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PRESIDENT'S LETTER

 

It doesn’t take a message delivered by an Amazon drone to realize the retail industry is undergoing a seismic shift. The Los Angeles Times reported that in the first three months of 2017, nearly 3,000 stores closed in the U.S.—and took 60,600 retail jobs along with them.

A recent drive along Main Street North in Jacksonville, FL—similar to Lincoln Boulevard, here—exposed the sad tale. Shopping centers formerly anchored by large supermarkets lie fallow with few occupied storefronts. One closed shopping center suffered the same fate that I’ve witnessed in the Inland Empire: transformation into a social services center. Since social services centers do not require display windows, these transformations include removal or enclosure of the large expanses of glass in these modern-style buildings. The result is an expressionless bunker, which is exactly what you don’t need to encounter when you are seeking social services.

The exercise, however, made me ask: as retail makes this transition, what will happen to all of our suburban shopping centers? These large, single-owner parcels surrounded by residential neighborhoods are destined to be purchased by developers and turned into high-density mixed-use residential projects. I can already think of one large block on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles that has suffered this fate. Commercial strips, which might require negotiation with multiple property owners, may be less likely to suffer this fate.

While it may be hard to get nostalgic for the supermarket shopping center, it is a feature that feels uniquely Californian—a reflection of the suburban idyll and love affair with the automobile. How many of these centers used to also have some form of a drive-in kiosk? Say a Fotomat, where you could pick up your vacation photos? Oh, I guess we haven’t needed those for more than a decade now. Or, how about a glassed-in donut shop displaying a wide array of tantalizing morsels?

As architectural historians, it behooves us to observe a built environment that is facing more rapid changes presently than during the industrial revolution to see what is worth documenting and celebrating.

I’ll contemplate that some more—right after the drone delivers my donuts.

Sian Winship

 
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