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. Around Seattle, casualties include the Blue Mountain Mall, Totem Lake Mall, Factoria and Everett (Crossroads was once pronounced dead, but has been revived.)

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 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.


one of my life long dreams is to turn a multi-level ex-mall into a self sustainable scuba diveable aquarium. could you imagine swimming through the once-victoria secret space surrounded by fish and aquatic life? it would even be big enough to house whales. waterproofing / sunlight (among other things...) would be issues, and it's definitely just a dream, but i think a pretty good one at that.

Posted by: Matthew Kemp on August 7, 2008 10:39 AM

As a Permaculture Design Consultant I can already see the interiors filled with citrus trees and avacadoes (with an interior/exterior beehive). The roof tops overflowing with food plants and, and, and my mind is reeling! Thanks. Suburbia need not die, it will become the start of whole new micro-farming communities. Afterall, some of the best farmland was swallowed and awaiting renewal under the 'burbs.

Roberts Creek, B.C.

Posted by: Lance on August 7, 2008 12:29 PM

I hope that developers, when going through with this new way of handling abandoned malls, pay serious attention to the ecological usefulness they could install in the renovated places: put grass and trees and local species in as many places as possible, on roofs, or instead of parking lots. I hope they plan on local sustainable electricity generation, as well. I hope they do this out of a genuine effort to transform suburbia into an area that's more likely to encourage humanity's survival than to discourage it; and not out of interest in being "hip" and "green."

Posted by: Sylvia on August 7, 2008 12:30 PM

I just moved to the "new urban town" of Columbia MD, as mentioned in your article - it's actually an old planned-town from the 1960's. Because it's close to both Baltimore and Washington DC, I can contrast living here with both of those cities - where I would have to walk or drive far to get to amenities. Here in Columbia, I can park my car and walk to groceries, gyms, walking paths and lakes, specialty stores (bagel shops, health food, etc), and even take a slightly longer walk to the mall (20 minutes) if I wanted. I have even seen where some old strip-malls have been refurbished to big-box stores (Walmart, Panera Bread, etc). I hope more towns become so easy to shop and live.

Posted by: Lauren Muney on August 7, 2008 1:08 PM

The Winrock Mall in Albuquerque is having this type of transformation happening to it soon. It will be, more or less, torn down and turned into an open air type of facility. The mall has set empty for about 3 years now. The movie "Observe and Report", about a mall security guard with police issues, was filmed here recently.

Cheers, Mi3ke

Posted by: Mi3ke on August 7, 2008 2:14 PM

Thanks for the links. I've actually been meaning to delve a little more into the subject of mall redevelopment and urban planning, but it's one of those things that has been sitting on my "to do" list for a while now. It is true that the traditional enclosed mall seems to be in decline, but even the so-called urban villages have their issues as well. In most cases around here (Alderwood, Northgate, etc.) you have a situation where they have created an outdoor "village" area, but the existing enclosed mall space has remained basically unchanged. Then you have Southcenter, which has bucked the trend entirely, and just opened up a $240 million indoor expansion. On the flip side of the coin there's something like The Landing down in Renton, that is being built from the ground up, but much less resembles any sort of mall than it does a shopping center with a few condo developments in the near vicinity.

I think the main issue with the redevelopment of older malls into these types of communities is the fact that most of the perceived benefits of this type of arrangement are really only there for the thousand people or so who happen to live there, and maybe a few thousand more in the near vicinity. A lot of the older malls (Totem Lake, Factoria) are located in primarily commercial districts that for all but a relatively small number of people are outside of walking distance, which means that the vast majority of potential customers for this type of place are still going to be driving.

Again, I've been meaning to go more into this topic over at my Blog, and will probably make a new post on the topic this evening.

Thanks again,

Posted by: Brian Lutz on August 7, 2008 2:39 PM

One worry I have is that the current discomfort over malls' being private--not public--space will continue. Political dissent--basically, anything that doesn't make the owner money--will not be allowed. Sidewalks themselves will be privately owned (as they are now in malls, and of course apartment-bldg hallways).

In a way, we'll extend the Walmart-ization or mall-ification of America into people's living rooms and backyards.

Of course, we already have neighborhoods w/ restrictive covenants, and as I said, apartment buildings have non-public hallways. So maybe that niggling little misgiving is overkill.

And Brian has a point--people already resist apartment living, and most people don't actually want to move into a loft or apartment downtown. They want a yard where they can do whatever they want, and space that lets them never hear or see their neighbor.

Posted by: TootsNYC on August 7, 2008 3:46 PM

Rackspace Hosting ( has taken a novel approach to revitalizing not only an old mall but a whole neighborhood. They're spending >$40million to renovate the old Windcrest Mall in San Antonio, TX, into the new corporate headquarters. It's LEED certified and already over 400 people have taken residency in what used to be Mervyns.

