Mall of America

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Mall of America

Since opening its doors in 1992, Bloomington, Minnesota's mammoth Mall of America—with 4.2 million square feet of floor space, the largest shopping mall in the United States—has emerged as one of the country's most popular tourist destinations. In 1996 alone, it attracted some 43 million visitors, more people than visited Disney World, the Grand Canyon, and Graceland combined. The mall features four anchor stores—Nordstrom, Macy's, Sears, and Bloomingdale's—and over 520 different specialty shops and merchandise kiosks. But its popularity owes as much to entertainment and cultural amenities as it does to shopping. At the center of the giant four-story structure is Knotts Berry Farm's Camp Snoopy, a theme park with fifty rides and amusements, including a roller coaster, a water ride, and a Ferris wheel. In addition, the mall is home to an 18-hole miniature golf course and Underwater World, a 1.2 million gallon walk-through aquarium. Its top floor is devoted entirely to glitzy nightclubs, restaurants, and a 14-screen movie theater. It also houses a branch campus of National College, a "learning lab" for high school students, a wedding chapel, a post office, and a police substation. "The Mall of America is a city inside a piece at the edge of a city," observed Minneapolis architect Richard Varda. "It is a new definition of what a downtown is."

The Mall began as the brain child of Canada's Triple Five Corp., the company that built the famous West Edmonton Mall (which in the late 1990s was still the largest such building in North America). The company's initial 1985 proposal for a 1.3 billion dollar "megamall" at the site of the old Twins stadium in the booming Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, envisioned a leisure and shopping complex even larger and more spectacular than the one that was eventually built. After failing to secure a long term loan, however, Triple Five Corp. was forced, in 1987, to relinquish control of the development to Marvin Simon and Associates and the Simon DeBartolo Group—both of which promptly scaled back the proportions of the project to its current dimensions. In May of 1988, the Bloomington Port Authority—over the objections of many of the city's citizens—agreed to contribute $100 million towards improvements in infrastructure for the development. Construction began in June of 1989 and the mall opened for business in August of 1992. The final price tag for the entire project was more than $680 million.

Designed by architect Jon Jerde and the Jerde Partnership, the Mall of America is laid out as a multi-story "rectangular doughnut" with thoroughfares lined by 4.2 miles of storefronts connecting the department stores on the perimeter and Camp Snoopy at its center. Without a doubt the mall's most impressive architectural feature is the vast skylight which spans the entire seven acres of Camp Snoopy. Jerde has also given each of the sides of the rectangle a distinct architectural theme and matching decor. The corridors on the North side of the Mall—called "the North Garden"—are painted garden green and scattered with gazebos, wooden trellises, and pavilion-like structures, as well as airy terraces overlooking the amusement park. With their barrel vaulted ceilings and industrial green color scheme, the corridors in the "West Market" area recall European arcades of the late nineteenth century. The thoroughfares in the "South Avenue" area have an elegant Rodeo Drive feel created by their upscale boutiques, arches, and peach and cream color scheme. The "East Broadway" area is meant to suggest "modernity" through its polished steel railings, neon, and slick black and gray floors. And the fourth floor's collection of bars and nightclubs, known as "The Upper East Side," self-consciously simulates a big city entertainment district. The total effect of the place is more than a little disorienting, precisely as the designers had planned. "We want people to get lost in the Mall," confessed Tim Magill of the Jerde Partnership. "We want to tweak your perceptions so you'll be exposed to areas you would regularly pass by."

In its first five years of existence, the mall has silenced critics who doubted it could consistently draw the crowds necessary to turn a profit. In 1997, the mall's stores did $725 million in sales, employed over 12,000 people, and 92 percent of its retail space was occupied. Economists estimate that the mall and the legions of out-of-state tourists it attracts pump $1.5 billion a year into the local economy.

Thanks to its enormous popularity and mind-boggling size, the mall in the late 1990s has become something of a cultural icon. Camp Snoopy made its film debut in The Mighty Ducks (1992) and appeared again in Mighty Ducks II (1997). In 1996, Arnold Schwarzenegger filmed his Christmas movie Jingle All the Way there. And throughout the 1990s celebrities from Bruce Willis to Newt Gingrich have made regular appearances within the mall's confines.

Despite all its successes, the Mall of America has had its share of both problems and critics. Though it presents its enclosed environs as a safe alternative to city streets, it has been unable to prevent rapes and robberies from occurring on its premises. In addition, because it is a favorite meeting place and hang-out for teenagers from around the Twin Cities metro region, youth crime has been an especially nagging problem. In 1996, the mall's managers responded by implementing a policy requiring children 15 or younger to be accompanied by an adult after 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, a move which brought about a steep decline in youth crimes and consequently increased adult traffic on weekend nights.

More significantly, the Mall of America in 1996 was thrust into the center of a debate about the public's right to political expression in commercially owned and operated spaces. On May 19 of that year, a group of ten animal rights activists entered the mall and distributed fliers in front of Macy's urging people to boycott the store because it sold furs. Mall security told the protesters to leave and four were issued tickets for trespassing. On July 24, 1997, Hennepin County Judge Jack Nordby sided with the protesters in ruling that Minnesota citizens have reasonable rights to free speech and assembly at publicly-supported shopping malls. Nordby's decision was reversed on appeal but the protesters and the Minnesota ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) have vowed to appeal the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

It is hardly surprising that the mall finds itself in the middle of a controversy over whether or not shopping malls are the functional equivalent of city streets, public parks, and town squares. After all, its amazing assortment of activities collected under one roof make it the closest thing to a fully enclosed city America has yet seen. Whatever the courts ultimately decide about its status as "public" space, the Mall of America has been and will continue to be a gathering place not simply for Minnesotans but for the whole world.

—Steve Macek

Further Reading:

Crawford, Margaret. "The World in a Shopping Mall." In Variations on a Theme Park, edited by Michael Sorkin. New York, Noonday Press, 1992, 3-30.

Gottdiener, Mark. The Theming of America: Dreams, Visions, and Commercial Spaces. Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1997.

Nelson, Eric. Mall of America: Reflections of a Virtual Community. Lakeville, Minnesota, Galde Press, 1997.

Waters, Jennifer. "It's a Mall World." Architecture Minnesota. January/February 1993, 20-4.