Dead Mall Allen, Texas

“Big Box Blight” and the Death Agony of the American Shopping Mall

A recent headline in the Wall Street Journal read: “Local Malls, Stuck in ‘Death Spiral,’ Plunge in Value: Crystal Mall in Connecticut, worth $150 million in 2012, recently sold for $9.5 million.” The article went on to describe one example of an increasingly common development:

Crystal Mall’s parking lots used to be so crowded that parents would line up to drop off their teenagers near one of the entrances rather than search for a spot. Now, the vast stretches of cracked pavement surrounding this 1980s-era regional mall on Connecticut’s coast have more weeds than cars. Valued by an appraiser at $153 million as recently as 2012, Crystal Mall sold in June for just over $9.5 million in a foreclosure auction.

In Phoenix, AZ, where the author of this article is located, one can find another example in the case of Fry’s Electronics, which went bankrupt and closed over two years ago, leaving two slowly decaying buildings in its wake. We have many needs in the Phoenix area that could be addressed by repurposing such large open spaces. Yet they remain standing like forgotten and ignored gravestones as nature slowly reclaims them.

Fry's Electronics Tempe Arizona
Big-box chains across the country are increasingly shuttering locations or going out of business entirely, often leaving their former storefronts to rot in public due to disuse. / Image: Bryce Edwards, Flickr

These are just two examples of what has been termed the “retail apocalypse.” From 1995 to 2021, more stores closed every year than opened. Big-box chains across the country are increasingly shuttering locations or going out of business entirely, often leaving their former storefronts to rot in public due to disuse.

The shopping mall, once a symbol of triumphant American capitalism and consumerism, has been particularly hard hit. Last year, with just 700 malls still standing—down from 2,500 in the 1980s—one consultant estimated that by 2032 there will be just 150 malls left. The many thousands thrown out of their jobs will be left with nothing to do but contemplate the abandoned buildings.

E-commerce, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, continues to grow. But even before the coronavirus disrupted the world, companies like Sears, Kmart, Circuit City, and many others were closing their doors and abandoning buildings with such regularity that a veritable cottage industry of media nostalgia has arisen. YouTubers like Dan Bell and his Dead Mall Series have carved lucrative careers for themselves by filming the eerie liminal spaces left behind by these closures.

One might think that these large buildings could be usefully reimagined or at least demolished with a view towards recycling the salvageable materials for other uses. But so many of these buildings remain empty. They dot the landscape like some post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi novel, jutting up against the horizon with their fading lettering and dulled paint. The result is a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “big-box blight,” in which seemingly unusable branded buildings sit empty and slowly degrade in the bleak landscape of decaying American capitalism.

Walmart Blaine Minnesota
Companies like Target and Walmart were more or less locked into a specific kind of form: large, open, warehouse-like buildings with huge parking lots. / Image: Gabrielle Vanslette, Wikimedia Commons

The origins of big-box retail

The history of the modern big-box store dates back to the middle of the previous century. An “innovation” that was largely introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, these large commercial spaces were able to act simultaneously as retail locations and warehouses. This was a major development for the retail industry. The stores, pioneered by companies like Walmart, Target, and Kmart, could outsell their competitors since they could buy huge bulk orders from manufacturers—housing the tremendous volume of commodities inside the stores themselves—thereby selling those commodities to the working class at discount prices.

Initially, municipalities welcomed these stores, especially in suburban areas. The promise of new jobs and cheap goods made them attractive to growing areas in the 1960s and 1970s. Given that Western capitalism’s post-World War II boom had come to a close by the mid 1970s, this was a welcome prospect for working-class consumers across the country.

However, in order to meet zoning requirements, companies like Target and Walmart were more or less locked into a specific kind of form: large, open, warehouse-like buildings with huge parking lots. Furthermore, it was most efficient for each company to adopt a standardized design and form of construction for their stores. As the property law and land-use researcher Sarah Schindler noted in her paper The Future of Abandoned Big Box Stores: “It would require more time and money to develop an individual set of construction plans for each new store than it does to have a single plan that can be applied to developments throughout the country.”

The result was the building of a vast array of stores, each designed to fit the bespoke needs and aesthetic of a particular company. As this new type of store spread across the US, more and more municipalities were compelled to plan and design their cities around the needs of big-box retailers.

