Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The Democratic presidential candidate wants to fight suburban blight by repurposing dying retail centers.
Entrepreneur and presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has a new policy proposal that promises to set him apart in the crowded Democratic field. He hopes to address an issue affecting the economic vitality of communities all across the country. Yang wants to save the malls.
According to his campaign, some 300 malls will fold over the next 4 years, a number in line with an estimate by Credit Suisse that one-quarter of all malls will close by 2022. Many dozens or hundreds more will struggle as anchor stores collapse and retail outlets wither. Yang’s American Mall Act would devote $6 billion to finding new purposes for these dying retail complexes.
Yang announced the plan over the weekend in a video from Columbia Place, a shopping hub in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, that today is only a shadow of its former self. “It’s a massive challenge to try to keep these structures vital and filled,” Yang said in the spot. “No one wants to go to the vast empty parking lot.”
It’s an apparent pitch to Palmetto State voters who recognize the retail apocalypse as a potential spur for suburban blight. With it, Yang has landed on a niche issue that could benefit from some visionary thinking: greyfields, economically obsolete real-estate assets so named for the asphalt expanses of their vacant parking lots.
While details for the American Mall Act are scant, Yang said in his video that this policy would provide matching grants and property development incentives to “repurpose malls so they don’t become sinkholes.” Redirecting tax incentives away from big-box retailers and toward more sustainable employers—or even non-commercial uses—is one way to breathe life into dead malls.
But economic incentives alone aren’t enough to resuscitate disused malls and shopping centers. Yang zeroed in on the parking-lot factor, a major impediment to rethinking these commercial sites. As Nolan Gray wrote for CityLab in 2017, the zoning for malls often won’t allow anything but big-box retail. Elsewhere he explained how the city council in Lexington, Kentucky, changed the city’s most auto-oriented retail zoning code by relaxing parking requirements, permitting greater density, and enabling mixed-use multi-family housing by right.
The Congress for the New Urbanism, which coined the term greyfields, has suggested that the best way to reclaim vacant malls is by reformatting them as “mixed-use, mixed-income, pedestrian- oriented” sites. Easier said than done: Nationwide, local communities are bitterly divided over density, affordable housing, zoning, and parking minimums, all issues subject to neighborhood control. Bridging these divides has emerged as a high-priority issue for 2020 presidential candidates looking for a solution to the affordable housing crisis.
Now, Yang hopes to move the needle with a policy that could, potentially, save dying mall parcels by turning them over to developers for housing, studios, or other more-productive, less auto-focused purposes. It will take more than the Yang Gang to make that happen, but it’s another way that the race for the White House stands to elevate political issues typically left for local governments to decide.