Deadmalls as new urbanist playgrounds

Worldchanging's Morgan Greenseth has a nice piece up on the future of malls in America -- as many malls and mall-chains fail, they open up lots of possibilities for urban renewal, a fact that has been noticed by the New Urbanist movement, who are busily cooking up plans for turning dead malls into town squares.

As malls across the country start to fade into obsolescence, what is to become of these massive structures? After spending some time searching out the most creative alternatives to abandonment and massive landfilling of these former monuments to chain-store consumerism, I've found that the future of shopping malls is hopeful and creative:

The Factoria Mall in Bellevue is currently losing many stores, but redevelopment will begin soon in the hopes of creating a more useful, long-term multipurpose community space. The new Marketplace @ Factoria will still house retailers, but the redesign will add pedestrian walkways, outdoor dining, and even residential units.

The Future of Shopping Malls: An Image Essay

(Image: Brian Lutz)


  1. Better than nothing. But will the entire mall still be private property — e.g., a place where rights than can normally be exercised in public spaces (free speech, free assembly, etc.) will be curtailed?

  2. Better than nothing. But will the entire mall still be private property — e.g., a place where rights than can normally be exercised in public spaces (free speech, free assembly, etc.) will be curtailed?

    If there’s competition among malls and people do actually value their civil liberties, it could be more like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong / burbclaves.

    But the article summary made me foremost think of how Logan’s Run was filmed in the Hulen Mall. …run runner!

  3. This is a fantastic idea.

    In college I ran a LARP (let the mockery begin) and one of the constant challenges was finding an space that wasn’t expensive, a death trap or someone’s apartment.

    At one point we were gaming in a closed up store, the owner of the building was glad to have us for 5 bucks a head and we left the place cleaner than we found it.

    Repurposing these huge buildings into art galleries, meeting spaces, private offices even housing is such a sound idea. There are a number of dead and dying malls here in Chicago that would be great for this.

    As for the civil liberties question, what if local governments offered tax incentives to the land-owners to purchase the malls outright? Lots of these owners are stuck with white elephants, too big to fill and to much money to tear down.

    Not that I’m supporting eminent domain!

    Fascinating that malls started as a response to car culture and became an icon of it.

  4. Love it. Kinda conjures up this image of “Virtual Light Lite.”

    The developers find their own uses for street things.

  5. Several years ago the dead Crossroads Mall was torn down and redeveloped into a huge outdoor mall. It’s still got some of the problems if the old mall, in that it is mostly in-facing, surrounded by huge parking lots and has no housing (which was part of the original plan). But it is a definite improvement. see:

    It even has a weekly farmers market!

  6. Malls are having trouble? In Syracuse the largest mall is being turned into a massive building that has indoor parks and golf courses as well as all the normal mall stuff.

  7. #6: Acrocker, did you consider the other problem it’s facing: The bohemoth Flatirons Crossing? Kinda sad when malls die, even Crossroads. Good luck to it.

  8. Overall a good idea in most climates, here in Florida we have some great outdoor spaces, that we love to look at after we have run inside to the airconditioning! Overall making the common spaces more people friendly, more eco-friendly makes lots of sense. Residential living space and office space, even very light industrial would round it out nicely. If its all in walking distance you truly do have a new “Town Center”. Now give me a monorail stop for my kids to get back and forth to school (if one isnt already in the new “Town Center”) and this sounds like a future I can live in….

  9. Malls just can’t die fast enough for me. There’s so much joy in strolling through a busy city center full with highly individual shops and all kinds of restaurants. The sterile chainstore fantasy world of malls is one of the ugliest faces a society entirely devoted to mobility has spawned.

  10. I love how New Urbanism rose in large part out of Jane Jacobs’ criticism of modernist utopian urban planning, and then fell right into its own bizarre utopian fantasy world.

    Seriously, great if we can repurpose those buildings, but I can think of nothing more horrifying than living or working in an old mall.

    The part of the equation that New Urbanists always miss is that good cities and communities almost always happen organically.

  11. Hrm. I live in Burlington, Ontario where — in the 1980s — the city built a “Town Centre” that was essentially an open air mall along these lines.

