Not too long ago, my spouse and I took our friend Caitlyn out to celebrate her seventh birthday. Our plan was to have a little lunch at Scottsdale Fashion Square (7014 E. Camelback Rd., Scottsdale, www.fashionsquare.com) and then let her go nuts in the Missy section of one of the better department stores.
"I'm allergic to everything," Caitlyn told the waiter at lunch, "except French fries." She was trying to be helpful. Later, her concern grew to include us: Would we, she wondered, be able to find her a birthday present at this mall? She surveyed the colossal directory listing Fashion Square's 208 stores and said, "This place is kind of small."
Todd and I kept exchanging glances over our little friend's shiny blond head, old-fogy glances that said, "Remember when kids could eat peanut butter without being rushed to the hospital?" and "Remember when this was a big mall?"
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It's not, anymore. Fashion Square doesn't have a water feature, or a laser light show, or a 30-foot wall onto which Nike commercials are projected. It has anchor stores, which in the olden days meant that at key places in the mall, one could find a department store or a food court. It has a seating area and an escalator, old-timey amenities that today seem quaint when compared to Westgate City Center (9400 W. Hanna Lane, Glendale, www.westgateaz.com), a mall so huge it has its own $180 million, 18,000-seat arena and two hotels; or the northeast Valley's colossal Desert Ridge Marketplace (21001 N. Tatum Blvd., www.shopdesertridge.com), which at 1.2 million square feet apparently isn't large enough, because it's just launched an expansion that will nearly double its size.
Malls are no longer just one-stop shopping hubs or good places to dump off the kids for a couple of hours on Saturday. They are, according to architect Mark Tweed, "lifestyle centers, with a main street that ends in a village green with its own theater and a restaurant. And sometimes a hotel."
Tweed is the founder and president of the Beverly Hills-based HTH Architects, the firm responsible for designing both Tempe Marketplace and Desert Ridge. One day, he says, all malls will be anchored not by JCPenney but by hotels and housing, an arrangement that will bring more people to the mall because they live there. Tweed is an affable fellow who likes to think of his malls as "towns"; a guy who, when he's discussing the shopping megalopolises he's designed (right now he's working on another monster-sized one in Tucson), refers to "lifestyle amoebas" (by which he means central areas where people gather when they're not shopping) and "lifestyle tenants," which, when I was young, we used to call stores.
"It's all about sequential space," Tweed told me. "In the amoeba, spaces open up into larger spaces with fireplaces and living rooms. With this design, I'm forcing people to be together."
But, I explained, when I go shopping I don't want to be with people. I want to buy stuff and go home. When I want to be with people, I host a cocktail party.
"Then think of the mall as a transformed town," Tweed tried. "In my designs, there's a main street, and there are things that appeal to 15-year-olds, because they're the average shopper. So there's media and technology on every street in this town, because if you don't have those in the 21st century, you've missed the boat."
I don't want multimedia shopping. I don't want to, as Tweed says, "stable my car" in a parking lot so vast it has its own "district." I don't mind an Orange Julius stand, but one that beams a synchronized laser show 1,000 feet away onto a revolving stage atop a parapet wall makes me want to flee.
Tempe Marketplace (2000 E. Rio Salado Pkwy., Tempe, www.tempemarketplace.com) is so huge that it has its own separate monument, a sort of Stonehenge of lit-up department store signs that beckons to me from the freeway whenever I drive past. Once or twice, I've succumbed to this shrine's Lorelei song (I'm hard-wired to speed toward any Target sign larger than three feet tall) and visited this mega-mall. I like that it sits atop the biggest brownfield cleanup site in Arizona's history, a 117-acre patch of formerly toxic desert land that's been reclaimed in the name of conspicuous consumption. Still, this place is daunting. There's no strolling leisurely through one of these malls with no thought greater than "get out of the house, buy something cool that's on sale." I always feel like I should come with a game plan, one that includes stopping for a complete meal at a chain restaurant and timing my browsing around watching the elaborate fountains that perform nonstop most days and the various three-story-tall commercials that are projected onto the sides of buildings. (A friend told me last week that she went there one night in June and the misters were blasting with such force that she was actually cold. Which was good, because there was a fire blazing in the huge outdoor gas fireplace. What mall magic is next? Freak snowstorms in Macy's luncheonette?)
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I always end up lost. For people who are, like myself, directionally challenged, a $250 million power center like Tempe Marketplace, with its 25 football fields of stores and restaurants, can be a shrieking nightmare from hell. I go into Barnes & Noble, say, and come out later and head back the way I came. I'll pass a hangar-sized sushi restaurant and think, "Didn't that used to be a hangar-sized commercial for Lil' Kim's new album?"
There'll come a day, Tweed says, when those giant commercials will be the reason for walls to exist at all; that brick and mortar will be there only so that there's something onto which retailers can project more promos. "All that valuable wall space will be a canvas for more selling," he claims. "But not just yet. If retailers went that way today, it'd be too scary for people."
So why am I frightened now?