Edward T. McMahon of the Urban Land Institute defines a commercial strip as “a linear pattern of retail businesses strung along major roadways characterized by massive parking lots, big signs, boxlike buildings and a total dependence on automobiles for access and circulation.”
McMahon is the author of a recent influential essay, “The Future of the Strip,” that argues persuasively that the era of strip development in the U.S. is “slowly coming to an end.” He builds his case on several large trends that he sees as irreversible:
- Developers have overbuilt the strip.
- Major retailers such as Target, Home Depot and even Wal-Mart are moving into the city.
- The suburbs are growing more urban.
- Younger shoppers want character and style.
- Gas prices and congestion make the strip even less enjoyable for shoppers.
- E-commerce will result in fewer and smaller stores.
In McMahon’s view, those trends add up to a powerful force that retailers and communities would be foolish to ignore. “The two distinguishing characteristics of strip malls are that they’re ugly and congested,” he says. “Try running a marketing campaign around that: ‘Shop here! We’re ugly AND congested!’”
Strip centers fitting that description were not built with legacy in mind. “Strip centers can live as short of a life as 10-12 years,” says Portland-based retail consultant David Leland. “Once they’re dead, they’re dead. You get two or three of them in a row and you’ve got a dead zone. You keep getting these newer, nicer centers further from the center, leap-frogging one another, and they leave behind a kind of museum of failure.”
Even professionals with a stake in the future of McLoughlin are blunt in acknowledging that the strip isn’t working. “You go into a lot of these places and look around and you know why they’re vacant,” Joe Green III says of his less-than-proactive neighbors near the Green Castle. “The traditional strip retail centers, they’re over — they’re done. And they should be.”
Commercial Realty Advisors broker Alex MacLean, who is trying to lease the massive space left behind on McLoughlin by the shuttered Joe’s store, says McLoughlin suffers from a lack of identity. “There’s nothing about that area that distinguishes it, with the possible exception of the auto lots.”
The same weakness applies to other struggling strips from Salem to Beaverton to Vancouver. Michele Reeves, a land-use consultant who works with communities to make better use of their commercial strips, says many of the problems result from poor planning and design. The proliferation of retail choices makes the strip congested, and cities respond by making the street even wider. Before long you have a blighted arterial where crossing the street is an act of valor. “What do you do? Keep widening the road? In 15 or 20 years you are going to have a 12-lane road, and it will still be congested.”
In her previous career, Reeves helped turn Portland’s North Mississippi Avenue from a run-down strip into a shopping and dining destination. Now she works with communities with sprawl problems to help make their commercial strips more functional and appealing. “We’re in the middle of a big demographic shift,” she says. “People want to live in the center, in walkable neighborhoods. For communities with no walkable amenities, they need to worry because they are on the wrong side of the trend.”
Plenty of communities are aware of the trend in Oregon, and quite a few are acting on it, through Main Street investments and various attempts at urban revitalization. There is even a McLoughlin Area Plan Committee trying to capitalize on the coming light rail line to build a more attractive, modern retail district, with a sense of place and character rather than a blur of roadside signs.
“The next 30-40 years will be the era of the reinvention of the suburbs,” predicts the Land Institute’s McMahon in a telephone interview. “The development paradigm is changing and the economic recession speeded up a bunch of things that were happening anyhow.”