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The Future of Shopping Malls: An Image Essay

By Morgan Greenseth

Mall culture in the United States -- at least as we know it -- is coming to an end. Last month, the fall of Steve & Barry's became the next addition to a series of recent retailer bankruptcies we've been witnessing across the nation. This trend is likely to continue, as the U.S. economic downturn causes people to reduce their trips to stores and to shop less, forcing more shops to close and leaving malls deserted.


According to an article that ran in The Economist at the end of 2007:

In the past half century ... [malls] have transformed shopping habits, urban economies and teenage speech. America now has some 1,100 enclosed shopping malls, according to the International Council of Shopping Centres. Clones have appeared from Chennai to Martinique. Yet the mall's story is far from triumphal. Invented by a European socialist who hated cars and came to deride his own creation, it has a murky future. While malls continue to multiply outside America, they are gradually dying in the country that pioneered them.

Deadmalls, a site dedicated to these failing malls, tracks closings and developments, and even allows you to locate malls that are dying in your own town.

As malls across the country start to fade into obsolescence, what is to become of these massive structures? After spending some time searching out the most creative alternatives to abandonment and massive landfilling of these former monuments to chain-store consumerism, I've found that the future of shopping malls is hopeful and creative:

The Factoria Mall in Bellevue (a suburb of Seattle) is currently losing many stores, but redevelopment will begin soon in the hopes of creating a more useful, long-term multipurpose community space. The new Marketplace @ Factoria will still house retailers, but the redesign will add pedestrian walkways, outdoor dining, and even residential units.

The Factoria mall today. (Credit: Brian Lutz)

Rendering of planned Pedestrian Plaza (Credit: Kimco Redevelopment Group)

Residential Plaza (Credit: Kimco Redevelopment Group)

Factoria is one of a number of older malls being redesigned as mixed-use centers that include housing as a main feature. The development group General Growth Properties (not associated with Factoria) has become a leader in mall renovation, re-imagining them as town centers to reflect their awareness of "changing living patterns and widespread opposition to sprawl," according to an article in New Urban News. The article continues, describing one renovation of a mall in Columbia, Md.:

The tactics would include walkways and streets connecting the mall to Columbia Town Center’s lakefront district, which abut one another but have never been connected from a pedestrian point of view…. Other sides of the mall would have their own connections to streetscapes.” Parking lots would be replaced by structured parking. Residential, office, and retail space would be added. A hotel may be built, too. The Howard County government had Design Collective, a new urbanist firm in Baltimore, devise a 30-year plan through a public charrette process.

My belief is that this is going to be a long-term trend extending over at least the next twenty years, so much so that people will become as familiar with a mall conversion protocol as they are with a prototypical new urbanist residential neighborhood…. It will start out slow as people learn the new ‘formulas’ and pick up speed once they have got them down.
We are paying close attention to the quality of the buildings and to the quality of the spaces between the buildings,"

Credit: GGP

These mixed-use centers reflect the principles of New Urbanism, a movement that formed as a reaction to sprawl. New Urbanists promote the creation of human-scale, walkable communities with reduced reliance on parking lots, emphasized access to public transit, and public spaces designed to invite and benefit the community. At the Rochester Hills Mall, pictured below, a central commons area acts as a meeting point and playground, and a spot to host festivals throughout the year.


The non-profit group Congress for New Urbanism summarized their experience with six case studies in the document "Malls to Main Streets", intended as a manual for developers, planners and community leaders facing the issue of abandoned malls. This group claims that when a project is done correctly, the mixed-use redevelopment can actually relieve traffic, help reduce pollution and provide residents with a downtown.

CNU insists that redeveloping malls, can reverse the process of urban sprawl. Malls, surrounded by parking lots and located far from residential neighborhoods, once encouraged the expansion of car culture. Now these greyfields present the opportunity to revive neighborhoods in suburbs around a central location. The challenge is to find an appropriate solution for each unique situation.

More ideas for what's to become of the malls and suburbia were expressed in an art show entitled "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes". Architects along with artists submitted realistic proposals ranging from indoor beer gardens to drive-in theaters in the parking lots. And the opportunity to revive the suburbs isn't limited to shopping malls alone. Another creative idea: turn the inside spaces of cloverleaf on-off ramps into pocket parks. Big box retailers can become a healthier part of the community with proper planning. Colleges, churches and even a Spam museum have all found their way into abandoned buildings. Julia Christensen has documented big box reuse and how it can accommodate different communities in various ways.

Credit: Walker Art

Credit: Julia Christensen

In some instances however, abandoned malls aren't able to be redeveloped. Whether it is caused by new owners or existing poor construction, some must be demolished. Here in the Northwest, most materials get recycled. An alternative -- and still resourceful -- solution is deconstruction.

