A look at declining retail spaces and how to revitalize them from a land-use perspective.


By now you’ve heard of the “retail apocalypse” and its effect on the once-hallowed institution of the American mall. According to Business Insider, more than 5,100 mall-based stores have announced they will close this year. With big-box retailers and mall anchors such as J.C. Penney, Sears, and Macy’s included in this number, the effect destabilizes smaller malls, often sending them into a death spiral. This could result in 25% of the malls in the United States being forced to close by 2022.

Architect and developer John Graham Jr. is credited with creating the classic postwar mall design with two rows of stores facing each other and a department store ‘anchor’ at either end. He also included a grocery store, which later morphed into the food court as we know it. But this model of enclosed retail space surrounded by acres of parking is falling victim to a changing society.

Azalea Mall, Richmond, VA

The National Retail Foundation expects online retail to grow 8-12%, in 2017, which would be three times higher than the rate of growth for retail overall. This translates to less foot traffic for brick-and-mortar retailers. Combine this with the trend that people are shifting spending from goods to experiences and you have all the factors that lead to mall closures -- and acres of unproductive real estate. The resulting shutdowns have major consequences for counties and towns that rely on sales tax revenue in particular.

 Graph via Business Insider

Graph via Business Insider


From a land-use perspective, dead malls are full of possibility. They occupy large swaths of often valuable land at crossroads or central locations with access to public transit and highways. When they were originally built, the land was frequently at the growing edges of suburbia but has since grown considerably in value by virtue of surrounding development and transportation improvements. This makes even dead malls valuable “land banking” assets for their owners.  In addition, the considerable volume of unencumbered raw space that is found in a typical anchor store makes them quite flexible for adaptive reuse. The desire and attention to revitalizing these areas has become a top priority and focus for local governments. So where does one start? What are the possibilities for these formerly retail-only spaces?

 Brett Levin

Brett Levin

One of the more successful uses of these spaces has been to revitalize them as mixed-use developments. In Orlando, Florida, Winter Park Village was an old indoor mall that was fading fast. It was redeveloped in the “town center” model to create an outdoor, mixed-use development with retail on the first floor, residential lofts and offices above, and other amenities such as a grocery store and movie complex. David Nelson, a planner and project manager with Renaissance who has worked on similar projects, explains the key to its success: “When you combine the residential and retail aspects together, they feed off one another. Having residents in the area who shop at the grocery store and go to the restaurants and bars at night extends the commercial potential well past regular mall hours. Add to this commercial office space, and you have people who are running errands and eating lunch during the day in addition to the normal retail traffic. This perpetuates the different cycles of use both day and night.”

A crucial factor in successful mixed-use development is creating a destination with a sense of place, one that’s for more than just shopping. Turning formerly indoor corridors into a street grid with open spaces, plazas, courtyards, and mixed-use amenities gives people a wider variety of activities and a central location to congregate. Add events such as a weekend concert series and a farmer’s market, and you have many reasons for people to come and stay, any time of day or night. This not only gives a sense of place but also raises accessibility, giving people close contact with nearby jobs, goods and services.

 Sarah Martin

Sarah Martin

There are many possible uses for formerly retail-only spaces. Organizations that have need of space for large facilities have also refurbished malls to suit their purposes. Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, into its second major campus. The project included clinics, offices, outpatient facilities, a fitness center and childcare for employees. The first mall designed by John Graham Jr., Northgate Mall in Seattle, had one of its anchor department stores converted into a public library. And in 2007, Voorhees Township, New Jersey, took over an empty anchor space in the mall for its City Hall.


Transportation is a key factor. The US could learn from international examples about how location and accessibility help drive success. Due to land-use limitations, Hong Kong’s highly dense malls are built on top of subway stations and under office buildings. Being situated around transportation hubs guarantees foot traffic without having to give up valuable retail space to accommodate automobile traffic.

Here in the U.S., the city of Norfolk, Virginia, has a plan to revitalize its Military Circle Mall, with transit factoring heavily into the equation. The Tide, Norfolk’s light-rail transit line, is exploring expansion to the area’s naval bases. One of two potential alignments, the Eastern alignment option, skirts the Military Circle Mall, which creates an unparalleled opportunity for incorporating a long-term redevelopment of the mall into a new transit-oriented development (TOD) community.

Working with Norfolk, Renaissance Planning developed a “50-year vision” for a coordinated land use and transportation master plan for the area around the failing mall. As Renaissance Planning principal Vlad Gavrilovic explains, “Based on strong input from the public and the city wanting a new vision for the area, we created a plan which called for a gradual transformation into a dense urban center with a mix of offices, residences and other flexible spaces close to light rail stations.” The plan also calls for extensive pocket parks and plazas, with residential mixed-use in high-density neighborhoods at the edges. The overall goal is to transform the area into a series of walkable urban neighborhoods anchored by a new transit boulevard and three transit stations.

 Stephen Pierzchala

Stephen Pierzchala


One interesting topic to come out of the decline of the mall has been the reuse of structures in ways that were never intended – and never expected. The city of Durham, North Carolina, is currently designing a new parking deck. At a public meeting, a project architect was involved in a conversation about capacity, anticipated use, and what would happen if autonomous vehicles radically changed parking demand. With a smile and a wink, he said: “That’s why we’re building each level taller than it needs to be. That way, it could be converted into apartments in the future if the need arises.”

The number of failing malls in this country is increasing rapidly. From a land-use perspective, dead malls are an issue that deeply affects communities. Luckily there are many options for revitalizing these properties. Remodeling as mixed-use developments has proven successful in many instances, and even more so when tied into transit systems. Other times finding unique tenants such as local governments, hospital systems, or libraries makes profitable and efficient use of the space. With a little creativity and a lot of willpower, communities can turn a potential unproductive eyesore into opportunity.