Reinventing the Mall

Plans are in the works to redevelop the Galleria into a walkable, environmentally friendly transit hub with community spaces and residential

By: 

Erik Petersen

Published date: 

Feb. 2, 2016

Sunrise Aerial Complete.11-06-2015.jpg
Everybody loves the High Line.
Whether you read high-end urban design blogs or have a cousin who did a long weekend in New York, you’ve heard about the High Line. Maybe you’ve even walked it. About a mile and a half of linear park in Manhattan – or more specifically, several stories above Manhattan on a long-abandoned raised train line – the lush aerial greenway has become one of New York’s most popular parks and a major tourist attraction. Since the park’s first phase opened in 2009, other cities have been scrambling around to locate abandoned 20th-century infrastructure that can be repurposed as fun, walkable public space. Miami plans to stick something similar under the Metrorail.

But those are other places. Fort Lauderdale doesn’t have raised rail, Metro or otherwise. Nor are there many rusting mid-20th century hulks waiting to be turned into hip new linear parks.

Although, hang on. Fort Lauderdale might not be home to dated 20th-century construction of the raised-train-line variety, but the city has a great hulk that’s a prime example of a 20th-century creation trying to survive in the 21st. A location that has been hailed more than once in its history as a sign of Fort Lauderdale’s progress and modernity – and criticized more than once in its history as an example of Fort Lauderdale’s need to redevelop. A location that’s now being touted as the site of a creative, people-first redesign that will, among other things, give Fort Lauderdale its own version of the High Line.

Bayview Plaza.11-10-2015.jpgBehold the Galleria.
Granted, Fort Lauderdale’s big shopping center does not, at first glance, have much in common with an abandoned Manhattan train line. Or at second glance. But they’re similar in a couple big ways. One, they were built in a different era, and they need to adapt to the current one. Two, they offer some lovely public space if people are willing to look at them a bit differently.

This year, the people behind the Galleria are going to the city with a reworked plan for a massive, multi-year redevelopment of the mall. The proposed redevelopment is many things. It is a long process, already several years in the making, that involves meetings with neighbors and city officials. The project has already changed several times in response to some of those concerns. The project’s single most dramatic addition, a residential tower, has been dropped from 45 stories to 38. A hotel has been scrapped in favor of more condo units – condos cause less traffic than hotels, and concerns about traffic and congestion are not insignificant on a stretch of Sunrise Boulevard that already gets backed up.

But this is more than simply remodeling the Galleria and slapping a tower on top of it, and the people behind the plan are trying to get people to see the entire picture.  There’s the public space that would ring the mall – the High Line-style linear park. That bit behind the mall – the one that’s mostly underused surface parking and the road people use as a shortcut when Sunrise Boulevard’s backed up between the Middle River and the Intracoastal? That would be a green space with wide pathways. The plan also calls for a roof garden public space.

“We’ve created a way to make all the areas around the mall public,” says  Peter Flotz, whose Fort Lauderdale-based company, FLL Development Enterprise, is working with Galleria owner Keystone-Florida Property Development Corp. on the redevelopment.

9th-MiddleRiver Pocket Park.11-10-2015.jpgIt would feature pathways an average of 41 feet wide running through greenery, with places to sit and park amenities such as outdoor workout equipment. Landscaping would also be added to the mall itself, with greenery on roof and parking areas both creating pleasant spaces and making the place more environmentally friendly. In fact the plan calls for a number of environmental and sustainability-driven attributes; developers are aiming for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Community spaces would be added – there is, Flotz notes, a building on top of the mall that dates to the 1980s remodel and was never completed. It’s accessible and well located, and it would become a community room. Down at ground level, more outdoor restaurants would be added, making the mall’s new park-like surroundings something that dovetails neatly into mall amenities. The portion of Bayview Drive that runs under the mall would be transformed into a transport hub with stops for county buses and city trolleybuses. City Commissioner Dean Trantalis says he suggested allowing people to park at the mall on weekends and catch trolleybuses to the beach – a suggestion that is now being considered.

The Galleria sits in Trantalis’ District 2 and the commissioner, also a vocal proponent of smart growth and development, had previously raised concerns about the scope and shape of the project.

“When I saw the first plan, they built on every square inch – every part where you might want to breathe was squeezed out of you,” he says.

Dog Park.11-19-2015.jpgHe sees a change in the most recent proposals.

“They’re going in the right direction,” he says. “I believe the Galleria site as we see it today is an underutilized site. I believe all the asphalt area is appropriate for change, and I think part of the change will consist of enhancements to the mall. They’re going to want to add buildings to the site, and incorporated in the buildings will be green areas that don’t exist today.”

The price tag for all this has been estimated at $750m, and the entire project would likely be as much as a decade in the making. It would be a year before any work began.

Still, major chains are already taking notice. Today the mall remains too empty for anybody’s liking – the largely barren east end being the biggest problem – but that could be changing. Popular Swedish retailer H&M will go into the east side of the mall later this year, and Flotz believes others could follow.

“That’s the flavor of the tenants that are talking to us now, that wouldn’t talk to us before,” he says.

