Black Friday is over, but the holiday shopping season has just begun. For many people that means lots of car trips to the mall and the inevitable traffic hassles.
But for Shalonda Long, it's all a walk in the park -- the parking lot, that is.
As one of the residents of Greenwich Place at Town Center, a luxury townhouse and apartment complex in Owings Mills, Long lives just a stone's throw from the sprawling Owings Mills Mall.
"The mall is so close, you can walk there in about five minutes," said Long, 31, who also manages the luxury property, which opened last fall. The complex has 332 midrise apartments and three-story townhouses, with two-car garages, renting for about $1,200 to $1,800 a month.
With vaulted 9-foot ceilings, oversized windows and gas fireplaces in units, plus on-site fitness and media centers -- Greenwich Place isn't exactly short on amenities. Still, Long called the close proximity of the mall an added perk for some residents and a potential draw for those considering a move.
"We're targeting those who want convenience," she said of the gated community, which has a diverse mix of young families and empty-nesters and is about 60 percent occupied. "We're next door to the [AMC] movie theater. We're across from the food court, in case you need a quick bite."
In America's cities, and especially its suburbs, experts say the backyard mall concept is becoming more prevalent.
Some brokers peg the trend as yet another option in an increasingly competitive housing market, where consumers have myriad choices about where they choose to live: beside a golf course, for instance, or in a high-rise with retail shops and eateries.
Others believe shopping malls, with their large expanses of underdeveloped land, represent prime real estate, and therefore, economic potential.
"People are looking at the land near malls as an incredible resource," said Arnold "Pat" Keller III, director of the Baltimore County Office of Planning. "It's happening across the country -- not in places where land is cheap and plentiful -- but primarily in growth-constrained areas, like California, Miami and the Northeast, including Maryland."
Those "huge surface fields" that most suburban malls have designated for parking (dubbed "grayfields" for their grayish hue) are typically underused, said Keller.
"A good 30 percent is wasted," he said. "It's like free land, so they have great appeal to many developers and builders. ... Especially as land values increase, they're looking for places to get land at a lower cost."
Toby Bozzuto, executive vice president of Bozzuto Development Co. in Greenbelt, which manages Greenwich Place, agreed that the land around malls -- which have road access and services in place -- is ripe for new types of development.
"Many of these huge suburban malls that were built in the last 30 years are changing," he said. "The retailers and owners are redesigning and repositioning malls, to make them more interesting and contemporary lifestyle centers."
"So, the land use is changing too," said Bozzuto. "They're saying, `I've got this absurd amount of surface parking, and it's not being used.' We're saying, `Why not use it to build walkable, livable communities?' "
Many jurisdictions in Maryland have housing situated in the shadow of major malls -- some within a mile or so, others, merely paces away.
In downtown Baltimore, for instance, the Gallery at Harborplace is about two blocks from Scarlett Place, one of the original upscale condo buildings on the Inner Harbor. Nearby, a plethora of new skyscraper apartments and condos are coming up in Harbor East.
Across Baltimore County, both Owings Mills and, to a lesser extent, White Marsh have housing units close to their respective malls.
Montgomery County has the Hidden Creek condos in Gaithersburg, near Lake Forest Mall. And Bozzuto's company recently developed the Arbors at Arundel Preserves, a 496-unit apartment building minutes from Arundel Mills mall.
Several "backyard mall" developments have cropped up in Howard County in recent years, including Lakeside at Town Center, a 48-unit condo building across from The Mall in Columbia.
"Part of your view is of [Lake Kittamaqundi], the other is the mall," said Brian Pakulla, a top-selling Realtor with Remax Advantage in Columbia. "I just sold one in July," he added.
Another complex, the Governor's Grant townhouses, is "practically on the parking lot" of the popular Columbia mall. "You walk out your door, and there's Nordstrom," he said. "Some people love that."
Which raises another question about the mall-as-neighbor concept: How many people actually want to live within shouting distance of a mall?
Data are scarce. However, Americans will spend a projected $109.4 billion at malls in 2007, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group. Is there some correlation between the two?