Fashion Square Mall is too big to live and too big to die. What does that mean for its future? 

Mall or nothing

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click to enlarge More mannequins than people - PHOTO COURTESY OF MIOSOTIS JADE VIA CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE
  • Photo courtesy of Miosotis Jade via Creative Commons License
  • More mannequins than people

Aaron Holland, the owner of Coliseum of Comics, which maintains a location in Fashion Square, says that most aspects concerning the mall's future are "pretty much up in the air." He says there's currently no information coming through the grapevine from the current management staff, not even rumors.

"Once things start moving and there's positive news, more people will come to the mall," Holland says. "In the right hands and with the right changes, [Fashion Square] could flourish."

Perhaps. But when viewed within the context of the midsize mall's precipitous decline, you have to wonder: Is it too late?

The father of the American shopping mall was – wait for it – not an American.

Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen envisioned malls as European-style shopping arcades, centers for suburban communities. But instead of stores like Hot Topic and Bebe, his concept was a new kind of Main Street, with post offices, grocery stores, cafés and the like, that would function as cores for larger social hubs like schools, parks and hospitals. In his mind, it was supposed to be a sort of insulated community.

That ended up not being the case. By the twilight of Gruen's life, the architect had grown disenchanted with what his concept of community living had mutated into. "I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all," Gruen said in 1978. "I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They've destroyed our cities."

But what if it's not too late to pivot toward Gruen's original plan for malls as socially productive community centers?

Cole NeSmith, founder of the Creative City Project, an Orlando organization that platforms artists and creates meaningful community connections, still sees potential in something like Fashion Square, albeit in a new, inspired iteration.

"We're at an interesting place as a city as a whole where we're very young, but we have kind of skipped over the 'artists can move into a warehouse cheap' and kind of live there against code and make stuff and live in the same spot and not shower," NeSmith says. In other words, Orlando has never experienced the same sense of cheap rent-equals-more art as, say, Williamsburg, Philly or Oakland did.

NeSmith adds: "The data show that investment in arts and culture is a significant driver of economic development for a region. When organizations like Amazon are considering where to place their second headquarters, in line with the workforce, the second thing they're looking at is available culture and art experiences."

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