Friday, August 05, 2022

Mall Makeovers - New lives for old Shopping Centres


Empty Malls might be a sign of the times, but those which are prepared to embrace change are finding new life in a variety of ways  

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

Evolution and Decline 


Malls or shopping centres as we know them, began their rise and rise in the USA in the 1950’s and quickly spread around the world, growing in size and number in parallel with car culture and the suburbs until approximately 2000, when online shopping began to clip their wings. Read more on the rise and fall of the mall here.

With many malls and shopping centres already suffering a downturn, the pandemic dealt them another blow with lockdowns, more people working from home and a desire to avoid crowds. In the USA some 12,000 shops had closed by 2020, with most of them located within shopping centres. Almost one third of America’s 1000 malls are expected to close by 2025.

Nor is the problem confined to the USA. Several large centres in the UK such as the Elephant and Castle in London, Chilterns in High Wycombe and Broadmarsh in Nottingham have also closed. Elsewhere in Europe, France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Norway have all reported downturns with around 18 shopping centres closing down. While up -market malls are likely to survive, the rest are having to innovate to survive.

Getting people back into shopping centres

One of the best ways to bring people back to shopping centres is to have them live there. Here are just a few examples of malls which have looked to residential developments.

Residential Developments

In the USA, the Cinderella Mall in Denver has added a city hall, 440 apartments, medical centres, educational facilities and a light rail station. It has also created employment for 25,000 people

America’s first mall, Providence Mall on Rhode Island, has been converted to 38 micro apartments.

In Australia, the Glen Shopping Centre in Melbourne is adding 500 new homes and offices and combining them with leisure, dining and shopping facilities. Also in Melbourne, the Chadstone Shopping Centre which already has a twelve storey, five star hotel and office towers, has now put its $450 million Sky Garden apartments on top. 

Brentwood Mall in Vancouver, Canada is adding 11 towers of residential apartments and two office blocks. 

[Incidentally, Boston is making it a requirement that developers must include childcare facilities in new commercial buildings in the city or provide cash payments for their establishment elsewhere. This could be an excellent idea for other jurisdictions which want to encourage more women in the workforce]. 

Such “Lifestyle Centres” which enable people to live, work, shop and find entertainment in one place are likely to become even more popular as fuel costs rise, but that is by no means the only way in which malls are finding new life. 

More than just shopping

Even malls that haven't gone down the accommodation route are thinking up new ways to get people through the door. Some offer novel activities such as VIP nights, DJs or changing pop up stores to keep people coming back. Others are adding more permanent facilities such as gyms, daycare, medical services, gaming arenas and co -working spaces, to make them one -stop shops and de facto town centres.

Sports, recreation and cultural activities 


Meijer in Greenville, Michigan is now an indoor BMX track. Hickory Hollow in Antioch, Tennessee has an indoor a skate rink. Boston's Liberty Tree Mall, among the first in America, has added a trampoline park. Across the Atlantic, a suburban mall in Paris, has added laser tag, a karaoke bar, a climbing wall and trampolines.

At Vancouver Mall in Washington D.C. a Japanese consortium plans to add a karaoke bar, a pool hall and a bowling alley and it is already host to an art school and a branch of the library.The Lakeforest Mall in Maryland is home to live theatre productions and a gallery. Westfield’s Knox Shopping Centre in the outer suburbs of Melbourne will also be adding a library, co - working office space, medical, financial, art and recreational facilities. A swim school is also planned.

Bucharest’s Colosseum, Romania’s largest mall has added a casino, a multiplex cinema, a fitness centre and children’s playgrounds. It is in the process of adding more office and commercial space. 

Read about the transformation of an enclosed urban shopping centre in Barcelona to an integrated town centre which includes sport and recreation, commerce, cultural activities, playgrounds, technology and dining here.

Other ways in which malls have reinvented themselves

Some have become hospitals and medical centres. A former Walmart in Fort Wright Kentucky, for example, has become the Christ Hospital and Outpatient Centre. Nashville's 100 Oaks Mall is now a medical centre. 

Others are turning into schools and educational facilities. The Highland Mall in Austin Texas for example, has become part of the the Austin Community College. Life Science Centres are springing up in several parts of the UK. See for example, what's happening in Cambridge.

The sacred and profane 


Churches are also taking up vacant retail space. Lakes Church in Lakeland, Florida is one of several which have snapped up whole shopping centres. A former Sam's Club in Olathe, Kansas has become the home of the Heartland Community Church.
Commerce takes pride of place in others. Some shopping centres are turning into offices, techno hubs and distribution centres. In 2019 Google leased the Westside Mall in Los Angeles to turn it into additional office space. It recently also purchased the former Mayfield Mall at Mountain View, California which it has been leasing since 2013.

Between 2016 and 2019 Amazon has converted no less than 25 American malls into distribution centres and plans to convert several more.

Down to earth


Among the more original reuses of large areas of retail space is its conversion to indoor green houses. Aerofarms in New Jersey for example, has developed indoor vertical farms in a number of vacant buildings, including abandoned malls. 