That’s because before, plans for the mall weren’t this dramatic. Properly executed, the new Galleria would be a fundamentally different space. It would take a classic 20th-century mall – a self-contained heat island cut off from its surroundings by parking that acts like a moat around a castle – and make it into a space that melds more seamlessly with its community. These are the sorts of changes other malls are also making around the country, cities are changing and malls are either adapting or dying.

Community Garden.11-10-2015.jpgNew city, new mall

At different times in its history, the shopping center on Sunrise Boulevard new the Middle River has been seen as the height of modernity. Early on, that meant it was designed with the automobile in mind.

“This thing was planned for the car,” Flotz says, gesturing at a picture of the Sunrise Center, the mall that first emerged on the site in the mid-1950s. (Today’s Galleria is primarily the work of a 1980s remodel that amounted to an almost total rebuild.) “Whatever you don’t need for the car, you put buildings on.”

In this, the Sunrise Center/Galleria was not unique. Across America, malls followed the same relentlessly successful formula. Victor Gruen, the Austrian-born architect thought of as the father of the American shopping mall, envisioned something different. As postwar America moved to the suburbs, he envisioned a space that was a modern version of the old town square – an enclosed, clean place with shops, but also theaters, libraries, doctors’ offices and other civic amenities.

That was the idea, anyway. And had shopping malls been public buildings, maybe that’s what would have happened. But as developers began peppering suburbia with malls, they concentrated on the parts of the plan that made money. That meant shops and dining. Theaters and community centers? Thanks but no thanks. And of course, in the car-dominated suburbs, it made sense to surround the malls with oceans of parking.

It was a central principal that helped turn malls, for better or worse, into the important spaces they were for several generations. Then came a rupture. It’s a somewhat complicated story but, long story short, the internet happened. The Galleria’s last major renovation – nowhere near as total as the one now planned, though fairly substantial – was in 2004. It focused in large part on adding “experiences” alongside the shopping – this was the time when upscale restaurants went in around the mall’s main entrance. At that time, there was talk about the complete demise of the American mall. At the Galleria shop space sat empty, and the mall’s entire east end was almost entirely vacant.“It was a very elegant mall in the 80s when I first moved here,” Trantalis says, “and all those stores just kind of dwindled away and moved to other locations.”

Food Court-02.jpgFaced with your demise, you can either accept your fate or reinvent yourself. At the Galleria, they’re going with the second option – and Flotz believes it can work. Disruptive forces such as online shopping that were supposed to kill the mall are instead interacting with it in sometimes surprising ways. Flotz notes the Amazon timeline. Twenty years ago Amazon launched, and big retailers weren’t particularly worried. Ten years ago, big retailers wondered if the likes of Amazon were going to take over entirely and close the malls. Today, traditional retailers are some of the biggest online retailers, Amazon is opening bricks-and-mortar shops and founder Jeff Bezos is embracing forms of media he was predicted to kill.

“The guy just bought the Washington Post,” Flotz says. “Everything we thought was right is wrong.”

That’s not to say the picture’s entirely rosy for old-guard institutions – today Amazon still makes money in a way that, say, daily newspapers most decidedly do not. But it does mean that the old institutions can work with the new if they find ways to change.

Smarter and greener
Flotz, who lives near the Galleria, understands concerns over change, particularly as it relates to the tower. When waterfront luxury apartment Sunrise Harbor was built, it became the tallest development in the area, and there were concerns.

S2.11-11-2015.jpg“It’s been a great neighbor,” Flotz says. “The world has not ended.”

Granted, this new development would be more than twice the height of Sunrise Harbor. But still, he doesn’t see it fundamentally altering the character of an area that has in recent years seen more tall-ish buildings go in.

Beyond that, downtown is not going to be the only part of Fort Lauderdale that sees higher density and a move away from traditional 20th-century suburbs.

“Urban living is the wave of the future,” Flotz says. “Home ownership is down, renting is up. As that continues to happen, multifamily is going to be the option. We can’t keep building out into the Everglades.”

They also can’t keep building the way they always have. Hence the LEED certification. Making a project sustainable and environmentally friendly means thinking about all sorts of details that most people would never consider. Details such as the rain that hits parking lots.

“The dirtiest water in the city is the water that hits parking lots,” Flotz says.

And that’s why, rather than oceans of concrete, you plant greenery. Trees, roof gardens, green roofs – they catch water, while pavement lets it mingle with the likes of motor oil and become even more of a problem.

There are many other details such as cisterns to collect rainwater for use watering all this new foliage. It’s a matter, he says, of thinking this way throughout the whole project.

 “We’re not going to do buildings clean, he says. “We’re going to do the whole project clean.”

At least, that’s the plan. The reality is more months of meetings with the city and community members. Some smaller changes to the mall will happen this year – and others, like the food court remodel and reopening, already have – but the proposed project’s work will not likely start for at least a year.

But at the Galleria, they’re confident they’ve got it right. The mall has reinvented itself before, and it’s going to need to again.

“We’ve come a long way and we’ve been the catalyst for a lot of things,” says Melissa Milroy, the Galleria’s senior marketing manager. “You have to continuously evolve. We have to keep up.”