    (You can see a pretty good view of it on Google Maps. It’s the brownish oblong in centre, between Elizabeth, Pearl, and Pine Streets.)

    When Burlington got its second large retail mall (about two miles to the northwest) it died a dog’s death. I think about three or four of the retail spaces are occupied in 2008 despite the mixed-use pedestrian walkways, government offices across the street, lakefront park one block to the southeast, and the like.

    In short, I think people hate this concept, and prefer purely commercial indoor shopping malls. Maybe not in their heads, but in their wallets and their feet, they do.

  12. I disagree with this– Malls are just bad design, what with cars spread out on the outside and shops with their backs on the exterior walls– everything is just oriented the wrong way. Better to invest in genuinely urban spaces and promote density.

  13. to No. 13.

    they’ve got to be better than than the modernist disasters that fucked inner city britain during the 20th century.

    so long as the people who might live in these places can make decisions that actually get acted upon, not some over bearing architects dream, they’ll be fine, even great places to live.

  14. theres an entire mall in bay city michigan thats abandoned, but one set of doors is left unlocked for the delicious chinese resturant that still resides there.

    its that good.

  15. Haha! I know that mall quite well. Haven’t been in 2 years, though, so I didn’t know it was dying. Seemed like its worst problem was that it seemed to attract hoity-toity boutique stores and tried to mix them in with more pedestrian fare (you could get High Tea in a red-hatters paradise around the corner from Nordstrom Rack and Red Robin.)

    Of course, no one lives in Factoria, and it’s only reason for existence in the first place is T-Mobile’s historic headquarters.

    Quick. Someone send this story on to Walla Walla, WA (currently in an amazingly unlikely wine industry boom) before they tear down Blue Mountain Mall.

  16. and even residential units


    Do you know how much people drop to live near shops and parks and town centers right now?

    Think of the cost savings and reduced enviornmental impact of repurposing some big old department store in a mall into lofts? Turn the rest of the smaller stores into a variety of public spaces, open markets and indoor multi-use and I’d happily live in a mall!

  17. In Michigan we let malls die, slowly and painfully while we build newer, better ones in what was formerly green space or farmland. It’s like heaven on Earth.

  18. “I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

    Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

    Araby, James Joyce

  19. I’ll have to get to the Chamber of Commerce on this, but since they’re always looking for a way to rejuvenate this city since GMC hauled ass, they might be open to

    The Dead Mall Capitol
    of The World

    We’ve got MILES of them.

  20. I think some of the bigger cities are going to the pioneers (like Chicago). I live Winston-Salem, NC and yeah we have a mall. And actually it’s a pretty okay mall, and I don’t mind it being here. However, like every other city planner that I’ve seen lay out a city, they are building everything around the mall.

    And I don’t mean like residential, I mean more shopping. There’s now like a 3 mile radius of shopping around the mall, talk about a clusterf$ck. Frankly if the mall died, and got reborn it wouldn’t matter here. You spend 10 mins even getting to the parking lot, and that’s before you even start looking for a place to park.

    I always wish they would come up with something like Disney world. Massive parking lot/deck and trams to take you to various drop off points in the mall (be it indoor or out).

  21. @#24 – Hey, ever been to Eastwood Towne Center in Lansing? Classic example of the “Let’s Pave Over Farmland.” I must say, that I really do like the mall though. Of course, you freeze your fanny off for 6 months of the year.

  22. A lot of you seem to hate malls and keep saying what a blight they are. Maybe it’s just because I grew up in New Jersey, but I have a way better opinion of malls. When I was 14 there was no other place in bike riding distance, where I could hang out with kids my age, buy records, meet girls, play video games, skate in the parking lot etc. Ours even had a movie theater, laser tag and basket ball courts. The mall is where I made some lifelong friends, and first met kids in bands or who liked computers. It certainly had it’s down side, but at that age I could care less about bad architecture and chain restaurants. As a child of divorced parents who spent weekends away from his school friends, I would have been in front of the TV all day if it weren’t for malls. Outside of major cities, this was really the only spot to find out about anything cool until we all got the internet.