In a similar vein Wilder Fields is converting a former Target Store in Calumet, Illinois to an indoor farm. In Michigan's Copper County Mall in Houghton, a marijuana dispensary is growing its own product on site, and in Detroit, the Central Detroit Christian Farm and Fishery has established an indoor fish farm at a former retail location. 

As may be seen from the above, while many malls are languishing, it is also an opportunity to create something better.  

Friday, July 29, 2022

Slow Streets



A Slow Street in Barcelona - this image is from Luke Spray's excellent Twitter thread on this topic which features many more examples.  Click here for more

Greetings from the Plague House. Two of us caught Covid this week, so I thought we needed a more cheerful topic. What's a Slow Street, I hear you ask? Slow Streets aren't just those where someone sticks up a limit board saying 20 KPH or plonks down one of those annoying roundabouts in the middle to calm traffic. I have seen some of this work going on around my home town - for example, tree plantings in the middle of some of our already narrow streets, but didn't understand the rationale behind it, so here goes.

What do we mean  by Slow Streets?

Slow Streets are ordinary urban streets which have been transformed to be more people friendly, not just spaces optimised for cars. Some may ban cars altogether, though delivery vehicles are usually allowed.  The main thing is that cars take second place to walkers, cyclists, scooters, the disabled, the elderly, people who want to sit and children who want to play. This is usually achieved through the use of barriers, plantings and visual markings such as signs on the road (see above), but may extend to widening footpaths or removing car parks and parking spaces.

Although the idea predates the pandemic – Paris for example had 1000 kms of cycleways well before the Pandemic as did a number of other European cities as part of their emissions reduction strategies, but the pandemic turbo -charged it in a number of ways, providing both greater need and the opportunity.

As traffic slowed and people began to work from home, they still wanted outdoor exercise despite many parks being closed. For those who still had to travel to work, cycling became more popular as people sought to avoid having to travel on crowded transport. Paris even offered a 500 subsidy for the purchase of electric bikes and people began to line up at bicycle shops in their thousands.  Italy introduced a 70% subsidy on bicycle purchases to reduce capacity on subways to allow more social distancing and Milan opened 35 km of bike paths. Restaurants began to expand into outdoor areas to enable them to operate effectively despite social distancing. 

The benefits of Slow Streets

The streets became quieter, cleaner and safer and there were other advantages too such as reduced emissions and pollution. Poor air quality is the cause of many respiratory and pulmonary ailments. They were also much more pleasant places to be, especially for the elderly, the disabled and young children.

Another reason why Slow Streets got a boost during the pandemic, was the injunction to “Build Back Better,” to resurrect the fortunes of ailing businesses. This saw the UK allocating £250 million for cycleways, footpaths and bus and cycle only lanes.To encourage walking and cycling for short journeys, the UK Department of Transport has also instituted a Cycle to Work program for employers. This involves tax breaks via salary sacrifice for employees, or for loans by the employer for the purchase of bikes and safety equipment which may be tax deductible, in return for providing facilities such as secure parking, showers and change rooms. See their freely downloadable instruction manual. So far 40,000 employers are involved, 1.6 million commuters have taken up cycling and the UK government expects to reap a reduction in public health costs as people become fitter and healthier. 

One of the big pluses for City Planners and the like is that Slow Streets don’t necessarily require major or costly alterations. See for example what Barcelona has been able to achieve with planters, paint and umbrellas and its Super Blocks. As our cities warm in unprecedented ways, Slow Streets can also help to keep temperatures down and reduce heat stress. It is also a win for those who want to see “less car dependence and more walkability” for environmental reasons.

Some criticisms

Yet, despite the many pluses, not everyone is thrilled about the Slow Street concept. Some people questioned why, if parks were off - limits during the pandemic to avoid the spread of infection, they were now being encouraged to exercise and mix and mingle in their street? While some communities were celebrating the fact that children could once again ride bikes safely on the street, the number of accidents between cyclists and pedestrians had also increased.

In poorer, more marginalised communities, Slow Streets have made life more difficult for those residents who still had to commute log distances.Those who involved in delivery of food or goods were especially likely to find them a hindrance rather than a blessing. Others argue that closing off some streets has simply driven more noise, traffic and congestion elsewhere, making more pleasant places for some, but creating worse conditions for others. Even worse, residents often had little say in the planning.

Another criticism comes from communities which fear that it’s a middle-class thing which will only lead to more gentrification. They fear that making areas more attractive to middle class residents, housing prices would go up and become unaffordable for existing residents. There is some anecdotal evidence of this among some early adopters such as Oakland in the USA.

However, the answer according to Corine Kishner, Executive Director of the US National Association of City Transport Officials as reported in Bloomberg, is not to abandon the idea of the Slow Street but rather to move slowly, communicate well and make sure there is ample community consultation beforehand, rather than top-down imposition by enthusiastic town planners and traffic engineers. 

Slow Streets are nice. You hear the birds sing, feel the fresh air and sunshine on your face and don't need to live in fear of being clipped by a car, though good separation is important. 


Next: What to do with a Preloved Shopping Centre