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Auto-Scape : Beyond the Lines

By : Susan Rogers and Kaede Polkinghorne

Shopping malls sprung up across the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. This new retail model, sparked by the development of sprawling suburbs and auto-oriented lifestyles, attracted department stores and shops that were once concentrated in the center of cities. The enclosed mall reached its zenith in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and since then has been beleaguered by competition and failure. Today, there are over a thousand enclosed malls in the U.S., over the next five years one-quarter of these are expected to fail.

In Houston, a city that has always been more suburban than urban, shopping malls are scattered across the landscape. At one time there were twenty-one enclosed shopping malls in the region, a dozen of these are still open and surviving, while nine have been demolished, are closed, or are dying. Dead and dying malls result in a landscape of emptiness and isolation, with vacant or partially-occupied buildings surrounded by asphalt.

AUTO-SCAPE is a study of six Houston area malls: Almeda, Greenspoint, Northwest, Macroplaza, PlazAmericas, and West Oaks. Each mall represents a different point on the continuum between success and failure. Northwest Mall has been closed for more than four years. Greenspoint, Macroplaza, and PlazAmericas are all in a significant state of decline, or dying. In contrast, Almeda and West Oaks malls are continuously adapting to survive the changing consumer and retail landscape, but neither is thriving.

Constructed between the years of 1961 and 1984, the malls collectively occupy over 400 acres of land, enclose nearly five million square feet of retail space, and have parking lots that could accommodate over 9,000 cars. The malls are islands, floating in seas of asphalt, and isolated from the surrounding context. Design strategies that support new programs and infrastructure have been developed to re-purpose the hundreds of acres of parking lots adjacent to area malls. The proposed designs activate the sites and create connections to the adjacent communities.

The five strategies developed for AUTO-SCAPE emerged from a thick understanding of each mall condition and the surrounding context. The strategies—power, nourish, activate, green, and play—work to do more than simply activate the sites but also address food and park deserts, perilous energy systems, and the human need for places to come together. Each strategy has been explored and applied within the constraints of the existing parking lot dimensions. The strategies move seamlessly between a pragmatic understanding of the possibilities between the lines and a more speculative agenda of working beyond the lines.

The main interventions on the PlazAmericas site focus on increasing access to public spaces, including green spaces, in response to Sharpstown’s significant park deficit. A public plaza is proposed adjacent to the laundromat on the north side of the site and a large park in the northwest corner repatriates asphalt as green space, anchoring it to the surrounding community. The existing parking garage and surrounding lots on the site’s southeastern edge are re-imagined as an extreme sports park with go-karting and skateboarding infrastructure along the border of the freeway. Space for community events such as firework shows and swap meets are also identified.

The owners of Macroplaza Mall have attempted, without success, to respond to the changing demographics of Pasadena and reposition and reaffirm the mall as the center of public life. The site is void of activity and more than half of the land area is dedicated to parking, the majority of which sits empty. Yet, the adjacency to the civic center points to the potential of the site to be re-purposed with varied public spaces to meet the needs of area children and families and to position the city as a leader in clean energy. To this end, the proposal focuses on introducing new green spaces, solar fields, and urban agriculture—transforming a waste space into a productive infrastructural landscape. Further, the market spaces inside the mall are extended out into the parking lot to promote entrepreneurship and a resilient local economy, while new event spaces bring vibrancy to the site.

The interventions proposed for the Almeda Mall site build from the current conditions and the activities observed, including an annual carnival and a school bus drop off location to the east. More specifically, a central strategy was to support the appropriation of the site by students through the provision of a comfortable pedestrian walkway lining the southeastern border. Play spaces, paths, green spaces, and agriculture are woven across this portion of the site. To the north, an existing grove of trees is left protected and its surrounding lots are covered in solar panels to create shaded parking. Event spaces, oriented towards the freeway, provide visibility and accessibility to draw visitors and encourage the further development of event programming.

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