America returns to the corner shop

The US love affair with the mall may be over, writes Mary Dejevsky, in Washington
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DRIVE north west out of central Washington and you soon enter a no-man's land of glass and marble walls, the first wave of suburban malls that line the freeway exits from the US capital. In a few months, though, some of those walls will start crashing down, felled in the name of bringing a more human scale to the great American shopping experience.

The doomed walls belong to the Mazza Gallerie, a vast cuboid building. Inside, though you would hardly know to look at from the road, are two department stores - the upmarket Neiman Marcus and the downmarket Filene's Basement - a selection of speciality shops and plenty of empty premises.

The walls make Mazza Gallerie a fortress: secure and air conditioned, but hardly somewhere to pop into for a loaf of bread or a bag of jelly beans.

Now, it has been bought by a much-praised Chicago developer, Dan McCaffery, and is to be made over, starting with the removal of its most distinctive feature: the daunting outside walls. According to Mr McCaffery, the main aim is to make the shopping facilities more visible and accessible.

In effect, the enclosed shopping centre is to be turned inside out and made to face the streets. The individual shops will be made to appeal to passers-by and local residents, not just to car-borne shoppers with several hours at their disposal. The shops should, in Mr McCaffery's words, be "people-friendly" and foster a sense of community.

If Mazza Gallerie, built in the Seventies, were the only enclosed shopping centre being subjected to this late Nineties makeover, that could be put down to the ambitions of one developer and the eternal American quest for something new. In fact, though, it is just one of a dozen or more indoor complexes that have been, or are about to be, shorn of their walls in a process that is being dubbed the "de-malling" of America. Nor is it limited to relatively prosperous suburban districts, like Friendship Heights in Washington, where the Mazza Gallerie is located. A similar project has just been started across the city, in the depressed area south west of the centre.

Here, the Waterside Mall, a giant shopping and office complex built 30 years ago, obliterating the existing grid layout of the streets and chopping the district in two, is itself to be chopped up into more manageable pieces. The street grid is to be restored, and the walls demolished. Similar operations have already been completed in two other suburbs of Washington, outside Chicago, and in California and Florida.

Taking their cue from the successful revivals of Manhattan and central Chicago, where lower crime rates have been accompanied by a surge of investment and the revival of city living, developers are sensing a change in customers' taste and priorities. The trend in new out-of-town shopping centres is for a return to open complexes, where shops front on to the main road and circle around a giant car park. There are signs, too, still small and hesitant, that stores may be starting to move back into some of the towns and cities they left 30 years ago. And when they do move back, as in central Chicago, they face outwards, beckoning their customers, allowing them to linger on the pavement.

Transforming fortress malls into people-friendly shopping streets and squares is not an easy task. But it is evidence, along with the nostalgic resort to words like "liveable" and "community", that the strict separation of housing and commerce which leaves so much of American suburbia without a heart may be an idea whose time is passing.