Back in 2016, Rachel Quednau wrote a piece in this space titled “Stuck with Strip Malls.” By “stuck with,” she meant that they will continue being built as long as our regulatory and financing systems incentivize them:
Until we change the government regulations that induce strip mall development (or until every strip mall fails completely), we’re stuck with these low-returning investments in our towns and cities.
We’re also stuck with them in the literal sense: Thousands of these structures will remain a part of the built environment, whether or not we keep building or financing them. Many will probably fail as they’re currently constituted, especially given the ongoing growth of e-commerce. In affluent and growing regions, such as Northern Virginia where I live, it’s common for older strip plazas to be torn down and redeveloped into mid-rise apartments or mixed-use centers. This type of development has its pros and cons; my own view on it is cautiously positive, as I explored here in Maryland’s affluent DC suburbs.
But are there ways for strip malls to be reinvented or reimagined in inexpensive, low-tech, incremental ways? Absolutely. We can see this process unfolding in many places. For example, take a look at this aging strip plaza in a more working-class community in Montgomery County, Maryland. Its anchor store, previously an Ames discount store (similar to a K-Mart), is now a cavernous thrift store. Its overbuilt parking lot, in a neighborhood where many residents do not own cars, now hosts a series of small businesses, from food trucks to produce sales to auto repair.
This is a very informal example, as the space has not been renovated or retrofitted in any way. In Falls Church, Virginia, there’s a somewhat more deliberate and more expensive example that still retains the strip mall form: Eden Center, a plaza home to dozens of Vietnamese restaurants, shops, and services, along with cultural events.
Eden Center is a huge attraction for Vietnamese Americans, as well as one of the most notable tourist attractions in the Northern Virginia suburbs. It has put the area on the map as a culinary and cultural center. (Businesses and restaurants from other Asian cultures, such as a Chinese hotpot restaurant and Korean barbecue restaurant are also tenants here.) While it might seem odd that a strip mall could house such culturally interesting stuff, that idea sells short the possibilities for these spaces.
Eden Center almost didn’t exist. Back in the 1980s, the strip plaza, opened in the early 1960s, was beginning to show its age. And at the same time, many Vietnamese Americans who had been displaced by DC Metro construction or rising rents further east ended up in Falls Church. Vacancies in the plaza beckoned, and little by little, the Vietnamese-American community opened businesses there until the place had a new identity. The company that owns the plaza became invested in the concept, and undertook architectural improvements, renovations, and expansions.
It’s sometimes suggested that this kind of thing has something to do with the fact the entrepreneurs involved are immigrants. There’s probably something to this, inasmuch as immigrants do start businesses at high rates, and many immigrants’ home countries have traditional built environments that they can draw on as a model for their approach to the American built environment. But to reduce this phenomenon to some notion of the magic of immigrants, or to view it as somehow “foreign,” would be wrong. The reality is that America’s centerless auto-oriented suburbs are the outlier and the oddity.
But, as noted, there are so many of these landscapes that they will survive in some fashion, no matter how much urbanist ideas take hold. On the one hand, strip malls and their associated built environments are poor investments. But on the other hand, they exist here and now. Strong Towns’ focus on incremental, small-scale development can be applied to them, too.
So what does Eden Center look like, and how has it subtly improved the functionality and productivity of the strip-plaza urban form? Here’s the view from above. Known as Seven Corners, this intersection is one of Northern Virginia’s busiest and most car-oriented areas.