I've been thinking about strip malls again lately. They've been an on-again, off-again obsession of mine since the '80s, when I started traveling and noticed that other cities didn't seem quite so boxed in by as many of these long, low rectangles of grafted-together storefronts as is Phoenix. I also began to notice how these small shopping centers evolved; how once viable, cohesive ones fell apart after a neighborhood hit the skids, only to be reborn as a peculiar mishmash of shops and service locations that didn't necessarily fit well together.
My favorite strip mall is on West Dunlap Road and 43rd Avenue, just east of where Dunlap becomes Olive Avenue. When I worked at the record store in this mall more than a quarter-century ago, it was a bustling center with a Pizza Inn at one end and a Baskin-Robbins on the other. In between them were a copy shop, a smallish nursery, a couple of gifty boutiques, a hardware store, an auto parts store, and a head shop where I bought my very first "cigarette" papers.
The head shop is still there, but everything else in this now-sleepy, wildly mismatched mall is gone. The record store is now a coin shop; the pizza place is a tacky Japanese restaurant where my spouse refuses to eat because last time he was there, he saw a silverfish on the checkout counter. The Baskin-Robbins closed down just last month, replaced by a place called Venetian Coffee and Ice Cream that never seems to be open (and that still features the same Baskin-Robbins posters in the windows). And what exactly is sold at the mall's last and largest store, called Rhino Crap, I don't think I want to know.
Phoenix strip malls
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I love this mall because I can't imagine who shops there and because I can't believe that anyone who does can accomplish more than one thing while they're there. I mean, do the people who drop in at this mall's embroidery shop also stop three doors down at the A-1 Stapler and Nailer store? I suppose it's possible that folks whose taxes are done by this mall's CPA might also get their bangs trimmed at Awesome Hair and Nails, but does the clientele of the Amber Inn cocktail lounge stop first for an acupuncture treatment at the next-door Eastern medicine clinic?
What got me thinking about strip malls this time was the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's new design competition and public exhibition, whichthey're calling Flip a Strip. It's a project that launches in January and will ask designers both professional and amateur to submit plans for the renovation of a small-scale strip plaza. I called SMoCA director Susan Krane, who's curating this project and will select 10 proposals for an exhibition to open at SMoCA late next year. Susan told me she came up with the idea after visiting a Scottsdale Road strip mall where she ate at an Italian restaurant, bought a nice Merlot at a high-end wine shop, and peeked into a pet-grooming salon. "And I could have taken judo lessons there, too, if I'd wanted them."
It wasn't just what she called the "hysterically interesting and odd mix of businesses" that got Susan to pondering strip malls, but the nondescript architecture of this mall as well. "It was so bland as to be invisible, yet it offered this great, eclectic blend of stores and services, like so many strips all over the Valley."
I was glad to know that other people were thinking about strip malls, but I wanted more. I called Greg Esser and demanded that he tell me his favorite strip. Turns out Greg loves not just one mall, but a whole street full of them: the former Miracle Mile, that string of McDowell Road malls running between 12th and 20th streets with the big, weird arch jumping across it. Greg, who's one of the consultants on Flip a Strip and a man who's revitalized plenty of downtown buildings himself, is excited about the project for reasons other than architecture. "I'm more interested in the psychology of what kinds of businesses and amenities would go into making strip malls into vibrant, urban centers," he told me.
I know what he means. Because if I were to participate in this competition, my fantasy strip mall would be more about convenience than architecture, too. Flip a Strip isn't technically about the inhabitants of the mall, but to be honest, that's my personal main concern. I wouldn't really care what my mall looked like, so long as it featured underground parking and an elevator that delivered shoppers to an air-conditioned breezeway, so they'd never have to experience even a minute of discomfort from our hellish hot weather. While they were shopping, a well-groomed valet would take their car to be washed and vacuumed, and he'd refuse their offer of a cash tip when they reclaimed their car later.
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My strip mall would be anchored by a really great restaurant with a kitchen run by former chefs of T. Cook's and Durant's, one that served fried organ meat and a real caesar salad with anchovies. There'd be a really great bookshop with the best remainder table in town and a special section of first-edition hardcovers by obscure American authors; an antique shop that sold only flawless furniture and ceramic knickknacks from the '30s; and a spotlessly clean barber shop that offered pedicures and back issues of Collier's to read while customers waited their turn. There'd be a tiny bakery that sold real crusty baguettes and only one other thing — a different baked good that changed each day, like fig-infused beignets or Linzer tarts with a customer's initials sprinkled on with dusting sugar.
But this will never happen. If it were to, it would take forever to complete. "If you look into the more successful, more sensible strip malls in town, like the La Grande Orange mall over on 40th Street," Greg reminded me, "you realize that there was great resistance from the community to having them there. That probably won't change in the future."
Okay. So maybe I'll have to wait for a strip mall that lets me get all my errands done in one painless visit. In the meantime, I can refine the list of goods and services offered at my fantasy mall. I'm thinking about a topless gelato place and a cheese shop where deep discounts are offered only to fluent French speakers. And absolutely no rhino crap, ever.
To learn more about the Flip a Strip competition, go to www.flipastrip.org. The deadline for entries is March 31, and the show opens in October. I'll keep you posted as I hear more.