Posted by: Adam on August 7, 2008 4:29 PM

The only good a dead mall!

I wish every one to be reminiscent of the Monroeville Mall in PA, as it were just decades ago...

Posted by: Blerrrrrrrrr on August 7, 2008 5:05 PM

I think this is fantastic!! I'm just a regular person but anything that takes up the "quad" idea is great by me. In fact, Ithaca, New York, has a beautiful area that is much like some of the design pictures above. It really helps to build a sense of community and lets you appreciate what can be done even in cities.

Posted by: Amanda on August 7, 2008 6:07 PM

Year ago I remember walking over to a mall that was near my hotel in one of the Denver-area tech parks, looking for something to do. After about 5 minutes of walking around the dullest mall on earth, I discovered that it had been purchased and was occupied by some kind of "ministry". It was a very weird atmosphere.

Posted by: Justin on August 7, 2008 7:51 PM

A few blocks away from where I live in San Antonio,TX is a failed mall that is now being revamped into headquarters for Rackspace
Not only is it revitalizing the mall, it is revitalizing the area and property values as well.

Posted by: Alice on August 8, 2008 6:53 AM

This is a great idea and I hope it becomes more popular. So many vacant buildings have great potential and it's wonderful the vision you have to resurrect them in new forms.

Posted by: Ryan Tew on August 8, 2008 11:10 AM

As discussed earlier, I have written a (somewhat lengthy) response to this article over at my Blog:

I think this is going to end up in three parts, since there are a lot of points I'd like to cover, but I don't have time to go into all of them right now.


Posted by: Brian Lutz on August 8, 2008 2:00 PM

Mining towns in Northern Quebec and Labrador have been built like malls for years. These "indoor towns" include residences, municipal offices, stores, schools, and restaurants all under one very large roof. This is necessary due to the harsh winter conditions, including -40 average temps. Residential conversion of malls will need to deal with parking and access issues. No one wants to walk 100 yards or more from parking space to apartment.

Posted by: Dave Colter on August 8, 2008 5:33 PM

Wild coincidence, we were just discussing this subject at an Outquisition working-group meeting last week.

TootsNYC raises important points.

Mall owners in many areas prohibit all forms of political expression including *voter registration drives.* That's unacceptable. If a private group of some kind wants to create a "walled mall" for their own use, where the Constitution stops at the entrance, that's one thing. But if the space is open to the public, and particularly if any public funds including tax benefits are used to construct it, the excuse of "private property" cannot be used to create little mini East Germanies.

Apartments & noise: Neighbor noise problems are a sign of bad design and bad construction. This problem was solved ages ago: use lots and lots of reinforced concrete (a sustainable building material due to its longevity: even Roman concrete has lasted 2000 years; high embodied energy with long lifespan translates to low embodied energy per year of the life of the structure). There is no excuse for noise problems. And if soundproofing costs more, just cut back on frills. Problem solved.

To which I'll add:

No "shared air" between residential units!

This first came to my attention when city councils started banning smoking in apartments and condos. The problem is, if you can smell your neighbor's smoke, you can also catch your neighbor's airborne germs when they have a cold or flu. Keyword search "pandemic flu," and you'll see that we are overdue for a flu pandemic, and this is a very significant public health issue.

The design of ventilation systems is of the utmost importance in multi-unit housing. There must not be any condition under which air can be "shared" between units. Each unit's air supply needs to come in directly from outdoors (windows), and each unit's exhaust air needs to go directly to outdoors (windows). (Centralized heating and cooling, if needed, can be provided via liquid media such as heated and cooled water circulating through "radiators" in the individual units.) Otherwise these things are going to become death traps in the next pandemic.

You shouldn't be able to hear your neighbor, and you shouldn't be able to *smell* your neighbor. This will also alleviate potential battles over "lifestyle issues." Today it may be smoking, tomorrow it will be "he's cooking pork and that offends my religion!" So in addition to the serious public health issue is the equally serious issue of personal autonomy in one's own home.

Graywater recycling:

Water discharged from showers and laundries, should be filtered and pumped to elevated tanks that in turn feed the flush water to the toilets. In most places this is illegal today, which is simply ridiculous given the urgent need to conserve water and the fact that people do not drink out of their toilet bowls.

Graywater recycling from shower/laundry to toilet, typically saves from 22 - 33% of household water usage. This is an issue on which state legislatures need to be educated so they will change the building codes accordingly.

There is no need for water conservation to translate to "don't wash, wear dirty clothes, and don't flush the toilet." The technical solution for this is simple.

