Mall Reuse: An Opportunity for More Durable Places

Earlier this month, Presidential economic advisor Larry Summers presented remarks that speak directly to an important issue for placemakers: The future of the American mall. Summers:

The rebuilt American economy must be more export-oriented and less consumption-oriented, more environmentally-oriented and less fossil-energy-oriented, more bio- and software-engineering-oriented and less financial-engineering-oriented, more middle-class-oriented and less oriented to income growth that disproportionately favors a very small share of the population.

The retail marketplace is in transformation. The U.S. now has 45,000 shopping centers, only 1,200 of which reflect the typical mall design – large, enclosed spaces with anchor and secondary Mall tenants, surrounded by large tracts of car parking capacity. Since 2006, only one of these has opened, an estimated 300 have been converted or repurposed, and hundreds more have closed. Relatively flat earnings growth, a rapid jump in the personal savings rate, and a drop in total retail that appears very likely to exceed 10% this year all suggest the market will soon have other plans for many enclosed malls.

Federal and state policies that increasingly require recognition of environmental costs such as stormwater runoff from large parking lots, as well as growing volatility in fuel costs, will put further pressure on this building form. The results touched on in a recent article in Planning magazine suggest some modest mixed-use alternatives. I agree that a mix of uses probably makes sense for many of these parcels, and recommend redividing the land and adopting zoning to allow a more diverse mix of ongoing, distinctly owned uses. This allows the marketplace to move incrementally and be flexible, not inertia-bound like many of the malls have become.

This is a topic in lively discussions across the country. I identified 340,000 hits when searching for “mall reuse” on Google. Here are a few samples:
  • An interview with “Retrofitting Suburbia” author Helen Dunham-Jones.
  • A visual tour of big box store reuse scenarios.
  • This blog post from the Architect's Newspaper, suggesting that New York City malls are poised to enter a new chapter.
  • An article from the Columbus Dispatch, describing an ambitious plan to retool City Center in Columbus, Ohio with a supersize mixed-use plan around open space.
The enclosed mall is a fitting symbol of the shift Summers identified. As the U.S. economy begins to recover from the current recession, it remains to be seen how these large parcels of prime land will be designed and used. Regardless of whether now or in the not-too-distant future, most U.S. communities will be asking the same question.

What’s the next step for your area mall?

Transportation Stimulus Projects Should Reflect Modern Economy

A New York Times analysis of over 5,000 transportation-related stimulus projects released todayFour-lane rural road near Fort Ripley, MN indicates that less than half of the funds are slated for investment in metropolitan areas. The analysis suggests that these transportation investments have been selected based on formula as opposed to what the American economy of today looks like.

As I’ve recounted at the Cents of Place in the past, the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas:

• Use 12% of the U.S. land area;

• House and employ 65% of our population;

• Generate 78% of patent filings; and

• Create 75% of total U.S. economic activity.

The report shows that the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, while producing 1.36% of the country’s economic activity, is the location of 0.72% of the transportation-related stimulus projects authorized. Readers will note that the seven-county metro area contains just 12% of the state’s total lane miles. So doesn’t it make sense that stimulus funds reflect lane miles?

In its most succinct form, the answer may well be no. Here’s why: The federal stimulus legislation will provide capital grants to build, renovate, and replace transportation infrastructure – but it does not fundamentally address how state and local governments will pay for maintenance and operations. Over 87% of Minnesota’s total lane miles are county, township and city streets, paid for from limited state and local sources. Overbuilding may create long-term costs that will stifle prosperity in greater Minnesota, not the reverse.

Just ask my colleague Chuck Marohn, President of the Community Growth Institute, who provides planning and zoning expertise to small towns across Minnesota. In recent weeks, Chuck has blogged extensively about how and why our current approach to locating infrastructure investments is financially unsustainable. Moreover, it undermines the quality of life in communities like Brainerd, Minnesota, where Chuck grew up.

In metropolitan areas, the higher concentration of economic activity will allow for the funding of ongoing maintenance of road, rail and other systems, which will in turn bolster the metro economy as well as the statewide economy. Future stimulus funding, and the coming debate about a new federal transportation bill, ought to be designed in this light.

Photo courtesy of Resedabear/Flickr: / CC BY 2.0