In 1952, Austrian architect Victor Gruen dreamed of building the perfect downtown on an immense plot of windswept prairie grass, just south of Minneapolis. Residents would walk through mixed-use developments, flush with greenery and eateries. Public spaces would flourish amidst the amenities of urban life, from apartments to townhouses and clinics to schools. Gruen’s paradise never materialized. Instead of fashionable promenades and village greens, the city of Edina, Minnesota got the Gruen-designed Southdale Center—the original shopping mall. [...]As John Tierney notes - "To survive, the old shopping centers need to reinvent themselves, and suburban officials need to change the zoning codes that have stifled innovation for so long by making it illegal to build homes near stores and offices."
Southdale Center sat like a city on a hill, drawing shoppers from the Twin Cities and beyond. It became a destination address all by itself. But Southdale was never meant to end at its walls. “Gruen’s original vision was to foster community,” said D. Jamie Rusin, an architect and planner speaking recently to The Wall Street Journal. “He originally saw the mall as a place you could go to shop, eat, see the doctor, have an office—a community center for people who didn’t have one.”
What Gruen imagined for Southdale was a not-too-distant cousin to today’s New Urbanist vision. It was really just an old-fashioned town square dressed up in modern clothes. Around it were to be clusters of walkable mixed-use developments, built with an eye toward providing life and space for community to flourish. Gruen recognized that postwar American suburbs were being built to conform to the arterial highway system. The traditional Main Street was fading. Gruen’s mall would be the new urban core. The goal was to encourage families to cluster in residential communities off the highway, where they could walk and talk with their neighbors as they shopped.