How Dead Malls Are Getting a New Lease on Life

As the retail apocalypse continues to shutter America’s shopping malls apace, developers are finding creative new uses for the hulking buildings beyond simply converting them into Amazon fulfillment centers.

The American Dream megamall in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Few institutions of everyday life have experienced such a dramatic fall from grace as the shopping mall, once a titan of American consumerism that embodied the suburbanite’s need for “safe” artificial gathering spots that felt more Disneyland than downtown. Thanks to the combination of e-commerce and the pandemic, malls once teeming with teenagers and buzzy chain stores now sit entirely vacant. It’s due in large part to the shuttering of anchor tenants—Barneys New York, Lord & Taylor, and Mervyn’s are now defunct, while Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sears, and J.C. Penney have closed a majority of their stores. A damning 2017 report by Credit Suisse estimated that a quarter of America’s 1,211 malls would shutter entirely by 2022. 

Faced with catastrophic financial losses, developers have been forced to think outside the “big box” when repurposing what are essentially warehouses surrounded by acres of pavement. To some, dead malls hold the key to solving the housing crisis. New York governor Kathy Hochul recently announced the completion of a seniors’ affordable housing complex built within a former Sears department store in Rochester. In Denver, efforts are underway to transform the erstwhile Cinderella City Mall into a transit-oriented development that includes housing, a civic center, City Hall offices, a library, and an outdoor arts museum. Similar experiments are unfolding in Seattle and Providence.

Some are finding second lives as healthcare facilities—a trend that has gained momentum since the pandemic. Vanderbilt University Medical Center plans to move into the massive Hickory Hollow Mall in southeast Nashville, which once reigned as Tennessee’s largest shopping center. “The possibilities for service offerings in a facility of this scale are endless,” Dr. Jeff Balser, the medical center’s CEO, said in March. While the mall-to-medicine trajectory may be unexpected, they can enable hospital systems to deliver care more flexibly, cater to the rising trend of telehealth, and promote economic development. Some vacant malls are in diverse neighborhoods that need increased access to health care. 

A former Sears department store in Rochester, New York, that will be converted into affordable senior housing. Rendering courtesy of Passero Associates

Other reuses are simply out of left field. A former J.C. Penney store in Houghton, Michigan, has become a sprawling medical marijuana farm and dispensary. Last year, Fornite’s parent company Epic Games bought the entire 980,000-square-foot Cary Town Center in North Carolina with the intention of transforming it into a corporate campus by 2024. And while the embattled American Dream in New Jersey isn’t dead, per se, nearly two decades of false starts and ownership changes has put the mega-mall in a precarious situation—not even an indoor ski slope, ice-skating rink, and Nickelodeon-branded amusement park has been enough to recoup foot traffic lost from the sudden bankruptcy of three anchor tenants. 

Vicki Howard, the author of From Main Street to Mall, describes how dead malls leave a major impact on their surrounding communities: “First they become an eyesore; it’s aesthetically damaging,” she tells Vox. “Second, there’s the jobs. Third, it impacts the consumers themselves that have turned to that area for leisure activities, for places to go in the winter, to go with their kids. It’s quite a big economic and social and cultural phenomenon to have these department stores closing—and malls also. They occupy such a physical place as well as a social space.”

Surface Says: If you, like us, are fascinated by the ghostly presence and strange energy of empty malls, then check out The Proper People, a duo dedicated to filming abandoned sites. Their adventures make for a great YouTube rabbit hole.

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