When Darrell Vange, president of Ravenhurst Development, announced on April 23 that he was canceling plans to build a Target-anchored shopping mall just south of the International District, he blamed the recession. "The project would not be remotely feasible for the next four or five years," he says.
But it's not only the poor economy that doomed Vange's dream. The proposed development on Rainier Avenue South and South Dearborn Street—a gargantuan 700,000-square-foot, multistory mall with retail, 200 housing units, and 2,300 parking spaces—was one of a dying breed.
Plenty of other big local developers are sitting out the recession and building when the economy recovers. Take the 38-story office tower on Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street, proposed by Kevin Daniels, principal of the development firm Nitze-Stagen. "I'm looking at the end of 2012," Daniels says. Or the $75 million, three-building housing development proposed in the Central District by developer Jim Mueller, who says he's waiting for the lending markets to thaw before breaking ground.
The difference is that, unlike Vange, neither developer is trying to build an urban shopping mall.
Malls, and the chain stores they're built upon, are failing around the country. General Growth Properties, which runs eight malls in the state, including Westlake Center, which Vange also developed, filed for bankruptcy in mid-April. Summit Park Mall in New York announced in early May that it will close its doors within a month. And Opus West, a shopping Center in Texas, filed chapter 11 in early May. Meanwhile, major chain stores are in financial freefall—none more than mall staple Abercrombie & Fitch, which posted a 34 percent decline in sales in March compared with the year before. The ubiquitous Zumiez was down 17.9 percent, and American Eagle Outfitters was down 16 percent.
Increasingly, large cities like Seattle are focusing on smaller retail built around dense, walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods—not auto-oriented shopping centers (the closest light-rail station to the Dearborn Street mall would have been more than a mile away). Fundamentally, Seattle's vision for mixed-use retail and housing around transit centers is out of step with Vange's vision.
"Frankly, I think that urban planners have pushed too far in that regard," Vange says. "Shopping centers are machines designed to drives sales." In better economies, or in the suburbs, he may be right.