  23. @22

    That reminds me of a Canadian film from 2001 called “waydowntown” where 4 office workers make a bet to see who can spend the longest time without going outside. They work in downtown Calgary where their office is connected to apartments, malls and other offices by way of glass walkways.

    Personally, I think I’d go insane. But the idea of dropping in to buy a soft pretzel wearing my pajamas and slippers is strangely appealing…

  24. It seem to me the main problem is the inherent mallness of malls. A town square has to be directly and closely connected to its town. Even having to cross a busy street to get to it can be enough to isolate it.

    Edmonton, where I live, every few years spends a massive amount of money redesigning a square whose location should make it an ideal town square, but that is forever a block of dead space. It’s surrounded by the main library, the main professional theatre, a concert hall, city hall, a big downtown shopping mall, the main art gallery, and within a block of a number of other important locations.

    The reason they fail is that the one thing that is essential to making it a functional town square is the one thing the city won’t even consider doing – closing down the streets that surround the square, so that (a) you can actually walk onto the square from any of the above-mentioned places, without going to the corner and waiting for the walk light, and (b) you’re not then constantly surrounded by noisy smelly traffic.

    You can put whatever you want into a dead mall, but if reaching that space involves walking across a giant simmering hot field of asphalt with a dehumanizing great block of concrete looming over you, it will be a fortress, not a town square. It may contain a town, which may have a town square, but from outside it will remain a fortress until the parking lots are ripped up and replaced with a nice park.

  25. @11: I agree. We live in Strip Mall, USA, one of those communities that sprung up around a large mall with dozens upon dozens of strip malls surrounding it. I venture that half of the strip malls are more than 50% empty, and the big mall itself is losing stores fast.

    We’re looking to move to an urban center like you describe, where shopping, restaurants, etc. are within walking distance and people spend more time at home or on foot than they do their cars.

    In fact, we can’t get outta here fast enough.

  26. #31 – Have you ever been to downtown Calgary? It’s very weird.

    Imagine a walled city of the wealthy, with the poor, limbless, lepers and crack addicts outside. Only the walls aren’t just a square or circle, but a Habitrail-like construction. The rich drive into town, park underground at the office, walk from one building to another via elevated walkways from which they can peer down with idle horror at the destitute outside the walls, and drive back out in the evening. The shopfront displays at street level are paltry, minimal-effort affairs; the potential customers are all walking through the passageways one floor up.

    I was trying to describe the location of a building downtown to a native Calgarian who worked downtown for years, and he was completely lost – I was describing how to walk there outside, and he never went outside. This building was not connected to the network of walkways, so it might as well have been in another town, outside the walled city.

  27. The Bayshore Mall in the Glendale, an inner-ring suburb of Milwaukee, recently reinvented itself through a major remodeling and recasting it as a somewhat pedestrian-friendly complex. It’s got an area for having live musical performances, and there’s many major chains, ranging from Trader Joe’s to the Apple Store to… uh… just trust me, they’re there. (I only go to TAS and TJ’s.)

    It seems to be doing quite well. But I refer to it as having a fake downtown. So far as I know, Glendale never had a thriving and/or lively downtown. Being conveniently located just outside of Milwaukee, it was more of a bedroom community.

    To me, thriving community happens organically, not through the construction of a shopping center where the streets make it difficult to go fast and where cars are more often that not supposed to yield to pedestrians. Thing is, I’m not sure how many people from around there are used to seeing, much less dealing with pedestrians. Again, it’s a fake downtown. While there are two coffee shops there (both chains, albeit one is locally owned), it doesn’t seem prone to much in the way of spontaneity. It’s hard to have community when the focus is on shopping.

    I do prefer it to the old Bayshore Mall, but that said, I prefer downtown Bay View* to the fake downtown at Bayshore. In Bay View, a thriving neighborhood on Milwaukee’s south side, we have people that worked to bring businesses in, worked to bring people in, and are working to make it better overall. But no corporate parent did, as with the revised Bayshore Mall. It gets points for emphasizing pedestrian traffic over car traffic, and for having a TJ’s and Apple Store within walking distance. But can we have a community garden there? And it’s very hard to walk there from Bay View, mostly due to distance. But being right off the interstate and along two busy arteries makes it all the more difficult. I’d take the bus, but the county executive has been killing the bus system… so I guess I’ll drive!

