I talk a lot of shit about how the suburbs we build today aren't particularly resilient.
But there's one suburban institution that I think is enormously resilient and versatile: the strip mall.
I'm not joking. Don't laugh.
Unlike its cousin, the dying indoor mall, the strip mall is enormously adaptable, ubiquitous, and absolutely does have a future.
Let me illustrate using the Country West Shopping Center, on West Capitol Avenue, West Sacramento, California. Despite some gentrification, and a few subdivisions built in the 2000s, West Sac is industrial and poor. When I was in high school, if you want to be one of those hipsters who wanted a walkable, urban neighborhood, you'd live in Sacramento proper; if you wanted good schools and quiet suburbia, you'd go to Davis or Granite Bay.
But the Country West Shopping Center? It's flourishing, even though the national retailers are long gone and the biggest tenants are a Goodwill and a Dollar Tree. Click through it on Google Street View, and you'll see that nearly every single storefront is occupied by a business, with names like "Hing's Chinese Restaurant," "Rose's Hair and Nails," and "Mercado Loco."
Though the neighborhood around it has already entered into decline, the Country West Shopping Center is still there.
Why is this? Well, it's because strip malls have a couple big similarities to traditional downtowns. First, the businesses you see in the Country West Shopping Center are totally independent of one another rather than being totally dependent on a major tenant like a JCPenney or a Nordstrom - to attract customers. Second, because they're not reliant on the big department store, it's easier to subdivide the space for smaller businesses if necessary - and there's less overhead to pay for. (A good example of this is the La Favorita taco shop, which operates in the cut-down shell of an Albertson's supermarket.) Because strip mall real estate can be subdivided and expanded to fill the available space, it's full of life. Nearly every single space has a small business of one type or another - in this case, they're run by the Russian, Indian, and Mexican immigrants who came to West Sac over the last thirty years.
Is there still too much parking for my taste? Yes. Is the land still used inefficiently? Yes. You could put eight 70' x 25' townhouses in the little-used parking spaces in front of the Dollar Tree - which would be my suggestion if you wanted to use the land more efficiently.
But is it irretrievably broken? Is this something that needs to be demolished and totally rebuilt?
The strip mall will have to be adapted for the 21st century. Strip malls should be better connected with the neighborhood street grid; they should be more pedestrian-friendly; a few townhouses should get built on the extra land in the parking lot.
But at its core, the strip mall's concept - small, versatile, independent commercial spaces directly accessible to the public - is a very old idea. In a sense, it's just a traditional American Main Street with a bigger parking lot.