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Retrofitting Suburban Shopping Malls: A Step Towards Metropolitan Sustainability

By Jonathan Denis-Jacob
May 6, 2011

It’s no longer business as usual for many suburban malls in North America. Long considered as the success symbols of suburbia, traditional shopping malls now face major challenges. While most malls still do very well, a considerable and growing number now struggle to survive in an increasingly competitive retail environment. Ageing real estate stocks combined with the changing nature of shopping and strong competition from emerging retail forms have forced traditional malls to start reinventing themselves. The retrofitting and regeneration of malls, through good urban design principles and intensification, opens up many opportunities to bring these spaces back to life and contribute to making suburbs more sustainable.

The retail industry has been transformed significantly over the past 15 years and traditional malls have been the first to pay the price. First, the impact of online shopping needs little explanation; e-commerce has taken a significant share of the retail market away from malls. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the nature of customer demand with respect to retail has changed tremendously with the emergence of new retail forms. Customers now seek out a different shopping experience than that of traditional malls, and now turn themselves to emerging retail forms.

On one hand, “Big box” developments such as “Power Centers” and “Mega centers” have mushroomed in most suburban communities and have become the main channels for low-end shopping. More functional and more conveniently located than traditional shopping malls, Big Box developments are preferred by customers in search of low prices, standardized products and easy car access. For developers, “Big Box” developments are also better bets: they are most cost-effective to build and operate because of their minimum facilities and public spaces in addition to offering a high and quick return on investments.

On the other hand, “lifestyle centers”, suburban commercial developments inspired by urban environments, increasingly capture demand for high-end shopping. High-end shopping has become more experiential and has evolved as a genuine entertainment activity in the past decade. When asked what type of shopping environment they want, customers respond they prefer outdoor places with good design and an urban atmosphere, where they can walk, socialize and play . Lifestyle centers meet customers’ new shopping needs and therefore constitute an additional threat to traditional malls.

As a result, many traditional malls have lost their competitive advantage. They now need to re-invent themselves and adapt to the changing retail environment otherwise they may experience decline and even closure. For cities, the decline and/or closure of mall are not good news. They lead to considerable municipal tax revenues and job losses, spatial deprivation and major public expenditures. Consequently, many cities have started to reflect about what to do with shopping malls beyond their commercial life cycle. Just like derelict factories and warehouses twenty years ago, a solution for malls’ obsolescence is retrofitting and regeneration.  

The retrofitting of malls is becoming a common practice across North America. Several shopping malls across have used this strategy and become genuine urban environments. Eastgate Mall in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Park Forest Plaza in Illinois are two examples of traditional malls which have been converted into liveable and attractive mid-density mixed-use environments while maintaining the mall’s commercial functions.

Why should malls be retrofitted?  Because malls usually feature some of the best conditions for sustainable regeneration. Firstly, they usually lie in a strategic location, in the center of a large market and within easy reach of metropolitan highways and public transportation networks. Secondly, traditional suburban malls often act as the city center of their suburb. The main bus terminal, civic facilities, the bulk of commercial activities and main employment centers are located nearby. Thirdly, suburban malls have a potential for becoming mixed-use environments. In effect, except for residential uses, malls usually comprise a large variety of urban activities, from retail and entertainment to public institutions.  Fourthly, the vast parking area and the sheer size of their buildings are suitable for the introduction of high-density buildings. While in many suburban communities, intensification strategies are likely to face NIMBY opposition (Not in my backyard), shopping malls are places where high-density and mixed-use buildings are generally accepted. Fifthly, suburban malls sites offer large portions of available land whose value is expected to rise exponentially as the surrounding area develops.  

Which form should the retrofitting take? Retrofitting strategies which aim at building a sustainable urban environment should focus on increasing density, introducing residential and institutional uses, improving walking conditions, encouraging the use of public and active transportation, enhancing design, designing public spaces and becoming a self-sufficient mixed-use environment. The benefits of such an operation are numerous for the mall’s owners and developers; in addition to the lucrative operation of developing the parking area land, introducing residential units and other activities on site creates a “captive clientele” on site for the mall’s businesses.

Retrofitting should by no means be exclusively for struggling malls. Successful malls can also use some of the principles outlined above to better adapt to the changing retail environments, maximize their real estate assets, become more attractive and be more profitable, without putting their mall’s function aside. For example, a strategy can be to dedicate a small portion of the parking area to residential and commercial developments, in which parking spots can be redistributed. In addition, the retrofitting of shopping malls should be seen as a long-term strategy that will evolve over time depending on market conditions.

Suburban malls such as Carrefour Laval in Montreal, Square One in Toronto and MetroTown in Vancouver are examples of sites with very good conditions for an intensification strategy giving their strategic location and the rapid development of their surrounding areas.

For a long time, shopping malls have been thought of as anti-urban places, which encouraged and contributed to the making of ever-sprawling suburbs. Yet today, by embracing good urban planning principles, some now have a unique opportunity to re-assert themselves differently in the metropolitan landscape, by becoming liveable and sustainable suburban environments for good.  


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URBAN LAND INSTITUTE (2006) Ten principles for Rethinking the Mall. Washington D.C. 42 p.