March 1, 2001 - From the March, 2001 issue

New Urbanists Suggest Obsolete Shopping Malls Be Converted Into Hubs of Revitalized Neighborhoods

The mall explosion of the 80s helped create a new breed of community disconnected from main street and centered around the communal aspects of big-box retail. But what happens when that mall loses its economic viability? The Congress for the New Urbanism has begun to address that possibility and sees these decaying structures, not as land ripe for demolition but as opportunities to break-out-of-the-box. TPR is pleased to excerpt CNU's recent report "From Greyfields to Goldfields."

By: Congress For The New Urbanism and Pricewaterhouse Coopers

Obsolete shopping malls dot the American cityscape. Finding them doesn't require much expertise. Fenced-in parking areas are a dead give-away. Weekend used car sales give a strong hint. Storefronts converted into centers for community policing and health clinics are telling signs. Property owners, tenants and investors know about their decline. Neighbors, former shoppers and erstwhile employees know. City managers and community leaders know. But just because they know the problem doesn't mean they know the solution.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) sees many of these shopping centers as ideal sites for transit-oriented, mixed-use development. Some of them are no longer suitable for regional retail. But many are well suited as the sites of new urbanist development that may include housing, retail, office, services and public space.

This report uses the term greyfield malls to describe retail properties that require significant public and private-sector intervention to stem decline. More familiar are brownfields (contaminated urban development sites) and greenfields (undeveloped rural land). By contrast, greyfields are developed sites that are economically and physically ripe for major redevelopment.

Absent successful revitalization efforts, the value of greyfield mall sites will be reduced to land value less the cost of building demolition. There are sites that have already reached that point, with harsh community and economic impacts, in every region of the country. For a local community, a greyfield is more than just visual blight. It means lost tax base, lost job opportunities and valuable land sitting unused.

Local efforts to revive vulnerable and dying retail sites are common. Some have been successful, others have not. CNU is conducting a national examination of how to revitalize these sites so they can again provide value to their communities and their owners. The goal, put simply, is to turn greyfields into goldfields.

New Urbanism and Malls

The Congress for the New Urbanism has long had an interest in greyfield malls.

[I]n the past year, regional malls across the country have gotten the new urbanist treatment: Cinderella City in Englewood, Colorado; Plaza Pasadena in Pasadena, California; and Town and Country in San Jose, California .Others where new urbanist solutions have been suggested include Parole Plaza near Annapolis, Maryland; Bannister Mall in Kansas City, Missouri; and South Square Mall in Durham, North Carolina.

More opportunities await. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) conservatively estimates that there are as many as 140 regional malls in the United States that are already greyfields, with another 200 to 250 such malls approaching greyfield status. Together, these two categories represent 18 percent of all regional malls nationally.

The Study

[T]he PWC study focuses on regional malls and does not examine the many other types of retail properties that pose similar redevelopment challenges. CNU is focusing on regional malls because these sites-with at least 350,000 square feet of leasable space and a minimum of 35 store spaces-inflict particularly severe impacts when in decline, while at the same time offering unique opportunities for reuse.

Characteristics of Greyfields

The characteristics of greyfield malls cited here are based on data analysis by PWC. PWC found that greyfields have an average site size just over 45 acres. Notably, these sites are both smaller and less connected to the regional transportation system than those housing the nation's best-performing malls, which average over 70 acres in size, with freeway visibility and direct ramp access. Many greyfields are located in established neighborhoods and shopping districts.

PWC found that mall obsolescence is associated with formidable competition. On average, greyfield malls have 2.3 million square feet of competing retail space in 22 other centers (including neighborhood and community centers and other regional malls) within five miles. Many are in trade areas dominated by newer retail formats and higher-end retailers. They are often older and smaller than the most successful malls in their region.

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New models for reuse are needed-models that go beyond face-lifts and conventional regional retail.

Models for Reuse

While typical greyfield malls may be inadequate by current shopping center industry standards, they generally offer the acreage needed to create unified development projects implementing new urbanist principles. As mall sites, these properties might suffer from being too far off the freeways. But such locations may be advantages for new urbanist reuse. They offer the possibility of integrating site activities into neighborhood contexts.

Victor Dover, an architect who has worked on several new urbanist revitalizations of greyfield sites, says that new urbanism is often the best solution. "Sometimes a mall goes out of business because it has lost its economic reason for being. But almost every community needs something. Stop thinking about these as failed shopping center properties and start thinking about them as potential mixed-use properties."

Forward-looking communities with greyfields are creating and testing new models for reuse. These models will be sorely needed, as mall failure is a growing trend .While many well managed older malls are thriving, others will not escape obsolescence. Greyfields will be a perpetual problem associated with the contemporary practice of retail mall development. As each new retail trend emerges and the standards for new sites again get "upgraded," vulnerable sites are pushed into decline. Successful renovation of one mall may cause the decline of multiple older sites within a trade area.

Mall owners have come up with many techniques for reviving the financial performance of their properties. Most malls simply expand, redecorate, or attract a new anchor. Some malls have been converted to back offices or data centers. In such cases, host communities lose what civic function the mall once provided. Most importantly, neither expansion nor office conversion results in the site providing the combination of housing, retail, office and public space that citizens and civic leaders desire.

Principles for creating new urbanist neighborhoods include:

• Reorient activity on the site to face the street.

• Reestablish a street pattern that connects with the streets of the surrounding community.

• Use site planning and architectural elements to make the redeveloped mall site fully a part of its community.

• Integrate multiple uses (ideally including employment and/or housing) on the site

• Emphasize public space for shared activity.

• Provide a range of housing types,to provide homes for people of all ages and incomes.

These principles of new urbanism offer the chance for greyfield sites to provide enduring economic and social values to their host communities.

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