A Genius Solution to the Housing Crisis

May 15, 2024

The mall. A fixture on the American landscape since 1956, when the first one opened in Edina, MN. Through the decades, the mall has been the place to do your back-to-school or holiday shopping or, if you were a teen, to just hang out with your friends on the weekend. It was the centerpiece of the 80s movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High. But with the rise of Amazon and then, the COVID epidemic, malls have been fading fast. More are closing, or reduced to the status of “zombie malls,” with a few stores barely hanging on. Annually, 17% of malls have been shuttered since 2017. In the 80s, there were about 2,500; now we’re down to 700 nationwide. It’s like watching a beloved wildlife population die off.

However, malls – like much of the commercial real estate that was impacted during the pandemic lockdown – are starting to reinvent themselves in new and useful ways. One of the most exciting transformation is into much-needed housing.

The housing crisis in America is exploding. Large corporations are buying up single-family homes then converting them to expensive rentals, locking many ordinary citizens out of ownership. Due to lack of units, rental costs are on the rise. In 2020, it was predicted that homelessness would increase by as much as 45% by the end of that year; at the very least, the lack of reasonably-priced housing leads many to be “housing insecure,” spending too much of their income on rent alone.

Rather than demolishing them or leaving them as an eyesore, converting existing mall space into housing makes sense in so many ways. They already have easy access to main roads. They have plumbing and power infrastructure. The surrounding community isn’t negatively affected by “new” development (avoiding the loud “Not In My Backyard” pushback). In fact, repurposing these “zombie malls” can inject new life into the area including replacing lost tax revenue.

In Orange County, CA, the Westminster Mall will be converted into 3,000 residential units that live alongside 600,000 square feet of retail space and 17 acres of public space. In Phoenix, the Paradise Valley Mall (opened in 1978), is being converted into apartments.

The target audience for these redesigned living spaces are working singles, new families, or empty nesters looking to downsize. Some designs feature a live-play-work mix, with access to movie theaters, restaurants, gyms, even a medical office.

Malls, especially those that house higher-end retail stores, will never completely disappear. But with each successful reinvention, the trend of turning zombie malls into something fresh, new, and (especially) useful is taking off across the country. Developers are being encouraged to think outside the box, so the next decade will be an exciting one.

(A personal request to builders: please be sure to include a Spencer’s Gifts in your designs. One still needs somewhere to purchase lava lamps and Sea Monkeys.)

Cindy Grogan is a writer, lover of history and "Star Trek" (TOS), and hardcore politics junkie. There was that one time she campaigned for Gerald Ford (yikes), but ever since, she's been devoted to Democratic and progressive policies.

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DemJones on Aug 23, 2022 8:01 AM
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