Sponsored by Oregon Business

The decline of the tacky strip mall

| Print |  Email
Articles - May 2011
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Of course, it isn’t easy to categorize strip malls in the constantly changing world of retail sales. Is the Zupan’s Market at the corner of NW 23rd and Burnside a strip mall? What about the former auto lot on Northeast Sandy that is now a vintage clothing store with space for food carts? How many of the 12.5 million square feet of retail centers in the Portland market listed as “community centers” might be better described as strip malls?

0511_StripMall_02Edward 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.”




Kevin Matthews - ArchitectureWeek
0 #1 Like West 11th in Eugene...Kevin Matthews - ArchitectureWeek 2011-04-27 12:53:38
The strip-convenien ce leapfrog scenario seems to describe West 11th Avenue in Eugene, along with the areas mentioned in the article.

Community leaders of Eugene from all around the political spectrum met in a consensus format from 2007 through 2009 and produced a shared vision for how to actively redevelop that two-mile strip into a new walkable main street for West Eugene:

Quote | Report to administrator

More Articles


November/December 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The world's second-largest wind energy project yields costs and benefits for a sheep-farming family in Eastern Oregon.


Where Do We Go from Here?

Guest Blog
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
102115-thumbBY JASON NORRIS | CFA

Volatility reigned supreme over the summer. The old Wall Street adage of, “Sell in May and go away,” was prophetic in 2015.


Hot Topics/Cool Talks: Tinker, Tailor, Portland Maker

The Latest
Friday, November 20, 2015



Insurance pulse: health care and Export-Import banks

Linda Baker
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
111715-healthcarelindathumbBY LINDA BAKER

The past month has been marked by upheaval in the health insurance markets. I also check in on clients of the Export-Import bank, a federal credit agency that subsidizes, and insures, foreign exports.


Tech to Table

November/December 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Power Lunch at the Barn Light Cafe & Bar in Eugene.


100 Best Nonprofits announced

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

1015-nonprofits01Oregon Business magazine has named the seventh annual 100 Best Nonprofits to Work for in Oregon. The rankings were revealed Wednesday night during an awards dinner at the Sentinel Hotel in Portland.


Not Your Father's Cafeteria

November/December 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Corporate food service reaches out to foodies.

Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02