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?