Although some bourgeois thinkers like Jane Jacobs critiqued the urban and commercial planning that was taking root in the mid-century in books like The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), the cracks in this system would not truly show themselves until the late 1990s.

"Big Box Sucks"
The “mom and pop” small businesses, remnants of an earlier stage of capitalism, were outpaced and replaced by large retail chains. / Image: Peter Blanchard, Flickr

As big-box retailers and shopping centers—with their collections of small chain stores—moved into cities and towns, they replaced small businesses and gutted the urban centers. The “mom and pop” small businesses, themselves remnants of an earlier stage of capitalism, were outpaced and replaced by these large retail chains, a classic example of the capitalist tendency toward consolidation and monopolization. Once the competition had been thoroughly destroyed, Walmart, Kmart, Home Depot, Sears, and others began downsizing or, in some cases, “upsizing” by downsizing several small stores into a single “superstore.”

Texas A&M University researchers Harold Hunt and John Ginder reported in their 2004 article “Lights Out: When Walmarts Go Dark” that some 107 Walmart stores had been closed in 103 different Texas cities. Why were these stores being closed? As Hunt and Ginder explain, it was so that, in 92 specific cases, Walmart could build so-called “supercenters” in the very same cities of the original closings! 

This was in 2004, when “the getting was good”and the economy was doing relatively well. The capitalists believed humanity had reached “the end of history” and that crises of overproduction were a thing of the past. Even during the “good times,” when the capitalists are making money hand over fist, they are willing to litter the earth with their no longer loved and needed playthings, treating our cities and towns like mere dumping grounds.

Big-box retail enters into decline

However, as mentioned above, the expansion of big-box retail eventually turned into its opposite, with the Covid-19 pandemic merely accelerating trends that were already well established. For instance, Walmart has been quietly closing store after store for some time. They closed 154 stores in 2016, while in 2019 they closed several more stores in both the US and Canada. This is to say nothing of the bewildering number of mall retailers that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Many of these were once considered “anchor stores” due to their role in bringing consumers to malls in the first place, including large department stores such as Sears or Neiman Marcus, which recently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy after closing over 20 stores.

Gap, Inc. plans to close over 350 stores and to leave mall spaces by 2024. Just this year, the home retailer Bed, Bath, and Beyond declared bankruptcy, which will eventually leave 360 store fronts empty. As we stare down the barrel of another downturn in the economy, UBS estimates that some 50,000 retail stores will close by 2026.

Given the anarchic, profit-driven nature of the capitalist economy, all this inevitably means a loss of jobs, wages, and benefits for thousands of workers in the retail and distribution industries. This is made worse by the serious commercial, environmental, and structural crisis that is left in the wake of these stores closing on a mass scale.

Surely our lords and masters would like to make use of these stores in their own way and make these shopping districts profitable once again, right? So what is their answer to the problem of big-box blight?

The banality of the capitalist class

The reality is that the capitalist class is unequipped to handle this kind of problem, and has proven time and again that it cannot see past its own nose. This is not due to moral or intellectual failure, but rather because investment for profit in the anarchic, unplanned market economy is the driving force of their entire system. The nature of capitalism does not allow for meaningful control or oversight over how cities are planned and expanded.

"The Scale of Failure" Summit Place
Many of the owners of these crumbling stores have absolutely no intention of selling, maintaining, or adapting these buildings. / Image: John Good, Flickr

As a result, many of these buildings will simply sit empty. In fact, some layers of the capitalist class find in this phenomenon a convenient way to lower their property taxes. The reporter and researcher Henry Grabar has explained how working, open stores are assessed for property taxes as compared to already closed stores. Companies can use that comparison to argue for a lower tax burden with municipal governments.

As Grabar describes:

The unwieldy, windowless hangars are ill-suited for adaptive reuse. Thousands of them lie vacant in malls around the country, depressing the resale market. To make matters more complicated, many big-box companies will not sell their vacant properties without an anti-competitive deed restriction. One reason the Michigan Walmarts ended up as low-rent industrial properties was because the chain had a stipulation in the deed of sale: no big groceries or discount stores allowed.