Electric vehicle charging, and other vehicle issues:

Parking areas need to be provided with charging facilities for electric vehicles. This is a no-brainer. Photovoltaic panels on the roofs of parking structures can provide power that will at minimum supplement and in some cases replace grid power for this application.

Paradoxically, more parking rather than less, per residential unit, will encourage the use of high-efficiency vehicles. If someone has only one parking space, they will choose a vehicle based on its range and the ubiquity of refueling or recharging stations along the way. Today that will be an internal combustion vehicle. However, if someone has a second parking space, they are far more likely to buy a NEV (neighborhood electric vehicle) or a Zap Xebra or something of that sort: an inexpensive electric for all of their local runs that can't be done on public transit.

Not only that, but since the second vehicle is almost always smaller, there is some space left over in that parking space, where a family can keep its bicycles and possibly electric two-wheel scooters.

The way to deal with this as a policy matter, is to allocate one parking space per unit except that units having electric or other high-efficiency vehicles get additional spaces for these at no added cost except for the cost of the electricity used to charge the vehicles.

Beyond that, guest parking has to be provided. I have seen residential units in which there are literally no spaces allocated for visitors. This is simply absurd; people have visitors; sometimes visitors come from places that are not served by public transport; the practical reality is that they need safe parking within reasonable distance from their destinations.

With all that in mind, in most mall conversions, the net result will be a radical reduction in asphalt-covered surface compared to the conventional mall parking lot. The asphalt that is torn up should be recycled for road patch, and the soil remediated to enable growing vegetable gardens and other food crops. Anyone who has read this posting thus far knows how important it will be to expand urban gardening in the near future.

Food production on site:

Which leads us to... the necessity for garden space. Individual gardens for each unit, community gardens for shared use, and even some space that can be worked by small agricultural businesses to produce foods for sale through local markets.

Consider the impact of peak oil and climate change on food production generally. Ubiquitous gardening is not just a nice idea, it will become a vital link in providing adequate food in the near future.


Every single one of us who doesn't die young, will in time need to use some kind of assistive device for getting around, whether a cane or a wheelchair or something in between. Thus the absolute necessity to create living spaces that do not entail the use of stairs, and to provide a sufficient number of elevators between levels in buildings.

Beyond that, walkways need to be designed with wheelchair use in mind, and the interior layouts of all residential spaces need to be designed accordingly. Walkways that are smooth (no faux cobblestone, please!) and adequate width will also facilitate the use of hand carts for shopping within mixed-use mall conversions, and for carrying stuff from parking areas to residences.

Walkways also need to be wide enough to enable people to ride bicycles even at slow speeds. If need be, separate the bike lanes with curbs. If we want to encourage bicycles, the first place to start is to encourage (rather than discourage) their use within the neighborhood.

Last but not least, open design:

Leave some spaces undefined. Leave some outdoor space in the rough. Don't overdevelop and overdo. Overdeveloped spaces constrain people and activities, and provide no outlet for creative use by the people who live and work there. Undeveloped spaces encourage creativity and eventually become centers of community. Give people the opportunity to define their own use of space, and you end up with a far more vibrant public life than when everything has been "planned and canned."


Posted by: G967 on August 9, 2008 5:21 PM

Hi There. the whole world is copying the idea-less architecture conservatory greenhouse stile... glass and steel... is dead and without all life.
I lik the streets with small shops ... the whole world is going this route...
best regards

Cape Town, South Africa

Posted by: Rainer P, Behrens on August 11, 2008 8:47 AM

The word “Green” is the buzzword of the early 21st century and everyone wants everything and everyone to be green, especially our building designs and materials. The funny thing about these “open air” or “walking” malls is that they couldn’t be any further away from the new concept of “green”, the very thing that urbanites who frequent these places are striving for. The collective heating and cooling of stores in the closed malls of the 20th century is way more efficient or “green” than the individual heating and cooling of freestanding shops.

Posted by: Rich on August 13, 2008 5:22 AM

While it may be popular to put down malls, the fact is they provide a large number of shops under one roof - one stop shopping, which conserves gas, air quality, etc. There is no doubt that their expansive parking lots are ripe for redevelopment in our ever more crowded world (as should be their acres of unused rooftops), but malls are greener than people give them credit for. Contrary to this article, they are not going away. Those that are hurting are usually as a result of competition and economic factors, not that people don't use malls (whether we like them or not).

Posted by: Mark on August 17, 2008 9:08 AM

Wonderful concept! Revitalization with an indoor community perspective is quite resourceful. A component that should also be considered is the potential to provide transitional centers for the homeless with a plethora of services that would enable individuals/families to restabilize their lives in a progressive environment that would include health care,job training and commercial applications all "under one roof".

Posted by: Chuck on August 18, 2008 11:07 AM