flexiblefullpage -
billboard - default
interstitial1 - interstitial
catfish1 - bottom
Currently Reading

Transforming shopping malls into 21st century neighborhoods

Adaptive Reuse

Transforming shopping malls into 21st century neighborhoods

Shopping malls were once the quintessential suburban community anchor. Now these sites represent an opportunity to re-define post-pandemic suburban environments and re-engage with where the majority of Americans actually live.

By Marc Asnis, AICP | Perkins and Will | September 19, 2023
Ambulatory Orthopedics center exterior rendering
The University of Rochester Medical Center opened its outpatient campus in an empty Sears department store—infusing new life into the abandoned structure. Rendering courtesy Perkins&Will

The death of the 20th century shopping mall is evident all across the country. I’m not saying this just because I’m an Urban Designer, the data bears out this assertion. Coresight Research estimates that 25% of the nation’s roughly 1,000 existing malls will close over the next three to five years, with the pandemic accelerating a demise that was already underway.

Inherent in the collapse of this antiquated shopping mall typology is a massive opportunity to redefine the paradigm of how we create sustainable and equitable suburban environments to live, work, learn, and yes, shop. As we reimagine sites of this scale, taking the right steps is essential: identify the opportunity, implement the catalyst, lead with a long-term framework and a shared vision, and look to the future.

The Opportunity

In the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the “Mall and Office Transformation Guide” by Perkins&Will for the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), malls and business parks account for more than 9,000 acres of underutilized property across the region. With the State of California encouraging housing development in commercial zones, these projects are prime opportunities for alleviating the housing crisis. Many of these declining malls are ideal redevelopment sites—on average 20-60 acres, covered in surface parking lots, and located in priority development areas with good access to transit.

On the other hand, these sites can be overwhelming for local jurisdictions, who have never engaged in this type or scale of project; and for developers, as buying a mall is not a typical real estate transaction.  Rarely are mall properties owned by a singular entity and they come with handfuls of long-term lease agreements with retailers. A significant number of these old sites face environmental challenges.

Mall transformations across the country that are well on their way to their next life and purpose, bring up important questions: What is the right long-term development framework to ensure the optimal mix and intensity of uses and significant public benefit, and what is the catalyst that will springboard an underutilized site into a thriving new neighborhood?

Ambulatory Orthopedics center exterior rendering
The design team brought daylight into the existing footprint through a series of skylights. An internal courtyard also functions as a rehabilitation space. Rendering courtesy Perkins&Will

The Catalyst

So where do you begin? Do you choose adaptive re-use, infusing new life into existing big-box structures, or choose new development? Both are viable, but contingent upon market realities and the desired land use. Housing development to address the national deficit is one worthy starting point. Still, catalysts can also be public institutions such as community college facilities or hospitals and healthcare facilities to support greater social infrastructure.

New healthcare facilities are critical infrastructure for anchoring a new resilient neighborhood, especially when it brings those services into previously underserved regions. The University of Rochester Medical Center opened its outpatient campus Orthopedics and Physical Performance Center in an empty Sears big box department store. Once complete, it will be one of the largest outpatient orthopedic facilities in the Northeast.

Similarly, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at RedBird in Southern Dallas is also a renovation of a former Sears big box in an underserved community. RedBird is now UT Southwestern’s largest outpatient location beyond their main campus.

UT Southwestern at Redbird rendering natural light
The design team from Perkins&Will introduced deep slotted courtyards through the mall’s footprint to allow natural light into the massive structure. Rendering courtesy Perkins&Will

The Long-Term Development Framework

A catalytic anchor needs to be complemented by a long-term development framework to ensure phased, sustainable growth and investment. A public-private partnership between Austin Community College and Red Leaf Properties led to the redevelopment of the 81-acre former Highland Mall near a working-class and immigrant neighborhood in Austin, Texas into Highland ATX, an innovative learning center and new mixed-income, transit-oriented community.

Austin Community College (ACC) was attracted by the big box structures and acquired the properties in 2010 to repurpose the spaces as a centralized location for their specialty programs, filling a need for state-of-the-art training for the region’s most in-demand jobs.

While ACC was able to infuse new life into the abandoned big box structures for their new campus, Red Leaf Properties was interested in converting the vast empty surface parking lots into mixed-use development. Red Leaf sought input from the surrounding neighborhoods and student community on the types of shops, services and amenities that would be included in the new mixed-use development surrounding the campus. Today the area boasts 1200 new residential units, new transit service, shops and services for everyday life, a 1.25 mile trail and three new parks.