    Rant: OFF.

    What is community, anyway? How do we know?

  28. Around here there’s a cool new mall established last year that features only small movie stores, art galleries/studios and two small open-air meeting plaza. It’s by far one of the most pleasant spaces around, and a must-visit in Porto.

  29. @22

    I love this idea! It’s sort of like the ultimate pre-fab commune, or the gated community of the future.

    If you take most of the big sprawling parking lots around the mall and turn them back to agriculture, it would improve it’s sustainability.

  30. It is scary how quickly I recognized that mall as Factoria. (Yeah, that is a Jamba Juice. The space to the left of it used to be a B. Dalton.)

    When I was a kid, that mall had mirrors on the ceiling and I was fascinated by them. One of the stores — I want to say it was a watch seller or something? Clock maker? Repair shop? This has been at least twenty years, so my memory’s fuzzy — also had this fabulous roller coaster-type thing that would send ball bearings down the track, bring ’em back up to the top, start it over again, etc., and I’d go in there just to watch it. I blame the decline on losing those things, personally. ;)

    (Also, I think the developers have grand plans these days of turning it into a multi-use, condo-plus-mall establishment, so… who knows what’ll happen in the long run.)

    re: Of course, no one lives in Factoria, and it’s only reason for existence in the first place is T-Mobile’s historic headquarters:

    Factoria’s been around a whole lot longer than T-Mobile, as has the mall. Some of us DO live there, or at least just up the hill. I was always told that the reason it’s hard to get to Factoria off I-90 (you can going eastbound, but the other direction’s trickier) is that it was originally conceptualized as more of a neighborhood mall, not a destination for people from out of town. I wonder these days what the owners think about that….

  31. You Canucks sure have scary stories. There’s something I’ve always wondered…

    Why did they put Canada way up there?

  32. In the Tampa Bay area, we’ve got the old East Lake Mall. It became NetP@rk Tampa Bay. It’s a large (1,000,000 sqft) office complex in an otherwise mostly industrial-ish area. I think it’s never been close to full.

  33. buddy66: “We’ve got MILES of them.”

    which ones? i used to live in Flint. The only malls i can think of are the genessee valley mall, courtland and the dirt(dort) mall.

    Dorts always been kinda ghetto but did have open stores, and the other two were open when i moved a few years ago.

    what i miss about flint are the 4 drive in movie screens. and hamburgers at the torch.

  34. It’s a shame they’re always owned by someone. Because they’d make great squats. Especially if the huge flat roof is turned into a garden.

    Somehow reminds me of Archologies from some long distant SciFi novel. Or Rudy Rucker’s comment about imagining you’re 3 miles under the surface of the moon and 90% of the other inhabitants have had their brains infected by stainless steel parasites.

  35. Cap,

    The 4 screens are shut down. Dort’s only got a couple stores left. Courtland’s emptying out again. . Other outlying malls (I don’t know their names) are closed. Burgers are still frying at the Torch, though.

    Got back to Flint last year, after 40 years in CA and OR. It’s sad. The city where I grew up died before I did.

    You can rent a mall here if you just pay the utilities and upkeep. They give away houses, in certain neighborhoods, if you bring them up to code.

    Waddya gonna do?

  36. I would like to convert a mall into my own huuuuge loft.

    All clean, empty white space except for 4 pieces of furniture and my comics.

  37. Yeah? Try heating it in the winter. You’d end up wearing those comic books as a bum’s vest inside your coat. I remember realizing the dream of the loft, the perfect space. It proved to be too expensive,

    Off-topic: Antinous, is there a Complaints Desk? I’m getting sick of looking at that drawing of ”Mad Dog” Dick Cheney, and I’m a card-carrying ACLU member!

  38. buddy66: “Waddya gonna do?”

    i hear some flint houses are going for 5k. What i’d do is buy it, fix it up on my vacation time, and rent it to friends back home for about 400 a month to friends or family.

