This weekend, Salt Lake City’s “other” downtown mall, The Gateway, held the Urban Arts Festival. It was a pleasant event with many local artisans plying their wares.
As most people in Utah know, The Gateway has struggled after the opening of nearby City Creek, with store closings and a general loss of prestige.
The Gateway’s response seems to be to re-imagine its space as an events center and gathering spot. So, the mall hosts the Urban Arts Festival, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and other events. Most are free. And they have varying degrees of “local-ness” — the Urban Arts Festival had local painters, but also a booth from California Pizza Kitchen.
This is more less the same strategy adopted by The Riverwoods in Provo. The Riverwoods is also an outdoor mall — though, unlike The Gateway, it’s fundamentally suburban in form — and hosts a wide variety of events. There are chalk drawing contests, Christmas lights ceremonies, and outdoor music.
In theory, I like this approach to mall revitalization. Malls were designed to mimic traditional downtowns, and having a bunch of events seems to apply a layer of purpose and even authenticity that they may not have had.
But will this work? Will these malls be able to survive frequent store closings and waning sales? Can they thrive on a bunch of free events designed to produce collateral sales?
I don’t know and in this region it’s probably still to early to tell. I’m optimistic for The Gateway; despite being a “mall” it’s also a walkable urban street that feels more and more organic each time it holds one of these events. Its urban form and surrounding density mean that it never feels as dead as some malls.
I’m less optimistic about The Riverwoods, which is surrounded by parking lots, very little housing, and is less diverse in what it offers.
But either way, I suspect these events foreshadow larger trends. Malls are famously dying, and the ones that survive will probably be the ones that pulled off an effective self-reimagination.