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Would You Live In an Apartment That Used to Be a Mall?

Shopping mall in Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore.

As malls continue to die out and get repurposed if not demolished, one of those purposes is now housing. One of the oldest malls in America, the Providence Arcade in Rhode Island, was transformed into 48 micro-apartments.

 

I got inspired to dive into this after watching Dan Bell’s fantastic “Dead Malls” series on YouTube. He explores malls, shopping centers, and abandoned department stores around America that have fallen into serious disrepair and were basically left for dead, or are on the brink of demolition with only a few rented stores left

When I examined malls as a video game setting for an old column, I took a look at some of the uses these leviathan masses of enclosed real estate now occupy as shopping habits have changed. Dining, small businesses, and experiences like virtual reality and escape rooms have helped revitalize dying malls in lieu of the anchor stores, chains, and fast food vendors that comprised most American indoor malls.

As malls continue to die out and get repurposed if not demolished, one of those purposes is now housing. One of the oldest malls in America, the Providence Arcade in Rhode Island, was transformed into 48 micro-apartments, while also retaining some business and retail space, with restaurants, coffee shops, and a hair salon that was not previously in the mall.

The linked article is a few years old, but as more malls around the nation begin to deteriorate, there’s more plans to repurpose them into data centers, office space, and nursing homes? Housing has also become the new purpose for some of these dead malls. Whether it’s demolishing the structures and placing detached apartment buildings where it used to stand, or actually repurposing the mall structure like the Providence Arcade.

It struck me as a fascinating concept, so let’s dive into it further!

Why Did Malls Die Out to Begin With?

Gloomy abandoned multi-level building with damaged escalators.

There’s many factors that go into the decline of indoor malls. Amazon and the rise of online shopping in general was a factor, but it wasn’t the only one, even though it’s among the first causes we tend to think of. After all, the main intent of these spaces was to go shopping. As the concept of the indoor mall evolved to make it a place where you go for several hours and have a whole experience as a family, with friends, or a date, the foundation was built on people being reliant on retail stores. After all, it was the failure to adapt from retail store reliance to online shopping that played a role in Pier 1 Imports’ gradual decline.

As the United States grew more car-centric, so did urban planning. It’s how we got tract homes ruled by HOAs with an iron (and racist) fist and grocery stores grew larger with space for parking lots, a stark departure from going to 3-4 different stores in the city on foot. With the advent of supermarkets soon came open-air shopping malls designed for car use, then the indoor mall to foster community-building and avoiding the elements.

I wound up on another dead mall video, not Dan Bell’s, but he makes an excellent point around the 20-minute mark of this video where he goes through an abandoned mall in Burlington, NJ: most people think online shopping alone killed the mall, but it’s not the prime reason why there’s so many dead malls in America. It’s a factor in some cases. But the real reason why? Real estate developers aggressively invested in malls in the 80s and 90s.

Malls were a major social and commercial force back then, and you usually just went to the mall that was closest to you. Suddenly, you had a choice to travel to numerous malls and see if they had the stores and amenities you were looking for. And as Dan describes in his search for a coat with tails that he needed for concerts and other specialty gear for musicians, yet was told in the various malls he hit that he just couldn’t get this item, it does present the shortfall of this retail model. Mall developers were able to take advantage of people not having many options to go shopping if local mom-and-pop businesses didn’t have what they needed. Amazon and online sellers didn’t so much cause the death of malls, but capitalized off their decline and helped accelerate it.
Woman unboxing shopping parcels while checking her mobile phone and credit card.
Why lug shoes home when you can order several pairs in different sizes and get free returns for the ones that don’t fit?

Fast-forward to the 2008 recession, which millions of people never recovered from. Spending power has been nerfed since, particularly for Millennials and anyone else who was just starting a career around then. When basic necessities cost so much more than they used to and people don’t have financial stability, they’re not engaging in shopping as a hobby as was more commonplace in the 80s and 90s when the middle class was a lot stronger.

Today, “middle class” basically means “not living in abject poverty but probably has a ton of debt and nowhere near the amount of money saved as our parents did at the same age”. People are trying to be more conscientious about their shopping habits today, especially considering the environmental impacts and mental health effects. As we also discuss problems like hoarding more candidly, the current predicament is showing that consumer spending can’t keep increasing at this pace. Something’s gotta give.

So, as too many malls got built, some of them died out completely as online shopping and over-developed strip malls started to negate the need for making trips to these places, and mall chains became less desirable for both needs and wants. But while the shift to online shopping and decline in spending power was death by a thousand cuts for malls after too many of them got built?

It’s also the fact that the generation that grew up with the mall boom, Millennials, also mostly migrated to cities. Even as net migration of older Millennials is slowly turning more suburban as some start families and seek lower housing costs, there was still this complete inverse of the suburban boom aided by “white flight” from major cities that happened with Boomers in the 1970s. Southern and western cities are seeing more Millennial growth according to this Brookings study with more of my cohort leaving high-cost areas like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

With mall growth being centered around mostly suburban areas connected to major metropolitan regions, such as Philadelphia and New York, it stands to reason that they’d start to decline and need repurposing when large swaths of people supposed to be in their earning prime just aren’t physically present anymore to spend money at the mall.

A Shift to Smaller Living Spaces with Communal Elements

Interior of a micro-apartment.

There’s some interesting dualities in American home-building that I discovered when doing research on buying land and building your own home.The average American home size is getting larger, while there’s also more pushes to get more apartments built as overall housing security and household size decline in tandem.

But it’s not just a higher demand for rentals, particularly 2-bedroom apartments as more single people require work-at-home space and more ouples are engaging in “sleep divorce”. The number of people living single is significantly rising compared to prior years: it’s not just renters, but also homeowners, particularly single women. Worldwide, the number of people living alone has nearly doubled in the past 50 years.