  39. Calgary isn’t really like that. 45% of downtown workers don’t drive into downtown at all! The streets are not dead. Sure there are more parking ramps than storefronts on most downtown streets, but what about Stephen (8th) avenue? In the summer, you can see probably 50,000 people walking along 8th Avenue at lunch. Places like Chinatown and Eau Claire have a good amount of pedestrian traffic too.

    All the new development will only add to this. Buildings like the Bow, and that thing that is replacing Penny Lane, will all have street-focused retail and unobtrusive parking/loading zones. They will still have +15 (glass walkway) connections, however.

    And there are crackheads/homeless both inside and outside the +15 system!

    But back to the article, I’m sure it would work for some malls with street connections, but what about malls walled off by freeways on every side? That’s not urban living at all.

  40. I’m coming very late to this convo, but I think it’s important to correct a misconception. Brownfield Mall redevelopment is a pretty ingenious aspect of New Urbanist design and it’s sad to see it misinterpreted. They’re not talking about reworking the existing mall, but using the plot of land and general pit outlines — most malls are a qtr mile in radius, about the size of a naturally-occurring old-growth neighborhood center — and turning it inside out.

    In the conceptions I’ve seen, the mall itself is ripped out; the outline, if it goes below grade, might be turned into a garden area. Mixed use buildings of the 2-4 story variety (see Christopher Alexander) are built in he space that was the parking lot, with covered parking integrated. The space the mall had taken up is likewise redeveloped.

    Like most misunderstood aspects of New Urban design, this approach has other simultaneous strategies too. All future solutions will have to try to solve multiple problems at once, as the mess we’re in has multiple causes. In this case, the two most interesting aspects to me are these:

    1 – Even if it’s currently bus-based, the transit infrastructure already exists at brownfield mall sites from their original lifetime. This is a tremendous savings of time and right-of-way and route-making saved when trying to integrate transit into new neighborhoods. In the case of brownfield malls, the transit skin and bones are already there, waiting for a reason to be again.

    2 – if you look at the current pattern of urban reinvestment (a good thing), you see that costs are pushing the poor further and further out, to areas which fpr decades now have been built bereft of transit solutions, or really any thought whatsoever towards sustainability. If they’re not already, these brownfield malls are soon to be right in the hearts of those vapid neighborhoods, where those who can afford commutes the least are being forced by financial pressures to live.

    Right now, brownfield mall redevelopment is still just an innovative and proactive idea. Soon, it will be a societal survival strategy, an emergency response.

    We clear-cut our old growth neighborhoods throughout the entire last half of the 20th century. We put ourselves in this bind. At least approaches like this are trying what they can to find ways out again.

    – Heath, Austin TX

  41. Takuan – What, “Winter”? Yes, Calgary has some mildly cold weather for a few months that could almost pass for a Winter if, as most Calgarians seem to, you lack a warm coat.

    BadCoffee – OK, maybe I was exaggerating somewhat – but exaggerating a real situation, not making things up.

    8th Avenue is an exception to the rule. When I was trying to explain the location of this building to the long-time Calgarian I mentioned above, I made the mistake of using things I would consider landmarks – but they were things (a) you have to go outside for, and (b) not on Stephen Ave – parks, City Hall, the library, the LRT line that cuts downtown in half (but if you never go outside, you never step on the tracks). Finally I described the route based on reaching a store on Stephen Ave and then walking North off Stephen (which he plainly had never done, but could at least picture doing).

  42. yes, I suppose the unrelenting white hell of a Calgary winter might seem “mildly cold” – to a penguin.

  43. #6: Do you mean crossroads mall in belelvue? (It doesn’t say the city/state on the site you linked.) If so, I havn’t been there in months but I remember the cool giant chess sets.

    I really like the outdoor malls, like the Bella Botega (Or something like that) in redmond. Beautiful mall with some pretty descent shops. (Well I admit it’s been a while since i’ve been there.)

    It’s kind of strange with all these malls dying, and I went not two weeks ago to a local mall that expanded. (The Southcenter mall) it was pretty packed with a lot of shops.

    #54 and others: You guys didn’t use Mr. Maldoon’s money to move to somewhere decent? /Boots self in the head. :P (Sorry, couldn’t resist, I love that bit.)

