Sunday, March 8, 2009

Uh-oh -- a shoe poised to drop on Salem Center's head

Salem, by the standard of American smallish cities, enjoys an enviable downtown, with its beautiful old buildings preserved and a reasonably lively streetscape at night. It's dead in comparison to some much larger cities, but plenty of others are even more dead than Salem at night.

But it looks as those the retail collapse -- the end of the line for the "shop 'til you drop" mentality and the easy credit whirlwind -- could take out Salem Center's owner. The death of the landlord doesn't kill the tenants, but the tenants, especially the chain department stores are already struggling terribly, which means that Salem might have gaping vacancies in its downtown core within the next couple years.

One of the opportunities/challenges that groups like the Salem Transition Initiative for Relocalization (STIR) will face all over America is how to put dead retail spaces (both freestanding big boxes and downtown stores) to productive use.

As the consumer-driven economy runs aground, it's going to scatter a lot of flotsam and jetsam of empty stores that are peculiarly ill-suited for other uses, at least within the narrow range of thinking typically applied. We think in terms of replacing one failed tenant with a similar competitor, who refaces the building and continues on.

But in the world of tomorrow that's arriving today, the endless square miles of expensively lit and air-conditioned retail space surrounded by even more parking has little chance of success.

First of all, with the number of firms failing, it's going to be hard to find many Retailer B's to go where Retailer A's have failed. Secondly, the costs of operating those structures are already killing retailers now; when the effects of peak oil really kick in the low-margin retailers will likely not survive in anything like their current form.

Thus, people who are attuned to the problem now have a great opportunity: we need to start envisioning ways that former retail spaces can be reused in new ways. Obviously, anything with a big expanse of roof should be considered for rooftop gardens and distributed solar power production. How about housing? Can these spaces be used to house people inexpensively, despite the high ceilings? Is there a way to use these buildings to provide decent shelter?

Salem is likely to face some opportunities along these lines.

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