Dead Malls: Tragedy or Opportunity?

Photo: Eastland Mall, Tulsa, OK (Tom Baddley of Lost Tulsa via

Is the era of the enclosed shopping mall over? With changing consumer habits (such as increased online shopping) and the advent of "big-box" specialty stores and discounters like Home Depot, Target and Wal-mart, the deepening recession is merely delivering the coup de grace for hundreds of shopping malls across the U.S.

For some, the end is coming none too soon. As icons of excessive consumption and shortsighted urban planning, malls represent everything that has gone wrong with our car-based consumer culture. For others (especially in smaller towns), malls represent one of the last few sanctioned public spaces in our society where communities can gather. So what happens (or could happen) when a shopping mall dies?

Why are malls dying?
In the last two years, more than 400 of the largest 2,000 malls in the U.S. have shut their doors as "anchor" tenants (department stores such as Dillards, JC Penney) have pulled out, causing a cascade of smaller stores closing up. Mall vacancies reached 7 percent last year, the highest since 2001. In the last year, retail sales have dropped an "unprecedented" 9.8 percent, and with a projected 150,000 retail store closures this year, many malls will soon become empty.

Even before the recession, people were patronizing malls less and less, preferring to go to discounters like Wal-Mart where they can shop, buy groceries and fill a prescription without having to leave the store. People are shopping online more (see Collin's post on the weighing the pros and cons of shopping at malls versus online retailers).

People have not stopped shopping, but are just forgoing malls instead. "The most important fact about our shopping malls," says social scientist Henry Fairlie, "is that we do not need most of what they sell."

Communal void
Either way, that still leaves the problem of these unoccupied and abandoned spaces. As The Week's editorial points out, the death of a mall can

[ ] devastate the surrounding community. The mall's site can rapidly turn into a wasteland of overgrown weeds, cracked concrete, and stray animals, with looters picking sites clean of copper tubing, light fixtures, and anything else that can be sold for scrap. When the Riverside Center in Utica, N.Y., closed around Christmas 2007, its owner didn't even bother to take down the holiday display. The following July, says Peter Blackbird of, the roof sprang a leak that drenched the display's cotton "snow," which quickly "turned into mold stew."

The fallout goes beyond aesthetics, of course. When a mall closes, unemployment rolls in the region swell, and the loss of property, sales, and business taxes can leave municipalities with serious shortfalls. The city of North Randall, Ohio, is nearly bankrupt following the closing late last year of the Randall Park Mall, once the largest mall in the Cleveland area. "It could simply cease to exist as a city," says Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Jones.

What could dead malls become?
Some empty malls are already being demolished and replaced by "big box" stores, while others are being turned in "lifestyle centres".

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and the Congress for the New Urbanism have described dying malls as greyfields, much like contaminated brownfields, and with the average greyfield measuring on average 45 acres, "doing nothing with them is not an option," says real estate developer Will Fleissig.

Some municipalities and developers are transforming old malls and turning them into streets, bringing the storefronts outdoors to integrate them with the rest of the urban landscape. "[ ] Once [these dead malls] are redeveloped there is an opportunity to attract the growing number of people who are frustrated with driving everywhere and want more pedestrian areas," says said Bill Anderson, VP of Economics Research Associates.

Re-imagining malls
But could we get even more creative with these potential spaces? Reclaim them in a way, as Providence, RI artist Michael Townsend did with seven others for over four years, when they moved into a 750 square foot space above a storage room in the Providence Place Mall? Could the arable land where malls sit upon be rehabilitated to make way for food production? Could we emulate Norway, which recently proposed a moratorium on new, drive-to suburban malls in order to discourage driving? Or could we make them more eco-friendly and "natural", as Chicago's Green Exchange Mall intends to do, with its car-sharing service, bike shop and large courtyard garden? Could malls be transformed into places where the energy of crowds can be harvested, and electricity generated?

With so many possibilities, it seems that eulogizing the death of the shopping mall may be premature. What we could have on our hands is a great opportunity, limited only by imagination and the political and communal will to transform these dead spaces into something potentially greater.

The Week
More on Shopping Malls
Suburban Mall Shopping Creates Four Fold Increase in Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Online Shopping vs. Driving to the Mall: The Greener Way to Buy
Parking Spaces Outnumber Cars 3 to 1, Cause Environmental Problems
Norway Proposes No New Suburban, Drive-To Shopping Malls
Hanging Out in the Mall
Harvesting the Energy of Crowds

Dead Malls: Tragedy or Opportunity?
Photo: Eastland Mall, Tulsa, OK (Tom Baddley of Lost Tulsa via the era of the enclosed shopping mall over? With changing consumer habits (such as increased online shopping) and the advent of "big-box" specialty stores and

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