Imagine a strip mall that allows pedestrians to walk up a ramp onto a grassy rooftop to play soccer in the summer and toboggan in the winter.
Picture these mundane suburban retail spaces transformed into greenhouses, outdoor movie theatres or the meeting places for a caravan of food trucks.
Or envision a strip mall that has been stripped to the ground and a new tiny neighbourhood of homes has risen up from the inventory of leftover parts.
These are some of the creative re-imaginings of the ubiquitous and often unloved strip mall. Twenty concepts have made the shortlist in an international design competition dubbed "Strip Appeal," now under way at the University of Alberta.
Architects, designers, academics, students and regular folks from 11 countries – places as far-flung as Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Germany and Iran – contributed more than 100 ideas for 21st century strip malls. They may be the postwar model of suburban retailing, but in many cases the concept is long past its best-before date.
"It's functional, but there's so much lacking," said Rob Shields, the University of Alberta professor who spearheaded the competition. "It isn't something that actually contributes in more than the most minimal way in terms of making life better."
While some ideas might be fanciful, the concepts might not be that far-fetched and could be incorporated in redevelopments throughout the commercial real estate world.
"Things that are viable economically are real contenders to be picked up very fast," added Prof. Shields, who is also director of the university's City-Region Studies Centre, a research unit dedicated to making communities more livable.
In terms of design competitions, the prizes are meagre – $1,000 to the winner, a spot in a travelling road show and a book of designs – but the impact could be significant. Strip malls have been a fixture of the landscape as development sprawled out from city centres. Arterial roads took workers between their suburban homes and downtown workplaces and asphalt pads were plunked along them to accommodate parking and single-storey retailing. Up sprung rows of convenience stores, pizza joints and drycleaners.
"You drop in, you get your groceries and you get back into your car and you drive home and you drive into your garage and you go into your suburban dream," said Merle Patchett, a postdoctoral fellow at the research centre. "Of course, the suburban dream as we know it has turned a little bit sour."
The suburbs are becoming urbanized. The Internet is transforming shopping. Big-box stores, or so-called "power centres," are replacing small ones. Getting around in cars isn't as easy, and it's expensive. Municipal planners are finally demanding building densification. And younger generations want to live somewhere hip where they can walk to local stores.
"The endless expansion of the commercial strip – that homogeneous cluster of sign clutter and asphalt that leads out from every town – is reaching the end of its useful life," according to Edward McMahon of the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, who has written much on the future – or lack thereof – of strip malls.
The problem might be most pronounced in the United States where, between 1960 and 2000, retail space increased tenfold – in some years, it was growing five to six times faster than retail sales, Mr. McMahon pointed out.
Estimates now suggest that 11 per cent of U.S. strip malls are derelict – victims of an outdated mode of retailing and a crumbling economy.
Prof. Shields said his initial research suggests that a strip mall has a 50-year lifespan and in that time, the property is really only successful for the first 15 years. Then, it becomes a matter of land value speculation and tax write-offs.
"Essentially, an owner would need a portfolio of these properties and some would be booming and others would be just carrying," Prof. Shields said. "They're carrying and they're looking for an idea or an opportunity."
Bigger landlords are looking at redevelopment ideas to bring in more people to higher quality tenants, said John O'Bryan, vice-chairman of the commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis Ltd.
He points to RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns and manages Canada's largest portfolio of shopping centres, as one of the leaders in the strip mall revolution.
In a recent management presentation, RioCan told investors that its U.S. expansion is focused on grocery-anchored strip centres and that it has been rezoning its urban properties to accommodate mixed use projects over the last few years.
But Mr. O'Bryan isn't quite ready to pronounce the death of the strip mall.
"Retail evolves anyway," he said. "It is the most fluid of all of the asset classes. If you look at office buildings and industrial buildings, they're not radically different than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but if you look at retail, it is."
A jury of experts will select the winners in the Strip Appeal contest, but the public can also vote early next month at www.strip-appeal.com. The finalists will be announced Jan. 18.
Already some developers have been sniffing around, according to the organizers. "What we see in the potential for these is to reinvigorate the communities," Ms. Patchett said.