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Monday, May 11, 2009

Injecting New Life Into Dead Malls

What to do with a dead mall? It's increasingly a relevant question as the economic downturn precipitates a dramatic increase in retail vacancies. How to inject new life into otherwise dead malls?

A while back, I wrote several posts on the subject of Lifestyle Centers as the next evolution in the traditional mall concept. Intuitively, Lifestyle Centers make sense to me. Wouldn't we rather find a place to live close to where we might shop and possibly even work? It's the ultimate in walkable neighborhoods.

As opposed to the traditional mall accessible only by car.

PSFK.com published What Can Be Done With Dead Malls? on 4/6/09 which led me to 101 Uses for a Deserted Mall from the 4/4/09 New York Times' Room for Debate Blog. Did you see it? The post features perspective from six experts.

+ Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, authors of “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.” They say "Depending on the specifics of each site, we can expect to see future failed malls re-inhabited, re-greened, or retrofitted" and offer interesting examples. They feel that dead malls offer communities an opportunity to better serve their needs.

+ Helene Klodawsky is director of the film Malls R Us which documents the story of the American shopping mall and its translation into related concepts around the world. The movie features Peter Blackbird, founder of deadmalls.com who says "going forward, suburban planners need to recognize that the shopping mall of the future can’t simply be a nucleus of stores surrounded by a sea of asphalt with a ring of highway around it. They need to encourage shopping centers that are woven into the fabric of the community, close to where people live and, therefore, easy for pedestrians to access. Developers should also strive to create malls that offer a place for people to socialize, not simply to buy."

[Subscribers, please click on the link to YouTube for a Malls R Us film clip.]

+ James J. Farrell, author of “One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping, states that "Shopping centers have also served as cultural indicators of American assumptions about need and sufficiency, status and class, race and gender. And they are a showcase for how Americans work and play." He sees that although some malls will die, and others be repurposed for homes, community centers or workspaces, most malls will need to fit into a business model that recognizes both the globe's and consumers' finite resources.

+ Joel Kotkin, author of “The City: A Global History," sees dead malls offering communities opportunities to reinvent themselves. They can easily be recycled: "Essentially malls can be repositioned into what a community needs. They have the advantages of an already existing infrastructure and usually are located on major transportation routes. The key thing is not to let them stay underused or fallow for too long. They should be regarded as a potential asset, much as you would look at well-located unimproved land, or a deserted warehouse or office district in a city center."

Have you come across interesting examples of otherwise dead malls successfully reinventing themselves? How did they do it? What appeals to you most?

On 4/26/09, ChicagoTribune.com published Empty boxes. Mounting number of vacancies leave huge holes to fill in the retail landscape by Sandra M. Jones. Although more about vacant big boxes rather than just malls, the problem is similar. What comes next? What to do with all of that empty space -- more than 100 million square feet of it?

Given enough creativity, the possibilities are endless: county courthouse, indoor raceway, museum, library, charter school, senior center, chapel....

Given enough creativity, the possibilities also suggest opportunities for strengthening community and making better use of resources.

What do you think?

Photo credit: Overland Park, KS Metcalf South Shopping Center (a dead mall) escalators and fountains originally uploaded by army.arch. Note: please read the notes to this photo.

Related Articles from Flooring The Consumer:
+ Atlanta's Atlantic Station - A Lifestyle Center
+ An Architect's View of Better LifeStyle Centers
+ Southlake Town Square - A Lifestyle Center
+ A. Alfred Taubman: Overcoming Threshold Resistance

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Bruce D. Sanders, Ph.D. said...

The laments about the demise of shopping malls has a similar ring to the laments decades ago about downtown central shopping districts. What rescued some central shopping districts was giving each area a sense of psychological significance (Baltimore's Harbor Place, Pioneer Place in Portland, Horton Plaza in San Diego, and more). For the CBD redevelopment, significance often came from a sense of history. For shopping malls, I'd choose museum over indoor raceway from your list, C. B., in order to maintain and develop a sense of significance.
From another perspective, one strength of many shopping malls is the integrated, innovative architecture, which when done properly projects a sense of significance. For reasons that go beyond the tough economy—such as a switch to internet shopping—malls may need to slice and dice to provide for smaller niche operations. I think it would be wise to do this in a way that maintains and builds on any noteworthy architecture already there.

Judy Hopelain said...

Great story, C.B.! According to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), spending on entertainment and self-improvement services tend to be fairly recession-proof. So, we are now seeing malls embrace those categories. They are experimenting with new movie theater concepts including some featuring oversized "love seats for two," wine and cheese bars, and medspas for a quick afternoon Botox fix. The number of mall-based medspas alone has jumped to about 2,500 from just 450 in 2004!

And, in what now looks like great foresight, Westfield Mall leased 145,000 square feet on the fifth and sixth floors in its San Francisco Centre to San Francisco State University to use as its downtown campus. This brings visitors to the mall during non-peak hours, and reviews on Yelp suggest the concept is a winner.

One thing is clear: The mall experience can't be just about shirts, slacks and shoes anymore.

The good news? Maybe our malls will become less cookie-cutter like and have more variety and more local appeal. There’s a chance that local tastes and preferences will be reflected in the new tenants and uses that malls attract. Anything that gets away from the homogeneous mall experience of the last 10 years would be an improvement!

Check out a story I wrote in October about Reinventing the Mall Experience - http://retailhitsandmisses.blogspot.com/2008/10/ovrhauling-mall-experience.html

CB Whittemore said...

Bruce, thanks for bringing up these wonderful examples. They capture how much potential exists for communities and individuals when dead malls are rethought and reinvented. I also like your point about architecture. This will be fascinating to watch.

CB Whittemore said...

Judy, you bring up wonderful examples of what's possible. I, for one, can't wait for the end of cookie-cutter retailing. It's what has brought us to where we are today. Thanks for the link to your story, and for adding to this conversation.

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