Home is Where Your H&M Was: Repurposing Shut-Down Malls

Malls across America are shutting down at record rates as online retailers have, over recent years, begun to take increasingly large shares of various retail markets. One Business Insider article cites a Credit Suisse prediction that up to a quarter of shopping malls could shut down in the next half-decade.  When behemoth malls shut their doors for the final time, though, their structures remain. The buildings they leave behind, already outfitted with air conditioners and regulation wiring, are prime candidates for retrofitting to suit a new, entirely different purpose. This idea—converting an old mall into a new space—is not novel, and has been attempted many times in the past.

The most prevalent, and perhaps most tenable, option is converting malls into apartments. Most famously, the Arcade Providence, located in Rhode Island’s capital city and the first shopping mall built in the United States, was transformed into an apartment complex. And, while the Arcade Providence—called the Westminster Arcade in its retail days, which lasted until 2008—did not succeed as a mall, the new apartment complexes are so popular that there exists a formidable waitlist to reserve a spot. As affordable housing becomes more difficult to come by, especially in larger cities, the mall-to-apartment pipeline is not only a recipe for success but a potentially innovative solution to a growing problem.

Along a similar vein, the recent mall-conversion trend might lend itself well to resolving a portion of the looming healthcare crisis in the United States. Increasingly, failing malls are renting out their space to medical research and patient care facilities: in 2007, for example, half of Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville became a component of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, while the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has taken residence in Boston’s Atrium Mall.

Malls are ideal for housing essential services like housing and medical facilities for a number of reasons. First, the electrical infrastructure—remnants from their retail days, where high-power fluorescent lights are commonplace on storeroom floors—present in many malls makes them easily convertible into homes and medical facilities, each which require complex wiring to meet modern standards. Second, malls are often situated in accessible, prominent locations, making them hot real estate both for prospective city-dwellers and for individuals looking for accessible care. Additionally, the wide variety of spaces available for conversion in a mall—everything from large anchor store spaces to tiny fast-food windows—makes them a perfect breeding ground for developer creativity and multipurpose use. Finally, mall spaces are normally open and easily navigable.

Shopping malls have been converted into more unconventional spaces as well—everything from a hockey rink to a temporary high school. However, while it’s neat to think that the ground your church pews are resting on might’ve once held hordes of H&M shoppers, these more eccentric models are much less useful as a model for the future. The non-essential nature of these service spaces puts them in risk during a financial downturn. It’s much more fiscally prudent to convert an empty store space to an apartment room than it is to a greenhouse.

In the near future beckons a fundamental transformation in the way we consume. Instead of shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, it’s becoming increasingly likely that we will someday conduct most, if not all, of our shopping online. To make use of the plentiful retail space we leave behind, it’s entirely possible that we’ll once sleep where we shopped.