In other words: Many of the owners of these crumbling stores have absolutely no intention of selling, maintaining, or adapting these buildings, in part because leaving them empty helps them keep costs low. In many cases, even tearing down these buildings can create problems, as the large buildings and parking lots are sometimes built on top of utilities like power, water, gas, etc. With capitalist retail based on “branding” and other considerations, re-sale to other chains is unappealing. For instance, a company like Home Depot likely will not want to buy an empty big-box store which is clearly identifiable as a former Walmart.

In the end, it’s easier for them to leave the abandoned hulks and just walk away from the real estate. They leave it to the local residents to come to terms with the eyesores and to deal with any ecological or social fall out.

Bourgeois liberal thinkers offer, not real reforms, but rather, “grandiloquent plans for reforms” as the British Marxist, Ted Grant, once put it. Some municipalities, operating as they must under the logic of capitalism, attempt to introduce “revitalization plans” through minimal tax incentives to build “affordable housing,” and the like, but these proposals only scratch the surface of the issue.

Others, like non-profit director Stacy Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), put forth various well-meaning but milquetoast proposals. For instance, after suggesting that companies should be legally mandated to put vacant stores on the market, she concedes that nonetheless “most retailers prefer to build new structures [rather than repurpose old buildings] to suit their specific formats. The ILSR also acknowledges that some of the proposed measures would be “ineffectual if there is no market for the abandoned store.” Thus, these proposals immediately come up against the limits and absurdities of the anarchic market economy.

For the creativity of the working class!

The chaos and anarchy of the capitalist economy is nothing new. Explaining the rise of capitalism in his pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Friedrich Engels explained the antagonism between the organization of production in the individual workshop and the anarchy of production in society generally:

With the extension of the production of commodities, and especially with the introduction of the capitalist mode of production, the laws of commodity production, hitherto latent, came into action more openly and with greater force. The old bonds were loosened, the old exclusive limits broken through, the producers were more and more turned into independent, isolated producers of commodities. It became apparent that the production of society at large was ruled by absence of plan, by accident, by anarchy; and this anarchy grew to greater and greater height. But the chief means by aid of which the capitalist mode of production intensified this anarchy of socialized production was the exact opposite of anarchy. It was the increasing organization of production, upon a social basis, in every individual productive establishment.

This, and no other theory, explains the real cause of the problem of big-box blight. Indeed, the “increasing organization” within individual establishments such as Walmart and other big-box chains led to their consolidation and proliferation throughout the country. But this happened in capitalist society at large, “ruled by absence of plan, by accident, by anarchy.” This resulted in widespread overproduction of big-box chain stores. Now, as the capitalists no longer need these buildings for their original purpose and cannot find other profitable use, they are simply left to rot and deface our neighborhoods and towns.

Store closing Kmart Indianapolis Indiana
Now, as the capitalists no longer need these buildings for their original purpose and cannot find other profitable use, they are simply left to rot and deface our neighborhoods and towns. / Image: Mike Kalasnik, Flickr

Only the collective creativity of the organized working class can meaningfully address this issue. This means fighting for a socialist revolution and the establishment of a workers’ government, as a transitional period towards communism.

A workers’ government would nationalize the major industries and expropriate vacant property in order to put it towards productive use under a rationally planned economy. On this basis, empty buildings could be retrofitted or recycled, depending on the needs of society. Councils made up of workers could determine how to put them to use, perhaps providing towns with valuable collective storage space, indoor parks, cultural venues for music and theater performances, classrooms, factories, temporary housing, or community meeting spaces. As part of a bold program to address climate change, a workers’ government would also massively invest in research for new techniques to recycle the building materials as efficiently as possible.

The expropriation of these big-box stores would only be the beginning of a revolution in urban planning under a workers’ government. Not only could we repurpose and recycle empty or underused stores. More broadly, a communist society would unleash a completely different driving force for planning and building cities, which would include more walkability and public transport, better access to high-quality affordable goods and services, and more aesthetically pleasing architecture.

The conditions for the socialist revolution are overripe. These big-box structures are potentially useful buildings that could be utilized to help solve many societal issues. In order to do that, we need collective ownership of the major industries and rational planning of the economy—and only the working class, the only progressive class, is capable of carrying out this transformation.

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