Real Estate

An Abandoned Mall as an Oasis of Opportunity

There is a Wikipedia listing for Dead Mall. Really, click the link. It has photos and a whole write-up on how this occurred. Some say there is too much retail space and others say it is the moving back to town and city centers that is affecting how and where people shop. And naturally, e-commerce has made a huge dent in physical retail businesses. Whatever caused the malls to be abandoned, many are still useful structures that just need a good idea. 

Malls can be viable spaces for new ventures. A well-managed strategy can turn a mall into a hub of community activity, become an event space, and/or become an entirely new venture. Via community outreach, running focus groups on what types of programs, groups and events need space, a mall can become something other than an abandoned, forgotten, crumbling structure. Many malls are working towards or have become sports facilities, educational institutions, medical centers, indoor produce/farmer’s markets, event halls, and space for religious groups to meet. The key is connecting the community with the possibilities of what the space could be used for and then getting people and businesses on board to commit to the change taking place. 

By establishing relationships with the mall owners or management companies, local business chambers can aid in creating awareness of the open and available space in their communities. Empty space means that the malls are not making money, and in many cases, owners and managers may be very open to being presented with ideas on how to resurrect the buildings purpose. 

People want to feel connected to their communities and towns: 

Cities are in, whereas the suburbs, seen as the place to be in the 70’s to 90’s, are falling upon hard times. Malls, built as the answer to the retail needs of the suburbanites, have closed, been abandoned or sit half empty with no one wanting to shop in the few remaining stores. Anchor stores have jumped ship, gone out of business, or stock next to nothing, as their online counterparts provide and fulfill the needs of the customers. Online shopping did usurp an insurmountable portion of mall store’s income, but it is not the only factor that lead to the downfall. Just as people have moved back to cities, small town downtowns are flourishing once again, and people do not want to go to large, non-cozy spaces. People crave other people and want to once again walk down the street and know their neighbors. Malls became faceless, lonely encounters. In looking to reconnect, people abandoned the malls, but those same people can help to bring them back to life with newly created, smaller local-feeling entities. 

The resurgence in wanting to connect with small, known, and “hey, they know who I am,” businesses is taking hold. In many small towns and cities, where abandoned and empty spaces became part of the scenery, a change is taking place. Once open spaces were viewed as prime spots to build windowless shopping centers or strip malls where parking in front of stores was premium. With no one caring to pave the blacktop of these behemoth forgone places, weeds and trees grow in the cracks, and ghost towns emerge. 

How does one resurrect the empty and emptying spaces that are not beyond repair and can once again perhaps be functional venues?

This is a question many Chambers of Commerce and local and state officials are grappling with. Some malls have been redesigned as health centers, sports complexes, apartments, call centers, educational or religious spaces. Others have been heralded as indoor “Mercado’s” or themed market places. Time Magazine (online) did a piece in 2014 (not a new problem…) about the revival of a mall in Texas. By creating a connection with the local community’s Hispanic population, the mall did a complete turnaround in productivity. 

Offering small spaces to entrepreneurs wanting to open clothing stores, photography studios and restaurants in the existing vacant store spaces, and filling the center of the mall with produce, specialty food, and smaller vendors, they created an entire indoor marketplace. This is not a new concept. In fact, it is about as old as time. Based on the outdoor markets from, in this case Mexico, they appealed to something that was missing from the local community’s needs. People came from a place where they shopped at outdoor markets, where they got to know the vendors and where vendors could try their hand at opening a business with little monetary risk. The upside was reconnecting the space with the community that had evolved around the mall’s reach and offering something that would enhance a community of its own. 

Connecting the space’s use with the community’s needs is tantamount to the success of resurrecting the mall. The answer is not to build anything new, it is to find new uses for abandoned and emptying structures. 

