The partial demolition and planned renovation of San Jacinto Mall presents an opportunity to strengthen both the economy and community bonds of the Baytown area.
If you haven’t noticed, traffic throughout Harris County is getting worse. Baytown consumers are open to spending their money locally as long as there is an attractive destination close to home.
Unfortunately, the mall doesn’t provide that destination any more. Despite its former glory, the mall is dated, bland and half empty.
This situation is not unique to Baytown. Malls across the nation are in trouble, and the shopping mall concept is quickly becoming an artifact of the late 20th century.
E-commerce sites like Amazon have changed shopping habits, and growing demands for unique and individualized product lines have made mass merchandise stores somewhat obsolete for younger generations.
When you can shop online and get your favorite food delivered to your home, there isn’t much reason to drive to the mall on heavily trafficked Garth Road. Retailers know that they must give people more than stores and a food court.
The new owners are on the right track. Outdoor space, concerts, festivals and non-retail type amenities are needed to differentiate the mall from online shopping. The mall must become a comprehensive social experience instead of a collection of stores.
This may sound like innovative thinking, but it is really just a re-hash of an old idea. I call it Main Street, U.S.A.
Old-timers will remember when Texas Avenue thrived with activity. It wasn’t just a place to shop. It was an outdoor experience filled with the bustle of socializing, eating, the Brunson, services and shopping.
The Texas Avenue experience was not unique to Baytown. This vibe was the norm in communities across the country, and downtown main streets were the cores of their communities. They provided some of the social glue that cities and towns needed to thrive.
Unfortunately, Main Street U.S.A. was destroyed by the interstate highway system.
When Eisenhower became president in 1953, he felt that a nation-wide network of interstate roads were critical for national defense and the growth of commerce. Congress agreed and launched the massive infrastructure project.
Unfortunately, good intentions had unintended consequences. The vast new road network changed living patterns and shopping habits.
I-10 created an opportunity to plant a mall right off of the highway, but the success of the mall eventually wiped out Texas Avenue. Countless main streets across America suffered the same fate, and that intangible feeling of community was lost.
The Internet/smartphone era has only made things worse.
Technology is clearly changing shopping habits, but it also contributes to alienation and social isolation. People are thirsting for something real, hands-on and authentic.
That is why Texas Avenue has experienced its slow but steady rebound. Not only is it a nostalgic reminder of simpler times, it provides something an Amazon drone cannot deliver to your home.
Funny, but it looks like San Jacinto Mall is trying to re-create the Texas Avenue experience of yore, the very place it nearly destroyed in the late 20th century.
Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.