Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Anchor Effect

Earlier this year, the town of Chapel Hill was agonizing over what to do with its library. The building, located in a wooded area not far from where I live, needed expanding, and the city planners were considering two options; an expansion of the current facility, and a move into space at University Mall, an aging shopping center from the salad days of the indoor mall.

The latter proposal—to move into the spot currently occupied by Dillard’s, a department store whose remaining clients were slowly replacing their shopping patterns with permanent rest—was less expensive, and promised the possibility of providing an anchor that might attract more traffic for the struggling merchants, many of whom, such as the beloved small toy store (which moved to a cheaper location last year), were having a hard time making a go of it, as evidenced by the several unoccupied sites. With a theater company, a DMV office and a kids’ gymnastics facility, the mall was already turning away from retail; less by choice than circumstance, but with nearby Target and Wal-Mart, as well as a newer mall and the end of retail, the future did not look promising.

Well, our municipal leaders decided to expand the current facility, preferring, as politicians usually do, the incremental, risk averse move to the bolder change. But during the time of renovation, the library moved to temporary quarters at the selfsame mall—a little cramped, but functional for the time being.

I haven’t seen any traffic data since the move, and the mall hasn’t seemed busier when I’ve visited (although this article suggests that it has), but I have been the poster boy for the proponents of the permanent move. I visit the library about once a week, and in the past month have done (and enjoyed) the following activities as part of my library visit, none of which I would have gone uniquely to the mall for:

  • Shopped for kitchen gadgets and exotic foodstuffs at Southern Season
  • Searched for hand sanitizer that smells like birthday cake at Bath and Body Works
  • Had lunch at the new Village Burgers
  • Picked up pizza at Alfredo’s while the OG was at a nearby dance class.

That’s just a sample, but it’s easy to see how attractive this model might be. Indeed, if the OG’s dance studio were onsite, I’d invariably stick around after dropping her off, and this would have network effects as more people did the same. There’s bus service and an abundance of parking as well.

It is nearsighted to just hope that the mall will rebound. It might happen, but I doubt anyone would bet on it with their own money. Faced with the very real possibility of a giant crater in the middle of the community, I think the city missed out on a real opportunity.

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