Second Act for America’s Malls

Laura here. There’s a good chance if we chatted in 2016, I brought up grain silos. It was a community development obsession I have, primarily because in Columbus, Ohio we have several unused or underused grain silos, that just look like they are begging to be a canvas for a public art project. (don’t worry grain silos, I’m still thinking about you).

But as the year changed, my obsession grew to a new underused and vacant space adorning the heartland as well as the rest of America: Malls.

Read on after the jump to see more about Malls and ways American’s are creatively reactivating them! 

Malls were a regular part of the daily life of past generations. A fancy outing for my grandmother was a visit to Lazarus, my mother’s first day of school outfit involved a father daughter trip to the mall, and my first job was at City Center in downtown Columbus. As a child of the 80s and 90s malls were the social centers of our formative years.  But these days, enclosed malls are no longer the thriving center of retail they used to be and more and more are closing up shop. According to Ellen Dunham- Jones, an architect and professor at Georgia Tech, there are about 1,200 enclosed malls in the United States and almost 1/3rd of them are dead or dying.

Their footprint is large, though. So often when they go vacant- they stay vacant, and become a blight for the surrounding community and to those of us working on community development these large spaces of blight just beg for a creative re-use. Of course, no problem stays unsolved for too long, and developers have been getting creative to salvage these spaces- turning them into hospitals, churches, schools and parks. And personally, I’d love to see some of these best practices implemented in all 1,200 communities across America.

Dunham-Jones keeps a database of projects that retrofit dying malls for other purposes, and says that there are 211 spaces across the country being retrofitted in one way or another. You can read about some of these bright anti-blight ideas in the Atlantic article, A New Life for Dead Malls. (spoiler alert- my favorite is the medical center). And you can hear an interesting discussion on this discussion with an additional context on malls in relation to culture, race and class on the Third Wave Urbanism podcast.

So fair warning, if we run into each other, I may bring up the reactivation of malls. I’d love to hear your thoughts!



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