The Cardiff Plaza Shopping Center in Pleasantville, NJ, in 2018
There is a severe housing crisis throughout the United States. According to Freddie Mac, the housing market is short nearly 4 million homes, and builders cannot keep up with demand. The pandemic made the housing crisis worse because many people craved larger homes due to the need to work remotely. Also, labor and lumber shortages are exacerbating the housing shortage by making it harder and more expensive to construct new homes.
Now, housing prices are skyrocketing due to a lack of supply and low interest rates, which especially squeeze low and moderate-income households. A minimum wage employee can’t afford the rent on a one-bedroom apartment in 93 percent of U.S. counties. Meanwhile, there is a retail apocalypse going on, and tens of thousands of stores are closing.
The rise and fall of shopping centers
Shopping centers started rising in popularity in the 1950s, and this trend continued through the 1990s. Malls across the U.S. quickly became centers for family enjoyment that combined shopping, dining and entertainment under one roof. However, trends in consumer behavior have been causing numerous shopping centers to close. Many of these properties were in use for just a few decades before being deserted.
Although this trend existed pre-pandemic, the move towards e-commerce and away from brick and mortar stores is intensifying. According to 2020 findings from Coresight Research, 25 percent of malls in the United States will close in the next five years. Shopping malls can be especially large spaces, typically spanning hundreds of thousands or even millions of square feet. Now, across outlying suburbs and urban centers alike, many strip malls and sprawling shopping centers are vacant.
Redeveloping retail spaces to tackle the housing crisis
Unfortunately, shopping centers, particularly indoor malls, are proving to be difficult to repurpose, yet there is a dire need for more housing. One particularly appealing idea is to take strip malls and shopping centers and build mixed-use spaces that combine retailers and housing with access to public transportation and green spaces.
There have been some examples of this concept in action. At the Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, Washington, residential units were created from what had been a large swath of the mall. The Alderwood Avalon Place now has 328 apartments and features shops, restaurants, and a light rail stop nearby that will open in 2024.
In Annapolis, Maryland, a 1960s era mall called Parole Plaza was abandoned. Developers are now completing a mixed-use project called Annapolis Town Center with hundreds of housing units, restaurants, stores, green spaces, and an ice skating rink. This transit-oriented project is located near a commuter rail line.
Social and environmental redevelopment considerations
Across the United States, nearly 60 former malls have been redeveloped into housing, offices, and other purposes and another 75 are in the planning phase. To provide the maximum benefit from these projects, it's critical to consider a variety of social and environmental factors.
For example, is there suitable access to public transportation and green spaces? How can these developments be pedestrian-friendly and support livable communities? How can local governments alter zoning requirements to encourage projects that mitigate the housing crisis and boost access to affordable housing?
Unfortunately, strip malls and shopping centers aren’t often ideally suited for residential purposes because they are located on major roads and lack green spaces. However, there are also numerous advantages to redeveloping these vacant properties.
Typically, new housing projects can be controversial politically, especially when they involve displacing existing residents or gentrifying neighborhoods. This certainly isn’t the case for empty shopping centers, which can quickly become a blight on the community. Also, developing these properties helps mitigate urban sprawl by making use of existing development.
Yet, many retailers continue to shut their doors at rapid rates, causing urban planners, designers, and local officials to grapple with what to do with these deserted properties. But now, new, vibrant options are emerging that can also address the housing crisis.
Image credit: Kevin Jarrett via Upslash
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.