A Taste for the Urbane Fuels Explosion of Outdoor Malls

Take a stroll down the Linq. | Photo by Anthony Mair

Take a stroll down the Linq. | Photo by Anthony Mair

What do these new outdoor malls mean for Las Vegas?

They mean Las Vegas is doing what it does best: chasing the buck. New-school attractions such as the Linq and Monte Carlo’s outdoor plaza are not necessarily innovative, but they’re reflective of the way 21st-century citizens like to interact.

Ironically, that’s pretty similar to the way 19th-century urbanites liked to interact: on vibrant streetscapes filled with interesting shop windows. And it’s not entirely new for those streetscapes to be somewhat pre-fab: The arcades of Paris have taught us all a thing or two.

In a strange way, Caesars Palace’s outdoor-themed Forum Shops, opened in 1992, anticipated the new-old wave. “Just a mall” just wasn’t enough anymore: There was a hunger out there for a sense of the street, even if it was a pre-baked street under a painted sky. Today, the Forum Shops is one of the top grossing malls in the world. It changed the face of Strip shopping, which was once relegated to small arcades off the casino floors, and made it a critical component of the Vegas experience.

The allure of open-air retail complexes is particularly strong in cities where development patterns pushed aside traditional downtowns. In Southern California, you can credit Horton Plaza (which spearheaded San Diego’s Gaslamp District redevelopment in 1985) and The Grove in Los Angeles for leading the way. The Grove, opened in 2002 next to the city’s historic Fairfax farmers market, is widely considered the standard bearer for all that came later, including Anaheim’s GardenWalk (2008). Although L.A.’s downtown proper is starting to show some signs of life, it’s a different kind of life.

Sure, there may not be much urban authenticity to be found in a mall, but that is likely part of the appeal, and it encouraged Generation X to abandon the town square for Town Square (or, rather, the Galleria and the Meadows) back in the day. That Gen Xers and their children are the ones driving the success of open-air malls is no surprise.

Nonetheless, there’s a distinct difference between our latter-day walkable live-work-play environments and late 20th-century malls. Yes, we generally still drive to get to them. But once we get there, we find that these nouveau civic centers feed our desire for manageable urban landscapes rather than evoking the dystopian megamall future we seemed headed toward in the 1980s. The square footage of old- and new-school malls may be comparable, but the experience is altogether different.

A larger question may be: How do these up-from-the-dirt New Urbanist projects relate to redevelopment efforts in established urban centers? I’d say they’re a response to the same healthy desire for interaction in a vibrant semi-public space; the longing for live-work-play drives both open-air developments and downtown redevelopments. They are alternative visions of the same demand.

Questions? AskaNative@VegasSeven.com.