Can Vacant Mall Stores Alleviate Homelessness?

Fresh starts in unexpected places: A section of this shuttered Washington, D.C.-area mall is now the temporary location of a homeless shelter. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

We already know that shopping mall anchors gone belly-up can serve plenty of purposes in a second life: community college campuses, medical facilities, mega-churches and even public libraries. Transforming a defunct J.C. Penney into a destination grocery store like Whole Foods has proven to be a particularly attractive method of adaptive reuse, so much so that numerous flailing malls are being resuscitated with supermarket-based life support.

And here's another idea: Turn them into affordable housing hubs for the homeless.

It's a magnanimous but somewhat radical idea, especially depending on the status of the mall. In a scenario in which the rest of the mall is still active, housing for at-risk individuals where the Sears used to be could potentially drive some shoppers away.

When Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez asked readers last year for their thoughts on the best use for a dying mall, many suggested housing for the homeless with on-site social services. He responds:

I like the thought, but practical realities present some limitations. Some malls are doing fine as is, but even among those that are struggling, the land is still worth a fortune. Owners would want top dollar whether they sell or rent out their land, and I'm not sure a tent city would pencil out.
Plus, changing the use of the land could require zoning changes, and that's fraught with bureaucratic and political challenges, as well as possible neighborhood opposition.

But in malls that are either truly dead or on their way out, really why not put an empty department store to the most big-hearted kind of use, at least temporarily?

Landmark Mall, Alexandria, Virginia
Alexandria's Landmark Mall was a big deal when it opened in the 1960s. It's now awaiting a dramatic makeover ... and housing homeless folks in the meantime. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Virginia shelter finds unique temporary home

To prove Lopez to the contrary, you needn't look further than Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia, where a shuttered Macy's has been reborn as a homeless shelter.

As grand redevelopment plans for the property continue to be ironed out, the developer has opted to donate the old Macy's to Carpenter's Shelter, a local homeless nonprofit, for a year and a half. (One of the original anchors, Sears, remains open for the time being and the mall itself has been used as a filming location.)

Several years back, Carpenter's Shelter faced a quandary: Larger modernized facilities, complete with adjacent affordable housing units, were planned to be built for the nonprofit across town on the same site of the 60-bed emergency shelter that the organization had operated for the past two decades. It was an ideal situation — Carpenter's Shelter wouldn't have to move, it would just get really nice new digs in the exact same spot.

Yet with the so-called New Heights redevelopment project due to take 18 months to complete, Carpenter's Shelter was in need of an interim home, and the just-closed Macy's at Landmark Mall fit the bill. In addition to the largesse of property owner the Howard Hughes Corporation, Carpenter's Shelter wound up in a dead mall because it was one of the only available areas in affordable housing-strapped Alexandria zoned to allow a homeless shelter.

It took 12 weeks for the organization to transform a section of the mannequin-stuffed department store shell into a habitable space. Fifteen months after Macy's rang up its last purchase, the first residents of Carpenter's Shelter moved in.

It's a temporary arrangement, true, but also one helping to make a huge difference for homeless individuals who will be moving out of the Macy's once Carpenter's Shelters permanent new home is complete. (Some Carpenter Shelter residents are former employees of the very same Macy's store.) And, more importantly, it opens up the real possibility of turning vacant anchor stores into much-needed homeless shelters and transitional housing hubs.

Dying mall in Connecticut
Once invincible stalwarts of consumerism, mall anchor stores are closing at an exponential rate. At the same time, homelessness is on the rise. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Explains the Washington Post:

The idea that spurred this transformation represents a new way of thinking that is bringing together three economic phenomena: the collapse of the brick-and-mortar retail industry, the disappearance of affordable housing in America's boom towns, and the struggle to reduce homelessness, which remains as intractable as ever.

As the homelessness crisis mounts across the country, there's a growing chorus of those who believe that repurposing empty mall anchors and big box stores for transitional housing is smart — there's certainly an ample (and growing) inventory of them. And even if many dead malls will eventually be redeveloped into new mixed-use retail destinations, a large number of these projects, like Alexandria's Landmark Mall, are years off. (Eventually, as is the trend with many shuttered enclosed shopping malls, the Landmark Mall will be reborn as an open-air "live-shop-dine urban village" complete with apartments and beaucoup public green space.)

