So you want to have a mall?

Shopping has been a pastime for Americans in one form or another for generations. The shopping experience in Berkshire County has been defined for the past 30 years by the benchmark of the Berkshire Mall. Since the mall's opening in the fall of 1988, it has been the de facto shopping destination of the central Berkshires. For the past half decade or so, however, the excitement around the mall can only be described as tepid. Bring it up in conversation with any Pittsfield resident, and the inevitable headshake will accompany a eulogy of what the mall once was, and how somber a shopping trip there is nowadays.

Past, present and future

Currently, there are three empty anchor stores (a former Best Buy, Macy's and J.C. Penney), and dozens of empty storefronts lining the central corridor of the mall. The existing Sears narrowly escaped a closing as well this past spring. The mall does have its share of success stories, especially with locally owned small tenants finding some profitable ventures there. These, of course, attest to the tenacity of small business owners in the consumer climate of the 21st century. So, if the mall were ever to shutter completely, save for the popular Target big box and the Regal Cinema, would these small businesses still thrive in another location? The power of a mall is that it concentrates a critical mass of retailers who share common customers. Is there anywhere else around that could provide that same environment? The answer may surprise you. (Not clickbait, I promise). More on this question in a minute.

There have already been some suggestions about what to do if the mall ever were to fully shut down. Some are to build a senior center or other care community, or a solar power generation array. My proposal may be a bit more radical than that: build a new mall, now. To that end, I have created a new mall directory map, shown below, which provides a concept of what the new mall would look like. After looking it over, does it seem familiar? Click or tap on the map below to get a hint.

What amenities would this new mall feature? For starters, a food court selection that is six times larger than the current food court. State of the art skylights will allow natural light to filter through the corridors, and provide an ambient shopping experience to reflect natural current conditions. LED lighting through the corridors will also save on electricity costs. Gathering and seating areas dispersed around the mall will provide areas of rest and points of rendezvous for visitors. The mall corridors will also be lined by living greenery, helping to provide fresh air for visitors. Easily accessible parking and public transportation are available at no farther a distance away from the shops than at the current mall. Finally, all of this can be contained in the same size space that the current mall occupies. (I need to break the metaphor here to relay a fun fact: the distance from Park Square to Columbus Avenue is roughly 1000 feet, the same distance as the corridor in the Berkshire Mall from the inner entrance of Sears to the inner entrance of Target). Ok, where were we? The image to the right shows how the current mall would look scaled next to the new mall, with 1000 foot measurements for comparison. If you want to see for yourself, try out the ruler tool in Google Earth.

Not until we began hollowing out our cities under the banner of urban renewal did the idea of a shopping mall make sense. The city's Main Street was its shopping "mall." That design facet has been in practice for millennia, harkening back to the agora of the ancient Greek city. Pittsfield has been taking some good steps in the right direction, with a downtown Farmers' Market at the Common once a week, and the popular Third Thursday on North Street once a month in the spring and summer. It is time to make the next big commitment and get the critical mass of retail back to Pittsfield's Main Street. Retail faces many new challenges today, like free two-day shipping, and the economy of scale that provides the low prices found in big box stores on the edge of town. The experience of shopping is what still brings foot traffic to brick and mortar stores, and downtown Pittsfield can provide a superior experience.

The nuts and bolts

How would this new mall come to be, and how would it work? It would represent an investment by Pittsfield on the magnitude of the restoration of the Colonial Theatre, and be just as transformative, if not as politically laborious. The ideas that follow might seem radical, and maybe even subversive, to the established business environment in the Berkshires. It is not my intent to cause financial hardship to anyone, but sometimes difficult choices need to be made. Keep in mind that the current mall is not even thirty years old. And finally, remember to continually ask, "why not?" So now, full steam ahead.

In my view, a new era of partnership between the entities of (1) Downtown Pittsfield, Inc., (2) the Department of Community Development, (3) the newly formed "Red Carpet Committee," (4) 1Berkshire, (5) a coalition of interested mall tenants, and (6) the Berkshire Mall operator, would need to be formed. This may seem like too many cooks stirring the pot, but I believe an ad hoc committee of representatives from each of these entities would be the best chance to ensure all voices are heard.

Next, this committee would need to establish and fully adhere to a new identity, or "brand." This would be a name, logo, color palette, tagline, PR scheme, the works. A full banner to rally under and provide a cohesive message to sell to the city. This, however, can only happen once all entities of the committee agree to go "all-in," and walk away from the current mall in its current form. Again, remember that this place is only a 30-year speck in the history of Berkshire County. It will be an incredibly difficult decision to make, but crucial for moving forward.

Once this is achieved, I would propose identifying all available properties in the downtown area that are currently on the market, and assessing their needs to become fully operational. During this time, the most "shovel ready" (or in this case, "hammer ready") units could form a temporary "pop up" shop to be debuted during a special promo week. My suggestion would be to look for either a cluster of mostly established storefronts with several gaps, or one large gap of unoccupied storefronts. One of the best candidates for new retail on North Street would be the Kinnell-Kresge building, which houses the Beacon Cinema among other mixed uses. In the lower level are a half dozen unfinished retail spaces still waiting to be occupied. It has been advertised as rent-free space for one year; a lucrative incentive that other storefronts could consider.

Finally, once contracts and contractors are secured, a "big move" would take place from the old mall to the new mall to create the maximum impact possible for shoppers (much as a usual new mall opening would), to show what the transformative change would look like.

The interior of the Kinnell-Kresge Building below the Beacon Cinema.

The interior of the Kinnell-Kresge Building below the Beacon Cinema.

The numbers

It could be easy to see this initiative as wishful, imaginative thinking, so let's put some numbers behind it, and compare apples to apples. The Berkshire Mall site (minus Target, which owns their own land) is 86.2 acres in land area according to the Town of Lanesborough public property records.* The latest tax assessment according to the same source put the net worth of the mall at $19,500,000. So, if we divide 86.2 acres into that assessment amount, the average value of the Berkshire Mall land is $226,218 per acre. We will compare that to the property assessment** of the Kinnell-Kresge Building on North Street, whose interior is shown above. This building sits on a small 0.34 acre lot, a comparable size to many residential parcels. Its latest assessed value was pegged at $1,302,900. Now, if we divide 0.34 acres into that assessment amount, we come to a whopping $3,832,058 per acre value.

It is already clear that the strength of cities and towns are in their downtowns; that is not a fact unique to Pittsfield. In my view, then, it is more sustainable, worthwhile, and rewarding to build on those strengths rather than try and fix or start new in the far-flung edges of town, or in a different town altogether. I realize it may be too soon to give up on the mall. For me, however, it is more a question of priorities and resources. We could feed more time, resources and funds into the mall and try to arrive at whatever vision we may have of it. I fear though, that the disappointment and disillusion that may come if we fail will only bring about the end anyway. We already have a downtown that is getting stronger, and no reason not to feed it more. In the end, it turns out we will not be building our way to the next shopping innovation, but rather, returning to what we already had.