2021 Top Architecture Firms - Building Design+Construction

The marketplaces industry is learning valuable lessons about how to reinvent decades-old regional malls. Ultimately, it’s a site-by-site calculation because too many factors are in play to make universal declarations about how to reinvigorate these properties, said Trademark founder and CEO Terry Montesi. “Making global comments like, ‘All malls need to do X,’’ can be dangerous,” the developer said. “Each one is so different.”

But effective road maps are emerging. They include:

  • putting a much bigger emphasis on park-like outdoor spaces designed to be community focal points
  • replacing ring roads and parking lots with streetscapes that look and feel just like the urban neighborhoods around them
  • slowly de-malling multi-acre properties over years or decades, eventually bulldozing whatever’s left in a coup de grace
  • demolishing the mall, running a street through the middle and creating an open-air power center with big-box tenants, restaurants and entertainment

While these projects can take different forms, they arise out of a common need for something more engaging and productive than a dumbbell-pattern mall out of the 1980s. However, experts caution that mall redo’s can fall flat without a big-picture vision for the site.

Flawed Fortress

Start with the drawbacks of the old model: an inward-facing, fortress-like building surrounded by massive parking lots. “Malls have traditionally been very insular,” Montesi said. “The unspoken message from the mall owner was, ‘I control this space; you’re just a visitor here,’ as opposed to opening up and creating a place for the whole community to have ownership in.”

These buildings can feel particularly out of step when their formerly suburban settings have become parts of big cities. “From the 1960s to the ’80s, generations of malls were built in what were then growing suburbs,” said architect Sean Slater, principal of RDC. “White flight quickly stranded these malls, many of which were sitting on 100 acres, and today they’re like gaping holes. They’re doing nothing for the vibrant communities around them.”

But efforts to redevelop or replace older regional malls often miss the mark, too. A few years ago, RDC came away unimpressed after studying a sample of mall redevelopments carried out in California, Texas and Virginia. “When we looked at how these were being redeveloped, too often it was: ‘Take down the department store, build multifamily in the parking lot and wait for the next piece to come by,’” Slater explained. “You’re not creating a community.”

The study by his architecture firm also faulted a general overreliance on the so-called “Texas doughnut,” in which retail and residential components wrap around a parking deck. While that use of space can be efficient, Slater said, it often leads to some of the same isolating effects as a fortress mall. Texas doughnuts “don’t face anything, just each other, and there’s no real sense of community,” he said. “In 20 years, these may go the way of obsolete malls; you’re just going to end up tearing them down. It’s an enormous waste of resources and capital.”

Article courtesy of ICSC.

Read more