Places that have been successful:

Sarah Zhang wrote an article entitled, “ 7 Dead Shopping Malls That Found Surprising Second Lives” for Gizmodo.com about places such as Google taking over a weed-infested space and turning it into an office in Mountain View, CA. Several malls in TN became additional university spaces, medical centers and sports complexes. And a mall in Cleveland, OH became a greenhouse by making use of a glass rooftop that was already in place. 

Even in cities, empty spaces that once were vibrant business hubs have had new life fed into them. In the early 90’s, an old building became the Portland Market Place in Portland, Maine. Primarily filled with permanent food establishments, it also holds food and art venues every month. By inviting the public to come and savor inexpensive dishes from around the world all in one place, they connect with the community on a regular basis. Holding an art venue every month attracts a perhaps slightly different group. It is held after work hours on a Friday night and brings in the local work crowd that might otherwise head straight home. 

Ideas for change:

FOOD – 

Many farmers, growers and producers, grow their produce in greenhouses, process meat and poultry or make non-edible goods. Farmer’s markets, which provide summer/fall venues outdoors for these vendors and producers to sell their goods are subject to seasonal temperate climates for the most part. An empty mall is the perfect place to set up a food hall.  Food halls have become staples in cities, but like the one in Texas mentioned above, they can be successfully recreated in suburban spaces as well. Creative minds have brought young chefs, craft beer makers, food producers and growers to create large indoor marketplaces. 

Some sources for learning more about successful food halls:

28 Best Food Halls Across the United States” by Nancy Mock (Taste of Home)

America’s Best Food Halls” by Casey Hatfield-Chiotti (Travel & Leisure)

Foodies Will Go Crazy Visiting These 15 Food Halls in the US” by Jill Fergus (bestprodcuts.com) 

OTHER USES:

From a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum to an indoor aquarium, malls are taking on new means of offering the public things other than shopping:

Malls become models of reinvention to cope with closing stores” by Charisse Jones (USA Today)

Austin Community College took over a mall space in Austin, TX to create an enhanced upper education learning space. 

See How Old Malls Are Being Repurposed Into Beautiful And Brilliant Spaces” by Josephine Yurcaba (simplemost.com)

A PLACE TO HANG YOUR HAT OR BUY ONE:

The Arcade Providence in Providence, RI is probably one of the most unique spaces that has been filled with a new idea. The upstairs houses people in micro apartment spaces (MICROLOFT as they are called). Created for those who want to live in a small city, these spaces are meant for one or two and are literally places to have a roof over one’s head. The downstairs has been left for small businesses to offer eating experiences and shopping for the upstairs inhabitants, and to bring outside eaters and shoppers in. Thought of as a continuum of the downtown shopping experience, it thrives with small restaurants and unique shops. 

Convention/Event Space:

Places like the Javits Center in NYC, The Baltimore Convention Center and McCormick Place in Chicago are frequently filled with trade shows and industry conventions. An empty mall could easily be transformed into space for shows and gatherings as either a central location or for overflow from another venue. 

Opportunities for Investment:

Viewed as an investment, rather as an eye-sore, malls can be a very positive endeavor. From financial investment opportunities for organizations and businesses, they can become centralized office/business space with shared overhead costs. Many businesses can fit into existing vacant retail spaces by retrofitting the space to conform to the business or organization’s needs. As a shared cluster of businesses, costs for administrative functions as well as physical plant management can be spread across many businesses instead of a small to mid-sized business having to shoulder such costs alone. 

How to give a dying or dead mall a new breath of life:

  1. Contact the mall’s owner and find out what is going on or not with the space.
  2. Contact the local Chamber of Commerce and learn about committees that might offer insight about bringing a new business center to life.
  3. Talk to existing businesses in the area about the interest in opening a small offshoot of their business in a small divided space or on a pop-up basis.
  4. Talk to event managers about interest in creating an event space for them to hold functions.
  5. Tap into a group of like-minded individuals who want to open restaurants, shopping, food production businesses, and start a movement. 
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