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Alfred Taubman’s great works

May 29, 2015

A. Alfred Taubman, an industry pioneer and founder of Taubman Centers Inc., died April 17. He was 91. A self-made billionaire who developed his first large shopping center in 1953, Taubman conceived of, and perfected, many of the planning and design techniques that have become ubiquitous in the modern mall. Taubman was one of the first developers of his time to view shopping centers as more than simply real estate to be leased, and drew on his background in architecture and store planning to create some of the most successful and upscale malls across the country, from Beverly Center in Los Angeles to The Mall at Short Hills in northern New Jersey.

“Alfred Taubman perfected the mall model, as is evident when you look at the company’s luxury centers,” said Michael P. Kercheval, ICSC’s president and CEO. “But that wasn’t enough for him. He dedicated himself to sharing his success by giving generously to so many educational and cultural institutions. He was a self-made man who not only lived the American Dream, but did all that he could to help others to do so too. He was a great citizen.”

Seeking at first to develop projects that could compete with powerful downtown shopping districts, Taubman upped the stakes significantly when it came to building large-scale projects. In 1971 he developed what is considered by many to be the first super-regional mall, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill., near Chicago. The project was 2 million square feet when it opened and was subsequently expanded.

“Alfred is in shopping centers the greatest product person I’ve ever met,” said Peter Linneman, emeritus professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“His genius was really understanding how space works and how to design retail space to create an exciting and -enjoyable shopping environment,” said Linneman, who met Taubman in the mid-1980s, when the developer served as the first chairman of the Wharton Real Estate Center’s Board. 

Alfred Taubman chaired Taubman Centers Inc. until 2001, when his son Robert, who joined the firm in 1976 and was named chief executive in 1990, took on the position. His other son, William, is the company’s chief operating officer, and an ICSC trustee and past ICSC chairman. Robert Taubman is an ICSC past trustee. Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers now owns, manages and/or leases 22 malls and outlet centers in the United States and Asia.

Alfred Taubman’s spectacular success in the shopping center industry and his many other high-profile business ventures took him a long way from his humble beginnings as a self-described “dyslexic Jewish kid from Detroit.”

The son of German immigrants Fannie and Philip, Taubman grew up during the Great Depression and got his first lessons in retailing at an early age. From age eleven through high school, he worked afternoons and weekends at a discount department store in Pontiac, Mich., where he discovered he had a knack for sales and other aspects of retailing.

In 1942, he enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to study art and architecture, supporting himself by working several jobs, including making house calls to campus sororities to sell shoes for a local merchant.

But he dropped out that year, feeling compelled to join the war effort. In the U.S. Army Air Corps, a predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, he served in the Pacific, where, working in intelligence, he documented the devastation caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

After returning home to Michigan, he eventually enrolled at Lawrence Technical University in Southfield, near Detroit, to continue his architectural training at night and took a job with architectural firm Charles N. Agree Inc. as a store planner and draftsman. It was there that he began to cultivate an understanding of the traffic patterns of shoppers as they move through stores, an insight that would serve him well as a mall developer.

In 1950, at age 26, a highly ambitious Taubman struck out on this own, founding the predecessor to Taubman Centers with a $5,000 bank loan. The firm started out as a construction company, designing and building department stores, hotels and a few small centers.

But in 1953 it got the chance to develop its first big shopping center when it took over a troubled project in Flint, Mich. Taubman’s experience with North Flint Plaza, a collection of 26 stores anchored by a department store, gave him the confidence to undertake additional large-scale retail projects, starting in the Detroit area.

Although he developed projects throughout the Midwest, Taubman was also quick to go beyond his home turf, tempted in the late 1950s by Northern California’s population growth and expanding freeway system. Despite the fact that he was a newcomer to the state, Taubman undertook some of his most ambitious projects ever there in the 1960s.