  44. I used to go to Factoria Mall all the time. It was really nice. They had a chess area with the board painted on the ground and 2-foot high, heavy chess pieces. I once saw Dale Chihuly (incredible, famous glass artist) there; he was watching the chess game.

  45. Ooops I was thinking of Crossroads mall. It’s been some years since I’ve been there. I’ve been to Factoria Mall many a time too. Crossroads was way better though.

  46. One issue (amongst many) I have with corporations is they close any store that is only breaking even. Wish there was someway to prevent such stores from closing because they do serve a common good.

    Another issue of mine is a mall’s preference to a few empty storefronts than a full mall. Owners of malls would rather raise leases than, once again, focus on the long-term of the common good.

  47. This brings to mind the old Fashion Island mall in San Mateo/Foster City. Who ever thought that people would want to spend 8 hours in a mall shaped like a spider, 6 corridors of shopping in all? We used to walk around and count all of the closed store fronts. I was a DJ at the ice skating rink there from 86-93.

  48. I like this very much, it’s a great idea that could work in a lot of locations.

    Anyone who thinks that the architecture of malls is inherently “dehumanizing” or somehow unredeemable has never squatted a Modernist high-rise office building.

    Ugliest thing ever. *Wonderful* place to live.

    Malls could be great too!

  49. “But the article summary made me foremost think of how Logan’s Run was filmed in the Hulen Mall. …run runner!”

    …And that film is essentially what sold the idea of an inclosed, multi-level, air-conditioned, hundred-store shopping mall to the entire world. Ironically, it’s apparently predicted its final evolutionary fate – a community center and living space. The only thing that remains is to have them all powered by hydroelectric plants, and have an automated canning and freezing facility constructed a mile or so away, accessable only from underground.

    1. I grew up a couple of miles from Shopper’s World, one of the first suburban malls in the world. It was built in 1951 and was a beautiful example of futuristic design, anchored by a Jordan Marsh store under an enormous dome. The central courtyard was completely open to the sky, to take advantage of Massachusetts’ mild and predictable climate. Sadly, it was torn down in the 90s and replaced with a dreary enclosed structure that looks like every other mall in the US.

  50. An old mall in my hometown in upstate new york was converted about 10 years ago into a medical center. All of the outpatient services for the local hospital were moved there, along with dr’s offices, a gym and a coffee shop. They did a nice job cleaning it up and using indoor greenery, so a lot of the older people in the area go there to exercise (mall walking) during the winter.

    I still think this was a great use of the space. Other shopping complexes in the area that shutdown around the same time are abandoned eyesores.

  51. Well, I didn’t know till now, but I’m not really surprised it’s dying. I’ve visited Factoria frequently when I was in highschool; even then it was a paltry shadow of Bellevue Square 5-10 minutes north.

    I don’t know how well it would urbanize… it’s just a fairly flat, one / two story sprawl. It just doesn’t seem to have the potential for density you’d get with building more vertical.

    It could be turned into an interesting condo complex, with the aforementioned gardens and a few retail shops, but honestly it would seem a bit odd given the competition farther north and the… flatness of it.

    Probably best would be a GarageTown or something thoroughly utilitarian.

  52. Re: Syracuse. Are you kidding me? Have you been to the one on Erie Blvd (Shopping Town Mall)? It’s a creepy ghost town. Though the library in the basement is pretty cool.

    Sure, Carousel mall is doing pretty well but the existence of an exception doesn’t disprove a trend. Also, I’m pretty sure that the new part (Destiny) plans on having residential/hotel stuff. I think it’s continued success will be that it’s not going to focus just on shopping. Which is kind of the point.

  53. Another interesting mall transformation occurred in south fort worth (not Hulen Mall…it’s still the same). An outdoor mall called Seminary South spent millions enclosing it, changing the name to Town Center, and then completely going south as that part of town become more impoverished and other nearby malls took the business. It was largely abandoned for years but then a strange transformation took shape. That area become more populated by Mexican immigrant and first generation families and now “La Gran Plaza” has parking lots Chistmas style full EVERY DAY. There are dance halls, restaurants, and shops all catered to the culture and economy and it’s absolutely booming.

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