The rebirth of the American shopping mall

Daily Ticker

Rumors of the death of the American mall may be greatly exaggerated. Although some have closed and others have experienced frequent vacancies, malls are reinventing themselves to keep up with the changing times.

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"Malls are not just going to be fashion-focused," says Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at Georgia Tech. "They're becoming a lot more like the old main streets with a great variety of activities."

Jones has compiled a database of just over 200 "dead malls" that are being retrofitted and updated, and she finds most fit into three primary categories for re-invention.


These malls are demolished and reborn, often as "the downtowns that those suburbs never really had," says Dunham-Jones. A prime example is Belmar, a shiny new development outside Denver that been transformed from a single "100-acre superblock" of stores into "22 walkable blocks with retail at the ground floor, apartments and offices above and a mix of some townhouses and new parks." says Dunham-Jones. It serves suburban households wanting a more urban lifestyle.

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On the east coast there's Voorhees Town Center, southeast of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Half the mall was torn down to "right-size the retail," says Dunham Jones, and a city hall and new Main Street with new housing was added. The result: A town center that feels like a downtown.


No, that's no a typo for "rehabilitation." It's a real word that indicates a shift in purpose. Some malls are reborn as office parks or school campuses. Others like 100 Oaks in Nashville, Tennessee, substitute health care services for some retail space.

100 Oaks was "a dying mall until Vanderbilt Health Center came in and completely renovated the second floor," says Dunham-Jones. The health center boosted the retail operations because it brought in new customers and the retail helped bring patients back for follow-up visits, says Dunham-Jones.


Courtesy: 100 Oaks


Courtesy: Gresham, Smith and Partners


Dunham-Jones says many malls "never should have been built in the first place" because the geographic location simply wasn't appropriate. 

Columbus Commons is one such example. It was a suburban-style mall in an urban location and it was dying. It was torn down and replaced with a park, which has been attracting more people to downtown Columbus, which in turn has led to new housing construction. "The park space is actually helping to bring more and more people to live in downtown," says Dunham Jones.

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