The development framework balances an emphasis on community benefit with the necessary flexibility that developers need in the market. This framework sets the community’s vision, establishes the right mix of land uses, and makes sure the project delivers the right community amenities such as a multi-modal transportation network and an inclusive, experience-rich public realm.

ACC Highland former department store interior
The Highland campus is now ACC’s largest campus. Designed by Perkins&Will in partnership with Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects, the scale of the former Kohl’s department store allows ACC to centralize their specialty training in culinary arts, nursing and health science, animation and filmmaking, architecture and engineering, music production, and sound design. Photo courtesy Perkins&Will

Leading with a Shared Vision

Partnerships, like the one between ACC and Red Leaf Properties, are essential to carrying out a vision for these large and complex projects. What otherwise may have ended up as a bidding war, ultimately became a productive collaboration and serves as a national model for economic development. However, it’s critical to expand these formal partnerships to a wide and diverse cross-section of the community, with a priority to engage community members that have historically been left out and disproportionately impacted by racism, disinvestment, and displacement. With an emphasis on creating an equitable engagement process and development, project representatives can enlist a variety of community leaders who can draw input from, and speak on behalf of, the groups they represent and ensure that these communities are ultimately recipients of this new investment and opportunity.

The Future of Shopping Malls

Shopping malls were once the quintessential suburban community anchor. Now these sites represent an opportunity to re-define post-pandemic suburban environments and re-engage with where the majority of Americans actually live (and likely will continue to live). The future of the suburban fabric can become a more holistic environment that addresses the IPCC’s climate sustainability goals, provides greater access to affordable housing, healthcare, and workforce development, and fosters more close-knit, resilient communities.

About Marc Asnis
Marc is a lead urban designer and project manager at Perkins&Will, partnering nationally with cities, public agencies, and developers to create inclusive, resilient urban communities rooted in the local vernacular. Marc leads multi-disciplinary teams to develop long-range visionary and implementable frameworks that champion community wellness, climate adaptation and everyday messy urbanism.

For more information and guidance on redeveloping malls, visit ABAG Transforming Shopping Malls and Office Parks A Planning & Urban Design Guidebook.

More from Author

Perkins and Will | Jul 20, 2023

The co-worker as the new office amenity

Incentivizing, rather than mandating the return to the office, is the key to bringing back happy employees that want to work from the office. Spaces that are designed and curated for human-centric experiences will attract employees back into the workplace, and in turn, make office buildings thrive once again. Perkins&Will’s Wyatt Frantom offers a macro to micro view of the office market and the impact of employees on the future of work.

Perkins and Will | May 30, 2023

How design supports a more holistic approach to training

For today’s college athletes, training is no longer about cramming team practices and weight lifting sessions in between classes.

Perkins and Will | Dec 20, 2022

4 triage design innovations for shorter wait times

Perkins and Will shares a nurse's insights on triage design, and how to help emergency departments make the most of their resources.

Perkins and Will | Aug 30, 2021

The great re-shuffle & re-think

In this new hybrid environment in which we cater to how our employees work best, how will we manage new hybrid work practices and etiquette?

Perkins and Will | May 18, 2020

Global design firms collaborate on new COVID-19 mobile testing lab to bring testing to vulnerable communities worldwide

Perkins and Will, Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, and Arup Group develop scalable solutions for increased testing capacity within high-density and under-served neighborhoods. 

Perkins and Will | Jun 7, 2019

Workplace wellness: Top 3 tips for Fitwel certification

How can thoughtful design encourage healthier choices, lifestyles, and work environments?

Perkins and Will | Feb 27, 2019

ResilientSEE: A framework to achieve resilience across scales

Conceived in the Boston studio of Perkins+Will, the ResilientSEE team developed a resilient planning framework that can be applied to other neighborhoods, cities, and countries.

Perkins and Will | Nov 28, 2018

Amazon HQ2 and the new geography of work

The big HQ2 takeaway is how geography and mobility are becoming major workplace drivers.

Perkins and Will | Sep 4, 2018

It takes more than money to fund resilience

Resilient design, much like all projects in the built environment, requires funding.  

Perkins and Will | Aug 13, 2018

There's more to the open office than headlines suggest

A study found that contrary to popular belief, the open office did not encourage—but rather, inhibited—face-to-face communication.

boombox1 - default
boombox2 -
native1 -

More In Category

halfpage1 -

Most Popular Content

  1. 2021 Giants 400 Report
  2. Top 150 Architecture Firms for 2019
  3. 13 projects that represent the future of affordable housing
  4. Sagrada Familia completion date pushed back due to coronavirus
  5. Top 160 Architecture Firms 2021