Lava Bombs and Malls

Last night I had a series of terrible dreams. One involved lava bombs. The neighbor’s home (who happens to be my bishop) was blasted to smoldering flames, my old pickup caught one squarely in its rusted bed, then my house was battered, dead center in the master bedroom. Naturally, I was standing in the driveway, barefoot, crouching down as hell rained upon the neighborhood. I ran into the house to get my wife, but suddenly realized she was still in bed (it must have been early). Crying, I tried to get up the stairs but lava was splashed about, seriously impeding my progress and then barring my way finally. Knowing her fate, as dreams are often omniscient, I went to the little cabinet where somehow there were spare car keys, grabbed one for the new car and rushed outside, hoping to get up north to check on . . . I don’t know what. The dream went on, predictably getting worse until I woke.

When fully conscious, I started to wonder if this dream was somehow prophetic. (I’m generally not subject to such things, but you never know.) Then I thought, maybe this is all about Jeff Bezos.

Bezos, as you may know, is chairman and CEO of Amazon. And Amazon has presided over a sea-change in the U.S. economy, (some call it a disease) mediated by the internet revolution. Nowhere has the sea-change been more evident than in the recently passed Christmas holidays. Brick and mortar outlets suffered relative downturns, by and large, while retail cash expenditures flowed to, yes, the dot com businesses. Places like Best Buy have begun to function as proxy show rooms for items eventually purchased online and dot com outlets are looking to increase margins by taking over their own shipping enterprises (Amazon itself is now famous for its prediction of robot-drone-delivery operations.)

The whole thing has misled investors in the retail space, where some savvy CEOs saw the sea change for what it was, and started online components to their brick and mortar outlets (a prime example over the last earnings season is Starbucks — investors bid the stock down when considering year over year numbers, but failed to take into account the huge bulge in income postponed to the opening quarter of 2014 via electronic buying of future items).

What this all means is that the Shopping Mall, its boom era presided over mostly by Boomers, is probably dying, at least in its present form. Huge land investments for sprawling enclosed retail space have proved to be less than profitable of late. The model may be dead. Witness the good old “University Mall” in south Orem, Utah. Drafty empty spaces dominate the structure.

So, what does this mean for the Church’s investment in the downtown Salt Lake City extravaganza, “City Creek?” First, I’ve got nothing but praise for the ambience of the enterprise. It’s first rate as a picture of 21st century fantasyscape. What’s not to love about the place? What I’m wondering about is its economic sense. I know its meant to serve a rejuvenated downtown residential scene. The condos are great, if a little out of my eventual retirement income price range (if I had only bought a few thousand shares of Apple when it was 7 bucks).

But City Creek was never designed as just a retail forest. It was, and is, supposed to be a downtown gatheringplacemecca for the new Salt Lake City. A place that centers around a Temple Square for the 2000s, a modern tip of the Kirtland iceberg where prosperity is supposed to reign amid Zion.

Will it be that, given the sea change in retail? Well, it’s a nice place to read a book.


  1. It doesn’t mean as much as you think. As you note, the traditional “shopping mall” (an isolated retail environment only reachable by car and entirely inwardly focused, usually indoors) is a dinosaur. In many cases, most of these malls were not built with an existing “there there.” In other words, there was no reason to be in that location other than for the mall itself.

    However, City Creek is located in the absolute cultural/social/economic epicenter of the Wasatch Front (who’s influence/draw extends well beyond). It’s re-invention from what used to be there in the form of Crossroads Plaza has integrated itself much more effectively into the surrounding urban fabric – which in the long run will make it much more resistant to the natural decay most drive-able suburban type development is especially subject to. While City Creek as a primarily retail destination has not captured the true type of urban vibrancy you with, say, Michigan Avenue in Chicago, it should prove to be much more resilient than most suburban style malls (or even the neighboring Gateway, which is even more faux-urbanist and somewhat geographically isolated, both of which are already proving to limit its potential).

    There are definitely some troubling aspects with City Creek, but at least in this regard the church did a remarkable job in its civic role as the primary institutional stakeholder/landowner to strengthen Salt Lake’s central core. Most cities would kill to have stakeholders with such a vested interest in their overall well-being, and online retail will ultimately not be able to undercut the vibrancy of actual places. In a semi-related observation, Bezos’s choice to integrate Amazon’s headquarters into the fabric of downtown Seattle speaks volumes to the fact that real places will not be replaced by virtual ones any time soon.

  2. JamesM, I agree that the City Creek thing is different. But I still wonder if the tenants will feel the new economies of buying to be too hard to bare at some point. But as I say, it’s a kind of a fun place, the couple of times a year I happen to visit it from 50 miles away. And you know, it does have a Godiva outlet.

  3. Dave Redden says:

    With all that fire and brimstone and family drama up front, I thought for sure this was going to be another post about gay marriage. ;)

  4. Retail is changing but people will always look to touch and buy in person. You can’t always wait for it to arrive tomorrow nor do you want to.

  5. From lava bombs to amazon to lds urban shopping investments. Interesting thought process!

    Anyway, I think the problem you allude to is that ultimately regardless of how we want to kid ourselves on open air spaces and reading books, City Creek needs to be profitable. It’s stores need to be profitable. It’s hard to pay back an investment if you are either slashing rent rates or have a bunch of vacancies.

