Today, when all but the strongest traditional malls are facing financial peril and an evolving marketplace has created a challenging competitive environment for retail-only destinations, more mall owners and operators are looking to transform their properties from traditional retail centers into mixed-use developments.
But that renovation and redevelopment process isn’t often—or really ever—easy. Revitalizing a struggling mall into a profitable mixed-use destination takes both dollars and sense. It requires a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the marketplace, a willingness to embrace bold and sometimes creative design and development solutions, and a commitment to invest the sometimes-significant upfront funds required to make these unique projects happen. Architects, developers and other commercial real estate professionals who are successful in this specialized space understand how to accommodate the different logistical and operational demands of new tenants and new uses, and have the demonstrated ability to resolve often complex leasing and zoning issues.
When executed correctly, a mixed-use transformation can have a profound and lasting impact on even the most uninspired and underperforming properties. In Houston, the case of the Town and Country Mall provides an example of what that kind of mixed-use makeover can look like. The struggling mall was skillfully overhauled and reinvested as a dynamic and appealing new mixed-use destination—complete with new retail tenants, a residential component that includes both apartments and town homes, and new office space.
While there is a formula for projects like this—and a specific list of principles and best practices—every mixed-use transformation is different, and integrating new uses into an existing retail space is more of an art than a science. Multifamily residential, hotel, residential and office (particularly medical office) are among the most common new uses. New categories of retail and emerging concepts are also becoming more prevalent and popular. An explosion of new food and beverage concepts and the appeal of food courts that have been reinvented as “food hall” anchors–complete with a wider variety of fresh, healthy and nontraditional food options, and even showroom kitchens or entrepreneur-branded/inspired cooking experiences—has made dining one of the biggest contributors to the mall-to-mixed-use phenomenon.
New tenants and new uses present exciting new opportunities to create a richer, more engaging and more commercially robust mixed-use environment. But, they can also have their own share of potentially complex design, development and leasing considerations. More ambitious and comprehensive redevelopment initiatives can present the most difficult challenges. Modifying existing structures to make them suitable for new and different retail tenants—not to mention residential or hospitality uses—may require extensive and potentially costly modifications. Ceiling heights, space constraints, building code issues and site logistics are just a few of the potential obstacles. In many cases, it is actually more cost effective to simply conduct a partial or complete demolition and rebuild.
Regulatory issues are another hurdle. Zoning limitations, building codes and possible variances can make for a complicated landscape of considerations and compromises that extends well beyond the brick-and-mortar design basics. A mixed-use project is a very different animal than a traditional retail-only development, with a lot of moving parts and interconnected pieces. All it takes is one zoning issue or code conflict to derail or delay a project. Architects, developers, and broker partners should work closely together to ensure that all design and development decisions are made in a cohesive, coordinated and coherent manner—with full awareness of the ripple-effect implications of any single strategic move. A clear master-planned vision, with all the big elements of the project arranged and aligned early in the redevelopment process, can make an enormous difference down the road.
Another thing to keep in mind when looking forward is maximizing utility and flexibility. Mall owners and operators are experiencing firsthand how profoundly consumer sentiments and marketplace realities can evolve, and any design and development initiatives today should be designed accordingly. That might mean a parking facility capable of accommodating additional traffic flow, or even increased loading of a structural slab to ensure that the space can more readily accommodate a range of different uses.
In addition to utility and flexibility, another design and development priority is connectivity. Mall owners and operators—in conjunction with architects and developers—are prioritizing that connectivity by exploring and integrating alternate transportation methods more so than at any other time in recent history. Sometimes that means a physical design alteration that connects with or provides better access to existing mass transit options like buses and light rail, or parking and access points that allow for exterior valet drop-off and valet/stacked parking, or even convenient Uber pick-up/drop-off locations for customers.
A big part of transforming malls into mixed-use destinations is seeking out and integrating non-traditional retail tenants. Senior active living communities and independent living residential facilities are in demand as the demographic bulge of the Baby Boomer generation creates a growing number of active seniors looking to downsize while remaining close to quality shopping, dining and entertainment options.
Unsurprisingly, some of those tenants are changing their own models to better suit these new environments. Healthcare providers are treating and approaching patients’ needs more like consumers—taking into consideration their experience when they come through the door.
For example, making design and operational decisions in a way that prioritizes patient access, convenience and comfort. On the development side, those evolving priorities translate to the need to provide medical services tenants with the amenities, synergies and services their patients are looking for. Maybe that’s a neighboring coffee shop or deli, comfortable outdoor gathering or recreation space, or even just the technical infrastructure required to provide digital check-in or other patient services.
When the first interior malls were built, the mall was both conceived and perceived as the “new interior”—a kind of enclosed community center with ample parking. Over the decades, as the novelty has eroded and the convenience has been outpaced by evolving social, commercial and community priorities, this original concept has lost much of its ability to truly connect to the environments and communities that surround them.
There has been a profound paradigm shift. Shopping centers have now become the true town or communitycenter—offering both indoor and outdoor places and spaces along with a wider and more appealing mix of uses. Which is why, when conceived and completed in a thoughtful and strategic manner, the process of bringing mixed-use energy to traditional malls has truly transformative potential: reinventing an underperforming retail-only facility into a strong and sustainable social and economic engine. The end result can be a place that not only serves the community, but has also demonstrated a role as an integral part of that community.
Lori Bongiorno serves as a principal and director of the commercial studio and CJ Lindberg serves as a senior designer at M+A Architects, a Columbus, Ohio-based architecture firm.