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Save Berlin: Malled to death

We’re being invaded! Like a nasty worm, indoor shopping malls are an invasive species, recent arrivals feeding on Berlin’s native shops. The plague peaks this year with the arrival of a new breed of malls: bigger, meaner and ready to eat their own.

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Dan Borden on Berlin’s scary shopping invasion.

We’re being invaded! Berlin’s government has declared war on the horse chestnut leaf miner, a tiny caterpillar sucking the life from our beloved chestnut trees. Like those nasty worms, indoor shopping malls are an invasive species, recent arrivals feeding on Berlin’s native shops and eateries. The plague will peak this year with the arrival of a new breed of malls: bigger, meaner and ready to do anything to survive, even eat their own.

The banner on the construction site says, “Retail comes home.” This spring, the 270 shops of Leipziger Platz Quartier will throw open their doors. But this homecoming has a tortured history. For decades, the million-dollar question was, “Whose home?” The new mall replaces the fabled 1896 Wertheim department store, once the largest in Europe. The Wertheims dominated Berlin retail until 1937, when the Nazis seized the Jewish family’s stores and handed them to the ‘pure German’ Hertie family. The store was bombed in WWII, then demolished in 1956. After the Wall fell, Berlin’s Senat handed the vacant property back, for a symbolic price of DM1, to its ‘rightful owners’ – the German Herties – who then sold it for €145 million. The Wertheim family cried foul and took them to court. The €88 million settlement in 2007 paved the way for Berlin’s new mega-mall.

But wait, isn’t there another mall, Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, practically next door? Yes, and it’s already feeling the pinch. Like rats from a sinking ship, retailers Kaisers, Aldi and Saturn have already jumped their Arkaden leases and swum to the newer, grander Quartier. Forty-five retailers including H&M, Zara and McPaper are hedging their bets, leasing space in both malls – for now. Everyone’s showing a brave face, but logic tells us that Berlin’s sparsely inhabited heart just can’t support 100,000 square metres of retail.

Shopping malls were an exotic innovation in the 1970s when the iconic Europa Center roofed over its outdoor courtyards to offer an American-style indoor retail experience. But the real Berlin mall invasion arrived during the post-Wall real estate boom. Between 1996 and 2000, more than a dozen Arkadens, Passagens and Centers blossomed across the city, introducing East and West Berliners to that now-familiar mix of corporate chain stores and fast food franchises found everywhere from Minneapolis to Shanghai.

In 2004, Portuguese investors Sonae Sierra announced the construction of a monster mall on a vacant site next to Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. What sort of building befits such a prestigious location? The developer drafted a team of hotshot designers, apparently from a local kindergarten. Faced with sleek 1920s Modernism on one side and sleek 1960s Modernism on the other, they dressed the mammoth box in giant 3D rainbows and faux drapery, moulded into clunky concrete panels and dyed a now-fading lollipop red. The debate rages: is Alexa the ugliest building in Berlin, or the world? More importantly, Alexa’s colourful array of 180 shops and restaurants stole the spotlight – and crowds – from beige Alexanderplatz. Berlin’s premier public space was relegated to Alexa’s barren forecourt, a meager appetiser before the mall’s decadent feast.

The invasion continues. Another mall is rising in the O2 World parking lot, that ugly tumour of corporate capitalism in the heart of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain. Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof train station (2006) and new airport are basically giant shopping malls with trains and planes stuck on them.

Why does enlightened European capital Berlin need indoor shopping malls? Corporate malls replace local shops with multinational clones, smothering diversity. They replace the public Main Street with a private, corporate-monitored space, stifling free expression. The US quit building new malls long ago. In fact, they’ve started ripping off their roofs, converting them into “anti-malls” that mimic the kind of traditional shopping streets Berlin already has – and which are starving for an injection of commercial vitality. We have homegrown models of high-density retail that other cities would die for. Hackescher Höfe is a series of century-old courtyards packed with shoppers year-round. Or Moritzplatz’s Planet Modulor (2011), which redefined the shopping mall as a collection of unique, Berlin-based stores that feed on their symbiotic relationships.

Dear powers-that-be: let Potsdamer Platz Arkaden die, rip off its roof, and transform it into a Berlin-style shopping street. Turn Potsdamer Platz into a real place.