His Southland Mall in Hayward was the first enclosed mall in Northern California when it opened in 1964. Three years later Taubman opened Sunvalley in the growing San Francisco suburb of Concord. The 1.25 million-square-foot mall was billed as the world’s largest air-conditioned shopping center when it opened. Its three anchors included a 200,000-square-foot Macy’s, the result of a successful effort by Taubman to lobby the chain to open a store that was unusually large for a suburban location at the time.

With projects like Sunvalley, Taubman sought to create malls with the critical mass to dominate their regions. At the same time, he continually perfected design planning techniques intended to make the retail behemoths exciting and user-friendly and to give tenants as much exposure to foot traffic as possible.

“Planning is everything,” wrote Taubman in his 2007 memoir Threshold Resistance, a title that refers to the obstacles he overcame during his lifetime, including his quest to develop malls free of the “physical and psychological” barriers that stand between shoppers and merchandise.

“Screw that up,” he wrote, “and a retail development will never realize its fullest potential. Get it right and everybody wins.”

Beginning with Sunvalley, Taubman was one of the first developers to build malls on two levels. The idea was to create a comfortable walking distance between anchor tenants, equivalent to about three city blocks, and a non-repetitive shopping experience.

He also went to great lengths to ensure shoppers circulated throughout his two-level malls, creating unobstructed site lines between floors and placing escalators and elevators at the ends of corridors. Working on the assumption that people are more inclined to move downhill than uphill, he fed more shoppers onto the second floor by designing two-level parking lots with more capacity on the top. He was also among the first developers to put a ring road around a mall, distributing cars to multiple entrance points.

Taubman was no less methodical when it came to interior design details. For instance, to keep shoppers from noticing any change in daylight, which might shorten their stay, he installed artificial lighting units in skylights. He also insisted on tiling his floors with terrazzo to making walking comfortable, especially for women in thin-soled shoes.

As a mall owner, he believed his role was to create an optimal tenant mix rather than simply filling space. He grouped stores with the intention of fostering impulse shopping, a novel concept in the early years of the industry. To maintain a high level of control over tenant mix, he negotiated relatively short leases and never fully leased malls before they opened, allowing him to make adjustments based on actual experience.

Even as the industry matured, Taubman continued to focus on building malls where he saw opportunity, rather than following any predictable geographic expansion plan or making large portfolio acquisitions. However, by the 1980s his focus had shifted from outlying suburbs, where land costs had risen, to more urban locations.

“He wasn’t just building physical space. He was trying to build a customer experience,” said Robert Taubman, during an interview in the early 2000s. That approach, he added, resulted in many industry firsts, from food courts to information booths.

“He really had to convince people that by taking retail planning principles from inside the store to the shopping center, it would be better for all,” added Robert Taubman, explaining that his father fought to convince both lenders and powerful department store operators that his first large-scale, two-level malls could succeed.

And succeed they did, beyond his father’s wildest dreams. For many successive years, Taubman was a fixture on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans and he parlayed his tremendous wealth, connections and experience into numerous other business ventures, from fast food to football.

Among the businesses he bought and sought to revitalize are A&W Restaurants Inc., now-defunct Woodward & Lothrop (a venerable department store chain known as “Woodies”) and international auction house Sotheby’s. Taubman was also an owner in the 1980s of the Michigan Panthers professional football team, the charter member of the now-defunct United States Football League.

Like other industry pioneers, Taubman was also a generous philanthropist, contributing many millions of dollars to charter schools, higher education, religious charities, medicine and the arts. Buildings at several universities have been named in his honor, including the University of Michigan’s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning; its A. Alfred Taubman Health Care Center, the university’s primary outpatient facility; and its Taubman Medical Library.

Other institutions named after him are Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy, Harvard University’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government and Lawrence Technical University’s A. Alfred Taubman Student Services Center.

“He was not just a pioneer on the planning side (of the shopping center industry).” said Robert Taubman. “He was a great and charismatic leader that people believed in.”