. Today’s temperature’s in the 30s. But that’s apparently no reason to
stay indoors, when there’s shopping to be done.
The stores just opened at Eastwood Towne Center on the outskirts of Lansing, Michigan and the parking lot is
slowing filling up. Shiny minivans unload mothers, and babies and old ladies. They disappear into
Pottery Barn, Ann Taylor Loft and the Yankee Candle Company. They march from one store to
another to the sounds of soft-rock drifting out of speakers perched on lamp posts outside.
Eastwood Towne Center is one of a growing number of so-called “lifestyle centers.” There are
several in the Great Lakes Region – in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Lifestyle centers
are outdoor malls built to look like old-time downtowns. They have pseudo Main streets, that
weave through upscale stores with brick or stone-facades. Shoppers or their bored husbands can
take a rest on wrought-iron benches in neatly-manicured courtyards, or in cozy chairs at Starbucks.
Lifestyle centers also usually have popular chain restaurants and movie theaters.
Beverly Baten shops and works at Eastwood Towne Center. She says people are coming to
Eastwood to do what they used to do in city centers.
“They’re coming here to socialize. They’re coming to have lunch, to maybe see a movie, and
shopping is always a part of that experience because right here, at Eastwood Towne Center, we
have the stores that people want. And that’s so important. Whoever built this mall, did their
Cincinnati-based Developer Jeffrey R. Anderson built Eastwood Towne Center. The company also
has lifestyle centers in Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois. And it’s opening four more in the next four
The company’s Mark Fallon says shopping malls took most of the retail out of real downtowns a
long time ago. But he says now, people are looking at getting to the mall as a hassle. Fallon says
lifestyle centers offer the best of both worlds. He says they re-create the feeling of friendly
downtowns, and have the free parking and the good stores that malls offer.
“It’s really the closest thing to what was free-standing shops, that ended up next door to each other,
or in a neighborhood and you’re kind of recreating that feel, and getting back to a more pleasant
and convenient shopping environment that really, the mega-mall or the regional shopping mall that
you’re used to, the enclosed behemoth, that’s usually outside of town that you have to drive to
doesn’t provide these days.”
But that convenience sometimes comes at a cost. The developer covered old farm fields and a
small wetland to build the new shopping center. But it’s just across the street from older city
neighborhoods and infrastructure. Some criticize places like Eastwood for adding to urban sprawl.
But planning experts say many lifestyle centers actually fit into so-called “smart growth.”
Marya Morris is with the American Planning Association in Chicago. She says many developers
are locating lifestyle centers close to existing suburban development – and typically not in big
fields outside of town. Morris says incorporating new development into communities is what
“smart growth” is all about.
“It’s generally building in areas, in already-developed areas through redevelopment or
intensification of development, particularly in the suburbs right now. Many suburbs grew up
without any specific center or town square or downtown. And lifestyle centers, in many
communities, have helped create such a downtown, along with other things like new city halls, or
libraries, or new public greens.”
Developers say lifestyle centers are more attractive to retailers than real downtowns because they
can build exactly the store they want from the ground up. In older cities, retailers would have to
pay to retro-fit existing storefronts. And in real downtowns, there’s usually limited parking that
customers have to pay for. Lifestyle centers also often let retailers pack up and leave — no strings
attached — if business starts to slide.
But it seems pretty hard to imagine that a business would fail at Eastwood Towne Center, as the parade
of cars and shoppers grows this morning.
There are 20 new lifestyle centers set to open around the country over the next two years.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.