The future of retail in America is under renewed focus as COVID-19 forces declining retail models to fold. The shopping mall as a retail model has been in decline for years, but the pandemic has hastened its demise. Analysts are now predicting historic retail closures in 2020 of more than double the previous record experienced in 2009. According to Coresight Research, US retailers will close between 20,000-25,000 stores this year – and as much as 60% of those closures will occur in shopping malls. Another recent study found that more than half of all mall-based department stores will close by the end of 2021, which may drive other retailers out of the mall and back into walkable downtowns and main streets. Consumer spending drives 70% of our economy and we are witnessing historic shifts in how consumers shop with the digital shopping boom and an increased desire for walkable experiences. Forward-thinking communities can seize upon this new opportunity to envision more connected, urban retail models. In considering how change is impacting our cities, it is helpful to reflect upon one success story from the recent past as an illustrative case of what is possible with new thinking.
In the 1970s, city leaders demolished large blocks of historic buildings in downtown Boise in a failed attempt to attract a shopping center development. The impact was compared to a bomb being dropped on the downtown, leaving large vacant tracts of land in the city’s core. Local leaders were at a loss. What followed during the 1980s is now celebrated by locals as “The Boise Revolution.” As Anthony Lyons observes, it “completely changed the direction downtown Boise was headed. The revolution began with a change in political leadership that first allowed the retail shopping center to go to the suburbs where it always wanted to be. The new mayor and members of the city council brought a neotraditional approach to urban design in downtown that emphasized pedestrian-friendly streets and mixed-use buildings. This approach was advanced by the visit from the American Institute of Architects’ Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team. The R/UDAT made 16 specific recommendations related to redevelopment and city design, most of which have been accomplished or are currently underway. The real revolution was the community coming together to overcome downtown’s stagnation, to heed the advice of the R/UDAT team that Boiseans should “submerge their individual agendas and work together in the broader interest of the entire community.” Now, when so many people throughout the greater metropolitan area look at Boise’s downtown with a shared sense of pride, it is instructive to remember that was precisely the thing that was missing following the “bombing raid” days of not so long ago.” The progress downtown has been well-documented over time by civic leaders across the community, allowing observers to see how it developed piece by piece. Most importantly, the momentum continues. In 2016 alone, 24 new businesses opened in the downtown and the city was included on U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Places to Live list,” Forbes’ list of “America’s Top 20 Fastest Growing Cities,” and Livability’s list of the “Best Downtowns.”
What can your community learn from the Boise Revolution? What will it take to begin a similar revolution of partnership to transform your city for the pandemic era? We’d love to hear your ideas!