The World This Week: Lifestyle Center

Shopping our way to stupidity.

By Alan Bisbort

January 11 2006

They want to build a shopping mall in my town. They don’t call it a mall, though it would create 500,000 square feet of commercial space and cover 110 acres of meadow. They call it a “lifestyle center.” To call a shopping mall a “lifestyle center” is to call a troop escalation a “surge,” a veritable rape of language.

“They” are the developers who’ve negotiated to buy the land if the town agrees to change zoning regulations to accommodate the plans. No one who works for this developer lives in my town, or even in my state. Nonetheless, my town officials are already hailing their “lifestyle center” as the Second Coming of Wal-Mart. The town manager told one reporter, “No matter how you look at it, this is a positive thing.”

This, despite the fact that there is a huge mall three miles east of town with all the requisite consumerist havens: Macy’s, Target, etc., and another mega-center 10 miles west with JCPenney, AMC Theatres, etc. My town is not hurting for homegrown shopping options either; many of these local businesses will likely be shuttered once this “lifestyle center” is built. To repeat myself, this is also despite the fact that, as zoning regulations now stand, such a mall is forbidden where it is being proposed.

The rationale, of course, is the hackneyed mantra “this will lower property taxes” by “bringing in some much-needed tax revenue.”

This is just one of the two myths implied when commercial development, or any development, is proposed: it will lower taxes. This delusion is responsible for the sprawl that has debased life in all parts of America. The other myth is that there’s a perceived need for more malls, more asphalt, more impervious earth surfaces, more traffic, more crowds, more consuming, more energy waste, more noise, more consuming, more litter, more consuming. To every chamber of commerce, what’s good for sprawl is good for America. Period. To say otherwise is to be treated as if you’re a menace to society.

I know. I’ve seen the looks. I was on my town’s Environment Commission for three years. I know how common sense and progressivism are denigrated when the scent of money wafts through town hall. I also know stupid. I operate under a principle stated by Anatole France: Even if 40 million say a stupid thing, it is still a stupid thing. And this “lifestyle center” is as stupid a thing as the Supreme Court allowing Bush to be president in Jan. 2001.

For town officials to hail a half-million-square-foot monstrosity as “progress” is to play by old rules. A new day is dawning, but town officials appear to be the last to notice. Going to malls has become a thing to dread and endure, not something to enjoy. Given that people are now more frequently purchasing goods via the Internet, mostly to avoid the hassles of malls, why are more malls being built? Shopping malls, to use a battered expression, are a dead paradigm, going the way of the rotary typewriter and the horse and buggy. Call them “lifestyle centers,” but they’re still malls.

Simple truth: No sane person in any town wants a 500,000-square-foot mall built down the block. Yet town residents are the ones who’ll ultimately bear the costs of these quixotic ventures. Oh sure. Public hearings will be held; people will vent; but planning and zoning boards — comprised mainly of unpaid volunteers, often involved in real estate and legal professions — almost always come down on the side of money. They’ll make a few niggling objections; the developer will drop a few thousand square feet or cut a few units out of their age-restricted subdivision, but the deal will go down.

Just so you know, they call them lifestyle centers now. Perhaps, therefore, we should change our lifestyle.●

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