The Death and Life of American Shopping Malls

This time of year, even the most shopping-averse consumers make an annual vigil to the garland-draped, balsam-scented, and holiday music–filled halls of their local mall. But malls are getting harder to find.

Even before the pandemic hit, over one-third of the 1,500 properties that were once enclosed malls ceased to fit that description. To confront the double-whammy of online shopping and a shrinking middle class, many malls downsized their retail offerings in favor of experiences you can’t get online: more restaurants, gyms, education, and healthcare. An early example, the Jackson Medical Mall, has been providing healthcare to underserved patients inside an entire former mall in Jackson, Mississippi, since 1996.

Jackson Medical Mall in Jackson, Mississippi
Jackson Medical Mall’s parking lot is fuller than most malls. | Photographer: Phillip Jones

Lately, it’s more common to see medical and retail combined. The second floor of the One Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville has been retrofitted into a satellite facility of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In a win-win, patients can receive a beeper if they want to go downstairs and check the sales while waiting to see a doctor.

But COVID-19 has made the safety of these in-person experiences questionable, driving even more sales online and further culling the herd. As Amazon’s profits during the pandemic have tripled, another 250–300 of the approximately 1,000 remaining malls are expected to shutter. Ironically, many of them are being demolished and replaced with Amazon fulfillment and delivery centers—there are four in Ohio alone.

Surviving the Mall Cull

Like it or not, malls are dying. But not all of them. The survivors and many of their replacements are becoming stronger and more community-serving by growing jobs and providing safe social gathering places. Mall sites are increasingly being strategically adapted to challenges their communities were never designed to address: disrupting automobile dependence, supporting an aging population, leveraging social capital for equity, competing for jobs, adding water and energy resilience in the face of climate change, and, most immediately, improving public health. As my co-author, June Williamson, and I document in our new book, Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges, this is just as true of aging strip malls, office parks, and other parking-lot dominated “greyfield” properties.

Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson’s new book. | Courtesy of Ellen Dunham-Jones

The most immediate public health adaptations have been to all of those parking lots. Many have been transformed into patio dining, curbside pickup, drive-through testing, and even drive-in movies and concerts. However, such efforts to shift activities outdoors are, frankly, late to the party.

Since 1992 when Mizner Park replaced the Boca Mall in Boca Raton, Florida, 70 mall properties have substantially ditched the indoor format, built on top of their parking lots, and re-organized with a mix of uses around walkable open-air Main streets, plazas, and town greens. (Another 56 are in process, and 52 have been announced but not yet funded or approved—including a surge of such announcements since the pandemic started.) Some, like Paseo in Pasadena, California, or Promenade of Wayzata in Minnesota have restitched walkable connections to historic Main streets—especially convenient for those living in the latter’s new senior housing.

Downtown Silver Spring’s new city hall and plaza in Silver Spring, Maryland
Downtown Silver Spring’s new city hall and plaza replaced CityPlace mall’s parking garage. | Photographer: Phillip Jones

Elsewhere, like Downtown Silver Spring in Silver Spring, Maryland, North Hills in Raleigh, North Carolina, or CityCentre in Houston, Texas, mixed-use town centers are providing their suburban areas with new downtowns they never had, increased tax revenues, jobs, housing options, and walkability while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, runoff, and further sprawl.

CityCentre in Houston, Texas
Mall shops in the open-air mixed-use CityCentre redevelopment. | Photographer: Ellen Dunham-Jones

The Mixed-Use Mall

Not only do the open-air formats allow shoppers to reduce their exposure to the virus, they allow safe means to strengthen a sense of belonging and mental health in the face of the social isolation brought on by COVID-19. Jodie MacLean, president of Edens, redeveloped a multiplex cinema and its acres of parking in Merrifield, Virginia, into The Mosaic District, a mixed-use town center deliberately designed to combat the loneliness epidemic. Its town green is actively programmed with farmers markets, yoga classes, movies, and events while its inviting tree-lined streets offer ample free seating alongside the fine-grained shops and restaurants.

The Mosaic District in Merrifield, Virginia
The astroturf town green at The Mosaic District. | Photographer: Phillip Jones

The introduction of residential, office, and civic uses above and alongside the shops at downsized or demolished mall sites returns them in some respects to the town center ideas that architect Victor Gruen had in mind when he invented the enclosed American shopping mall in the 1950s. They further activate the communal spaces and anchor support for the retailers and restaurateurs. At the same time, the ground-level shops provide tenants and visitors with lively, walkable urbanism—an amenity deemed significant in helping employers attract younger workers with college degrees.

SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center
Creative office space at SkySong. | Photographer: Ellen Dunham-Jones

This is playing out in various ways and for various types of jobs across the country as malls are increasingly reinhabited and redeveloped into more mixed-use, more urban places. Arizona State University redeveloped a dead mall—now called SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center—with offices and apartments centered around a tented gathering space. In Los Angeles, the Westside Pavilion mall is being redeveloped into creative office space for Google employees. ACC Highland, a dead mall in East Austin, Texas, has been reinhabited by Austin Community College, and its parking lots are being redeveloped with housing and office space along walkable streets and new parks. As part of the lease agreement, some of the office tenants are obliged to hire ACC students as interns!

ACC Highland in East Austin, Texas
Highland mall, reinhabited by Austin Community College and parking lots being redeveloped with offices and housing. | Photographer: Phillip Jones

Several malls, such as La Gran Plaza in Fort Worth, Texas and Plaza Fiesta in Atlanta, Georgia, have subdivided anchor stores into small stalls rented by a hundred or more mostly immigrant entrepreneurs. Variations on Mexican mercados, Arabic bazaars, or Asian markets, they mostly serve the new faces that traditional retailers and services long ignored while transforming malls into ethnic community hubs.

El Mercado at La Gran Plaza in Fort Worth, Texas
View of El Mercado at La Gran Plaza. | Photographer: Phillip Jones

Greening the Mall

Even in colder climates, the pandemic is accelerating the retrofitting of malls into simultaneously more diverse, more urban, and greener places. Canadian malls are generally remaining enclosed—but many are leveraging new transit stations to add high-rise towers fronting new green parks, sometimes on the mall’s roof top. See the plans for Oakridge Centre in Vancouver or the Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga.

Other malls are being partially, if not completely, regreened into parks, such as Columbus Commons in Columbus, Ohio, Meriden Green in Meriden, Connecticut and the Raleigh Springs Civic Center in Memphis, Tennessee. Like most regreening projects, the new parks have become popular gathering spaces and attracted redevelopment around them. The latter two also provide flood control. At Raleigh Springs, it takes the form of a new 11-acre retention lake—whose surrounding trails connect a skatepark and forthcoming library with new routes for the former “mallwalkers.”

Before and after diagrams of Meriden Green in Meriden, Connecticut
Before and after diagrams of Meriden Green. | Source: June Williamson

Meriden Green went the dry route with a semi-depressed green park able to detain stormwater during flood events. It daylights the creek that the former Meriden Hub mall was built upon (not as uncommon a condition as one might think), which had been contributing to major flooding throughout the downtown, inhibiting new investment for decades. The new park removes 227 downtown properties from the 100-year floodplain in the working-class community.

Supporting All Things Local and Building Social Capital

Leaders in Ohio rightly celebrated the arrival of thousands of $15/hour Amazon jobs at their dead malls. Unemployment is at record levels. But what of the social capital that’s been lost? Perhaps the old Main streets those malls killed off can make a comeback and renew both community connections and circular economies.

Many are. In Duluth, Georgia, as Gwinnett Place Mall began dying, the city began reviving its small downtown with local—not national—food, entertainment, and urban housing. Full of what sociologists call “third places”—not home, not work, but where we build trust and community—Downtown Duluth thrived pre-pandemic.

Luckily, reinhabited and regreened malls can be just as vibrant as redeveloped malls while often being more affordable and sustainable.

Ellen Dunham-Jones

Like the mall retrofits already cited, such compelling, convivial, and experientially rich places are likely to become even more valued post-pandemic. Local economies and entrepreneurs, local social connections, and local ecology all become even more important in the world of tele-work, tele-education, tele-medicine, and tele-retail. People who can are combatting social isolation and Zoom fatigue with quality time off-screen in parks and well-designed public spaces that deliver exposure to nature and other humans.

Unfortunately, the tele-everything world is also likely to exacerbate the digital divide and its unequal impacts on in-person versus remote workers, and who gets to build social capital in vibrant communal spaces and who doesn’t.

Not every mall can or should be redeveloped into a mixed-use town center—especially not those in areas where population and middle-class jobs are in decline and reinvestment in existing town centers would be more beneficial. Nor can most small businesses and non-profits afford the rents or cost of new construction.

Luckily, reinhabited and regreened malls can be just as vibrant as redeveloped malls while often being more affordable and sustainable. Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, is but one of many houses of worship providing a variety of social services and activities in a former mall. As the gaps between rich and poor people and places increase, the need for such services is only likely to grow. It is why reinhabiting dying malls with more community-serving uses and regreening them may be the most crucial strategies in the long run (and may help communities prosper more than an Amazon fulfillment center). This holiday season, resist the click-bait, think about the local people and places you want to support, and build some social capital!

Urbanist and shopping-mall expert Ellen Dunham-Jones

Ellen Dunham-Jones is professor of architecture and directs the urban design degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She hosts the Redesigning Cities podcast, maintains a database of over 2,000 suburban retrofits and has co-authored two books on the subject.


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