Thing is, I don't like malls much. Like many others, I've learned that they're built upon the unsustainable foundation of cheap oil. Patrons of the Holyoke Mall don't drive there just from Springfield (8 miles away), they come from places like my suburban-rural hometown of Wilbraham (20 mi), Greenfield (32 mi), and no doubt well into Vermont (more than 50 mi). Over the past half-century, we have consolidated and centralized our retail centers into huge shopping centers only accessible by automobile and paltry bus service shunned by white, middle-class customers. As a result, malls have a huge carbon footprint.
So what's the answer? Today's urban planners, many of whom subscribe to the theory of New Urbanism, would like to see a resurgence of our traditional mixed-use city centers. Shops on the ground level, offices and housing above. Currently, Northampton has the only lively downtown with stores lining the street. The shops are cute and many do pretty well, but they're just little boutiques. What if you want to buy a pair of socks?
Holyoke and Springfield find themselves in quite a conundrum. One answer would be to move the mall downtown, where it would be closer to where people actually live. That won't work at the Holyoke Mall's current scale, nor anything close to it, because the mall depends on attracting customers from an entire region--not just a city. Today, there's no way for most people to reach the center of Springfield or Holyoke except by automobile. So you could move the parking downtown, but how would the city streets handle all that traffic? The Holyoke Mall depends on two interstate highways (I-90 and I-91) and the six-lane Holyoke Street to feed it. Basically, the Holyoke Mall is a monster. It is unsustainable not just in its location but in its size.
For those of you who wonder what my work might be as an urban planner, this is a prime example of one of the huge problems people of my profession have been tasked to solve.
What's my ideal vision for shopping in Western Massachusetts? The anchor stores (Macy's, Sears, Target, Best Buy) would embrace urban store designs for Main Street in Springfield and High Street in Holyoke. (Some chains are showing that they're willing to adopt an urban format, but at this point only in large cities). The real estate is certainly available in Holyoke in many sizes and forms. The stores would have to be smaller and more efficient with their use of space. If the cost of gasoline rises to $5 or above, the PVTA might consider light rail in the region. Those who cannot travel to downtown Springfield or Holyoke by foot, bicycle, or bus would do so by tram or train.
Then there's the question of how to get those suburbanites to fill abandoned buildings and construct on vacant land in the city. And what do we do with the mall, which apparently has some significant period-significant details like that UFO-style lighting, the geodesic dome, the wooden benches and planters? Perhaps someday it can be transformed into a new town center. The answers aren't all there yet, but in challenges such as these I see great opportunity.