7 Uses for Failing Shopping Malls

Ideas (some good, some not) for what to do with these hulking, empty retail spaces.

If the American-style shopping mall is dying, we could easily be left with an awfully big pile of useless real estate. What should become of these empty retail shells?

In fact, some innovative ideas are already emerging. Across the country, malls are being retrofitted into doctor's offices, office space, and call centers. But some developers are taking a more creative approach. Below, a collection of some of the most interesting ideas we've heard for what comes next for the shopping mall.

1. The Mall as Main Street

The bad rap on malls used to be that they made Main Streets obsolete. But with store fronts emptying out and visitors dwindling, some malls are planning redesigns that place walkability, public space, and outdoor hang outs at a premium. Take a look at this Seattle mall. This is what the mall looked like in 2007 (courtesy of the Sledghammer, which chronicled its decline and has a whole photo essay of empty flagship stores and bleak hallways).

But mall owners are planning a redesign (complete with a new name, "Marketplace at Factoria") that more closely mimics a main street. Here are some mock-ups for the plan:

World Changing,

According to Marketplace @ Factoria will still house retailers, but the redesign will add pedestrian walkways, outdoor dining, and even residential units." Even the new logo (right) emphasizes the "place"-iness of the new spot.

2. The Mall as High-End Condo

Similar to the mall-as-main-street concept, but with an emphasis on luxury living -- think walkable development, anchored in the shell of a mall rather than proximity to transit. This type of mall redesign was tried by the Natick Mall, a 40-year-old shopping center outside of Boston, in 2007.

The mall in 2007, days after its expansion. Image courtesy of Katsuki/Wikimedia Commons)



Exterior images of Nouvelle at Navick.

The 500,000-square-foot expansion brought more high-end retailers (like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Michael Kors), and restaurants to the struggling space. But the flagship addition was a collection of luxury condos known as Nouvelle at Natick. Planners imagined a "new era of suburban living" - one that "married shopping and luxury - without the hassles and high prices of the city."

In the first year, only 37 condos sold (though some people paid a whopping $1.6 million); the developer auctioned off 42 more in 2009 (for a notably-less-whopping $160,000). Ironically, the condos were auctioned off because mall-builder General Growth Properties, which owned the condos, needed quick cash (it was in the middle of a $27.3 billion bankruptcy case).

In 2011, several condo owners sued the property developer; demanding their money back.

3. The Mall as City Hall

Talk about the intersection between business and politics. The former Echelon Mall in Voorhees, New Jersey, began losing retailers in 2000. By 2005, only a quarter of its spaces were occupied. Right around the same time, the Voorhees government was looking for a new home. Plans to build a new town hall had been rejected in the late 1990s, and voters dubbed the proposal a "Taj Mahal."

In 2007, a development group demolished some department store space at the mall and re-purposed other parts. The re-opened Voorhees Town Center includes some new stores (including a Macy's); a tree-lined boulevard, condos, and the Voorhees Town Hall, "now conveniently located right next door to your daily shopping excursions," according to the mall website.

Though the idea was initially met with skepticism, by now it's pretty well received. As New Jersey Municipalities wrote in 2011:

Residents can now get a marriage license and walk across the mall to Macy’s to sign up for their wedding registry. They can pick up a copy of their child’s birth certificate and then enjoy the Kids’ Klub activities, shop at the mall’s children’s stores, or grab a bite to eat. Residents have come in to pay their third quarter taxes and then headed into the mall for their back-to-school shopping.

4.  The Mall as Park

When it was first built, the Columbus City Center was central Ohio's largest mall. But by 2009, the mall was largely vacant, a downtown eye sore that was, in the words of the Columbus Dispatch, "hurting efforts to redevelop the area south of Capitol Square and harming property values."

The evolution from shopping mall to green space. Images courtesy of Columbus Commons

So the city invested $20 million to turn the dead space into a nine-acre park, hoping that it would draw residents from the suburbs. In addition to green spaces, fountains and trees, the mall has a carousel, a performance space for summer concerts, something called an "outdoor reading room," plus bocce courts and a life-sized chess set.

Its parking lot also got a bit of a re-use -- it's now used by the city's downtown employees as a garage.

5. The Mall as Water Park

Down an anchor retailer or two? Why not replace them with a slide and wave pool! That's the premise behind the company Flowrider, which sells wave pools to property management companies. This trend gave birth to one of the best sentences to ever appear in The New York TImes:

Where once people shopped for three-packs of underwear or sheet sets, they are now turning up in flip-flops and shorts to surf an artificial patch of ocean.

According to the Times, a retail chain called Adrenalina began selling malls on wave pools and slides in 2007. The recession and online shopping had put a serious dent in mall shoppers, and owners were willing to try anything to get people back into stores. According to the Times, some malls paid the $2 million installation fee themselves, just to get foot traffic going again.

6. The Mall as Performing Arts Venue

In 2009, St. Louis's Crestwood Malls decided to turn over its empty space to artists. One theater company moved from a church basement to its own rehearsal space, all for $100 a month plus utilities. Other dance studios, galleries and artists also moved in with the same rent deal. Some 60 groups signed on.

One artist took over an old hair salon, using the sinks to wash paint brushes. At the time, Leisa Son, creator of the project and marketing manager at Crestwood Court, told St. Louis Today: '"We've been able to redefine retail space usage with this project," she says. "Despite the economy, we've created a sense of rejuvenation and excitement. Suddenly, this mall is a destination once again."'

When it opened, it was the largest community of its kind in the U.S.

Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. The mall owner ended ArtSpace in 2011.

7. Malls as...Malls. But Malls That Appeal to a Whole Different Type of Consumer

Some malls aren't experiencing a rebirth as much as a make-over. See, for example, "La Gran Plaza de Fort Worth, Texas." This mall's management group decided to completely reimagine its target audience with a focus on Hispanic immigrants. In addition to the name change, the website is in both English and Spanish. And check out the mall's central performance space:

In addition to some awesome mariachi, the mall boasts a Spanish-language movie theater, Quinceañera fashion shows, and a food court with eateries like El China, Dona Carmen Pupuseria, and Mexico de Mis Amores.

Photos from the Quincineria Fashion Show and the Dia de los Muertos. Images courtesy of La Gran Plaza De Fort Worth.

Similar, ethnically-focused malls have been springing up in California as well -- targeted at Asian shoppers as well as Hispanics. As Joel Kotkin writes:

Throughout the country, ethnic-based businesses continue to expand, even as mainstream centers suffer or go out of business. The key difference, notes Houston real estate investor Andrew Segal, lies in the immigrants' greater reliance on cash. "When cash is king," observers Segal, president of Boxer Properties, "immigrants rule."

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.