It’s not just Millennials who don’t want kids and/or are delaying or forgoing marriage out of choice or the shit economy we were given. More seniors also want to age in place but also downsize, and 55+ communities and subsidized senior housing can have long waitlists, which has them gravitating to both rentals and smaller condos that are suitable for aging in place.

But regardless of age, what makes these repurposed malls so appealing compared to simply building more apartment buildings is that they can have more communal elements.

Imagine being able to have friends over more often because it doesn’t matter if you have less than 500 square feet, you’ve got bars, restaurants, the movies, and escape rooms footsteps away from your place! You don’t need to order takeout, you can catch up over coffee or Orange Julius in the food court, if you don’t have independent food stands that have stepped up in favor of mall chains.

While I was working on this piece, I also figured I’d see what other people thought of the idea:

 

The general consensus is that HELL YES, we want to see more communal socializing in our living spaces!

What makes dead malls especially poised for this compared to just new developments is that even if you lay out a community like the one I live in, the amenities like the little parks, restaurants, and basketball courts can help foster a sense of community, but it’s over 100 apartment and mix-used buildings with about 40-100 units each in a sizable city. It can be hard to run into the same people regularly. Even when I lived in a smaller building across town with only 60 units, I didn’t see a lot of my neighbors around the same places frequently. Of course, some buildings full of us old guard New Yorkers are really tight-knit, especially now that we have to be there for each other more during quarantine times; and not all suburban blocks are the same: there’s blocks full of houses where people are really alarmist and it feels like no one lives there, while others are practically family despite being unrelated.

But whether we want to acknowledge it or not, loneliness has become a major problem for Millennials and Zoomers, not that Gen Xers and seniors are any less inured. Scientific American reports that 47% of Americans feel incredibly alone, and it was like this before the COVID lockdowns. The economy plays a part, but so does urban planning.

If malls repurpose to apartments, or mixed-use properties like Providence Arcade that have services and amenities tenants or owners would find desirable, it would foster stronger community-building than many of our current setups for sure. Especially if some areas are open to the public like restaurants, coffee shops, and areas where you can just plunk down a laptop and get to work. The closest I’ve seen to this in NYC is the Sky Parc condominium in Flushing, where the towers are built over the small mall next door so that residents can access it without having to go outside, although it’s not a repurposed mall. They’re just connected.

Plus, imagine if your toilet stops working in the middle of the night and you can’t get a maintenance worker over, don’t want to wake up any neighbors, but you really gotta go: you’d have the security of knowing that there’s a whole bank of toilets where Macy’s used to be!

As one Twitter commenter also pointed out, the vast social space that malls would provide adults (and possibly families with children, depending on the type of development being built) with a temperature-controlled place when it’s too hot or cold to do anything outdoors. Remember Mall Walkers? Climate control, don’t have to worry about traffic, and you get to socialize with other regulars in a place where you can actually sit down and have a conversation, not just buy something and get out. It wouldn’t be just for seniors anymore: I’d LOVE a gym in the mall like how the Galleria at White Plains has, plus the ability to get an air-conditioned walk during those 90-degree summers.

 

The Present and Future of Changing Malls to Apartments and Mixed-Use Properties

Apartment building exterior facing green lawns.

Malls aren’t just declining in America, they’re declining around the world too. British startup Vivahouse took the misery dorm concept seen across the pond to a more dignified level, with the same kind of micro apartment setup seen in the Providence Arcade, by placing modular living units inside a London mall where the kitchen, bathroom, and lounge are shared, but at least you get a private bedroom instead of having to share a bunk bed with a complete stranger.

Vivahouse’s prefabricated bedroom units require less time and money to implement in large, vacant retail and mixed-use spaces compared to traditional construction, so this could be something we might see more of.

Going back to the dead mall video linked above, what’s interesting is that this entire region of south Jersey was part of the 80s mall boom, with so many of them incredibly close to each other. The crown jewel of the Moorestown-Cherry Hill-Voorhees triangle of large suburbs across the river from Philadelphia was the Echelon Mall, which I remember visiting once in the 80s because of relatives in the area. It was a pretty spectacular mall that oozed that 80s aesthetic you now see splashed all over vaporwave videos and album covers: opulent glass walls and sculptures, neon lighting and geometric shapes everywhere, and I distinctly recall these circular ornamental letters across from a clothing store that 5-year-old me could actually fit inside.

The mall eventually got repurposed to the Voorhees Town Center despite that splendor, because the location was out of the way compared to the other malls in this region. Several hundred new housing units along with new community and commercial projects are purportedly being built where the mall once stood, though it’s unclear how many will be new townhome and apartment buildings for sale and rent and how many would be placed in former mall structure (if at all).

Prefab units, micro apartments, and loft-type apartments built out of former retail stores are all different approaches that should be considered for malls on the way out that are being rezoned for residential use. One awesome perk of them would be that having commercial-grade infrastructure means things like plumbing, heating, and cooling fixtures would probably be less likely upend because they were initially designed for frequent, high-traffic usage. As someone who’s lived in pre-war apartments a better chunk of my life, the thought of walls that don’t crack and mall AC makes me want to get on a waitlist, though we don’t have many repurposed malls nearby. The Mall at Bay Plaza didn’t get built until 2014, and it’s thriving despite the overall decline of malls in most of the world. The Bronx remains an anomaly.

 

Real estate developers, take note. You have community-hungry Millennials who want to give you their money. Don’t fuck this up! Do something good with those dead malls, or new apartment buildings! We don’t want eight million luxuries that only investment bankers living single can afford, we just want places that are pleasant to live with fixtures that aren’t falling apart where we can actually talk to more people than Grubhub drivers.

 

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