    Not saying that is happening now, but the one and only time I went there I walked into a few stores I liked, looked at a few price tags and walked right back out. If too many people are like me, the future doesn’t bode well.

    ps – I think the Best Buy floor shopping is a poor excuse to push retail’s woes onto Amazon. I haven’t been into a Best Buy for years. Anything I buy on Amazon is prime, and if it doesn’t live up to what I expect, UPS picks it up and takes it back the next day, at no charge to me. There’s pretty much no risk to buying on Amazon for me. How long can they keep that up? As long as they view that trade off better than constructing hundreds of expensive retail outlets in prime shopping areas all over the US.

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  8. Now Dave, the Spirit was just telling WVS that the endless torment of fire and brimestone was in his eternal future if he did not depart from his ways. (ie, travel North!)

  9. On the other hand, Steve is Canadian.

  10. As a native Minnesotan, I am increasingly irked by the presence of “malls” like City Center Plaza in my home state. Anyone paying attention to the news will realize that the open-air, Euro-market layout might do fine in someplace with a climate which produces the weak tea that passes for winter in Utah. The biggest shopping complex near my suburban home north of Minneapolis, 75 stores laid out in no discernible order and connected by winding roads and vast acreages of parking lots which prevent rational foot traffic between shops, is a travesty in a state with real snowfall and frequent sub-freezing days. It wastes time and fuel and adds to pollution by forcing people to drive and park, drive and park, drive and park, short distances between shops (if they can remember how to find the identical-looking shops in the street maze).

    Time was, when I was a kid, you could park once at one of those “dinosaur” indoor malls, go inside, do all of your shopping with your coat off, bring all of your purchases back out to your car, and go home. That would actually be convenient. What set of cretins decided, in a time when were worried about fuel efficiency and pollution, to lay out a mall this way? It must be the same people who got rid of all the glass pop bottles about 30 years ago and decided that everything, including shopping bags, should be made from increasingly scarce and costly petroleum-based plastic.

  11. I agree with DQ that the tenants in City Creek Mall need to be profitable. But, the institution itself? I’m not so sure. Does the Church expect CCM’s income to generate actual profit? Or was CCM seen primarily as a way to stop blight, revitalize the local economy, and increase pedestrian traffic around Temple Square with any actual revenues from the project being seen as mere loss-mitigation?

    We’re told the Church paid cash for the project, which means there aren’t any construction loans to be repaid . . . so other than the careers of some midlevel Curch bureaucrats, I don’t think there’s a lot riding on the overall financial return of the project.

  12. If the Church isn’t worried about making money off it, I wish they would’ve put in a nice park instead. Given the very clear signs that malls are on their way out–signs that have existed for years–I wonder if anyone actually did any studies of the declining mall trend before building City Creek. I hope it ends up being profitable, but I’d bet against it.

  13. If folks want City Creek to thrive, they probably ought to reconsider at least opening their parking lot on Sunday. December was a nightmare to find any parking for Temple Square Christmas events. The largest single parking provider in downtown SLC was closed tightly. The pay parking is all automated so it’s not like requiring anyone to work. I’ve been to CCM once. It was nice, but I would hardly call it a destination. But then, I avoid malls in general.

  14. Malls can adapt. Here in my city we have two major malls. One is a huge shopping Mecca, the other is a neighborhood center appropriately named Crossroads Mall. (oh, there is one more place, but it’s too high-end for me to even try to find the parking entrance. I don’t think my minivan would work well next to the Lamborghinis. Hmm. They might only have valet parking.)

    Anyhow, the smaller place is definitely more community oriented. They have free music performances on weekend evenings (really good!) and during the day they sometimes have preschool community activities. And true to it’s name, they have a terrific selection of food shops from around the world, reflecting the various cultures of the neighborhood.

    Come to think of it, there is one more mall (4, now, for those keeping track). It’s slowly breathing back to life as they bring in more community things. It has a couple of grocery stores (like the Crossroads mall) and retailers like Target and a Neighborhood Walmart that bring people in across the economic spread.

    So, malls can continue if they adapt. Like others have said, I don’t think trying on clothes in person is going to go away. Most of us just aren’t built right to order things online. (When I do, I order the same thing in two sizes and it’s from a store where I can do a local free return.)

  15. It’s a very interesting question. Time will tell, of course. While I agree that malls are dying in suburbia, and personally I avoid them like the plague unless I absolutely have to try something on. I’ve even bought shoes and clothes on line when I’ve felt reasonable certain of the size. I’m not sure in densely populated urban areas. However, downtown SLC isn’t that densely populated. Personally, I think the mall was a much needed upgrade to the downtown area, but will it be so in 5 or 10 years? Very valid question.

  16. “Well, it’s a nice place to read a book.”
    I’m all in favour of those.

    I am someone who needs to try stuff on to check fit, and I hate the hassle of ordering and returning, so I always buy clothes in person.
    Paint and wallpaper also needs to viewed, as colours displayed online are not accurate. But online is great for things like replacement drawer-runners and other such bits and pieces.

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