Why not make the best of a whole lot of vacant square footage in the meantime?

"The fact is that there will be millions upon millions of square feet of retail space that are not going to be used over the next five years . . . and they can be used for all kinds of things," Amanda Nicholson, a professor of retail practice at Syracuse University, tells the Post. "I think it would be an inspired idea."

Re-Habit retail plaza, KTGY Architecture + Planning.
A dead anchor store reborn, as envisioned by KTGY Architecture + Planning. (Photo: KTGY)

A dead anchor store reborn at a regional shopping mall, as envisioned by KTGY Architecture + Planning. (Rendering: KTGY)

A step in the right direction (where the cosmetic counters used to be)

Anticipating that other shuttered mall owners might follow in the same benevolent path of Landmark Mall, the research and development arm of Los Angeles-based KTGY Architecture + Planning has conceived a conceptual blueprint for future Macy's-turned-transitional housing facilities.

KTGY calls the concept Re-Habit, a "plan for repurposing obsolete big-box stores into essential uses, including smaller retail spaces, housing, employment, and support for homeless individuals."

"With big box stores such as Macy's, J.C. Penney and Sears closing in record numbers, repurposing such vacant spaces becomes increasingly necessary," says Marissa Kasdan, a senior designer with KTGY. "At the same time, the housing affordability crisis and other factors are driving up demand to house and service homeless individuals. Re-Habit offers one adaptive-reuse solution for multiple problems."

In the Re-Habit space envisioned by KTGY, an 86,000-square-foot anchor store has given way to a dynamic facility centered around a spacious courtyard and dining hall. There's also a rooftop garden for resident use and three different sizes of "bed pods" — sleeping rooms of various sizes that become less communal in nature the longer a resident stays in an integrated support program. For example, a new arrival would start in a large bed pod shared by as many as 20 other residents. As the transition process continues, that resident can graduate to a smaller two-person bed pod that offers greater privacy and independence.

And in the true spirit of its retail roots, Re-Habit would feature a "retail plaza" including upscale thrift boutiques, coffee shops and other establishments staffed by residents as a means of providing job training and meaningful employment.

Re-Habit sleep pods, KTGY Architecture + Planning.
Re-Habit includes a small handful of different sleeping arrangements for residents including communal 'sleep pods.'. (Photo: KTGY)

Re-Habit includes a small handful of different sleeping arrangements for residents including communal 'sleep pods.' (Rendering: KTGY)

In conceiving Re-Habit, KTGY consulted with the Long Beach Rescue Mission to glean insight on how such a cavernous raw retail space could best redesigned to accommodate low-income and homeless individuals. What would a housing nonprofit want and need from it?

Robert Probst, the mission's executive director, considers himself a fan. "I'm very excited about this idea," he says. "Re-Habit, if run correctly, can be a self-contained environment, with people living, working and then moving into affordable housing. It would be a reward for people who are ready to change their lives."

Kasdan of KTGY admits that many developers won't be entirely gung-ho about the potential of resurrecting a dead anchor store as "self-supporting mixed-use transitional housing." Still, as she explains, the idea has potential.

Re-Habit rooftop garden, KTGY Architecture + Planning.
At a Re-Habit facility, residents would grow and tend to their own produce grown on the roof of a former shopping mall department store. (Photo: KTGY)

At a Re-Habit facility, residents would grow their own produce grown on the roof of an erstwhile department store. (Rendering: KTGY)

"For most big-box owners, this would not be their first choice for reuse. But on the flip side, many have asked us about new concepts for incorporating residential units into their developments. Re-Habit expands the reuse possibilities and allows everyone to consider communities' larger needs."

She adds: "Such a project does not need to appear as a ‘homeless shelter.' By partnering with the right team of developers, social services, government entities and community groups, it's possible to create an attractive environment that transforms obsolete space into a real asset."

Just think, the same Sears appliance department where you bought a washer and dryer for your very first home could someday serve as the sleeping quarters for someone who has experienced a rough patch but is on the road to one day owning their own washer and dryer, too.