Credit: Heather Beal

For No Name Exhibitions in Minneapolis, this was the perfect solution to create their multi-use center for the arts. A total of $85,000 worth of material, including Italian marble tile, wrought iron benches and mop sinks, was salvaged from a luxury shopping center that was to be torn down. No Name used the materials to renovate a 19th century former soap factory to create the Soap Factory. Any materials not used for the art center were donated.


Credit: Heather Beal

Whether an interior renovation, a community redevelopment or reconstruction happens to an abandoned mall, outcomes target the needs of the community. Instead of viewing these boxes as dead wastelands, we can imagine the various possibilities in which they can be transformed to become new cultural centers.

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If shopping malls are going to continue to grow in our cities like mushrooms, the most important design consideration must the re-thinking of parking lots. Those in-front lots ruin neighbourhoods and destroy *places*.

Posted by: Anne Onimos on 6 Aug 08

Shopping malls, both newly constructed and those being redeveloped, are potential sites for generating power. Their sprawling roof space lends itself to PV cells or, geography permitting, wind turbines. Malls being redeveloped to include residential space might also consider rooftop container gardens to partially manage stormwater and to produce food.

Posted by: E.R. Dunhill on 7 Aug 08

I believe that Westlake shopping center in Daly City, CA is a Kimco property. They took a totally underutilized open air mall and turned it into a local destination with tenants like Trader Joe's TJ Maxx Cost Plus Home Depot etc. This center serves the entire west side of San Francisco as well as the suburbs immediately south.

Posted by: rebecca quilici on 7 Aug 08

Interesting article. Reminds me of when I was working for the Bucks County (PA) Planning Commission c. 1979. I did a study for the CDBG Office on the impacts of dead malls. Using Census of Business data we delineated trade areas around each mall and estimated available disposal income for retail sales. It was quite obvious that the county was already saturated with malls (based on 1979 purchasing patterns)and that the development of new malls led directly to the closing and deterioration of older malls and shopping districts. We also made recommendations for reuse of dead malls at that time such as office space for nonprofit social service agencies. (Such a project was carried out near Seattle about 15 years ago)

Unfortunately, the Republican County Commissioners in Bucks County at that time felt that the study smacked too much of "central planning" and "socialism" and refused to publish the study. They also would not publish a study on using more of the County's CDBG money for housing rehabilitation programs. Same reason.

I must say though that probably the highlight of my planning career was studying Urban Design at Rutgers U. with Tony Nelessen, a pioneer New Urbanist theorist. I also did a plan for a "festival marketplace" and mostly low-rise housing on a grid pattern for the Jersey City waterfront (believe it or not the land was so cheap in 1976 that it made economic sense to build low-rise). Again, not implemented and vastly superior to what was built 15 years later. We were just a bit ahead of our time.

Posted by: Mark Pomerantz on 8 Aug 08

Interesting article. I am aware of Julia Christensen's work. The other parallel development in Europe is the re-use of buildings other than retail. We have numerous examples of schools, chruches, former military sites and farm buildings being re-used by their local communities. This hasn't yet generated the glossary used by Deadmalls - a missed opportunity perhaps?

Posted by: Phil Denning on 9 Aug 08

I am very excited about the prospect of the demise of mall culture as we know it.

Hopefully it can be replaced with locally owned stores, cottage industries, hobbies, and a psychological shift away from consumerism as a way of life.

Perhaps Americans will replace consumerism with activism???

Posted by: John Andersen on 10 Aug 08

"Perhaps Americans will replace consumerism with activism???"
I think this _will_ occur: activism in the form of more biking and walking, more growing of food in our back yards, and definitely less consumerism due to inflation and shortages.

Posted by: Stephen Bach on 11 Aug 08

It's poetic to think of some of these malls becoming mixed service and residential (perhaps boomer-retirement) communities. Mall walkers become mall-residents. Retire locally. Retire your car (icon of independent living) way before you can't drive it anymore.

I can see some appealing to us younger generations too, though we'd have different needs and sensibilities.

Posted by: Tori on 11 Aug 08

Turn 70% of all shopping malls across the U.S. into factories and we'll have a nation of producers again--not consumers.

Posted by: mark on 26 Aug 08

An Orange County entrepreneur proposes an economically viable solution for Hawthorne Plaza Mall owners (The Charle Co. of Beverly Hills) to consider. The Stadium of Dreams concept would be the first of it's kind in the world. It will turn the once vibrant mall into an enormously profitable facility that will become the FUTURE in retail for the 14 to 34 demographic! Other malls (hopefully deadmalls) will be taking notes on this one!

For more information you can email them at

Posted by: Ty Richey on 26 Aug 08



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