What is the Future of Malls?

You wouldn’t know by looking at me that I knew how to fold a 5-pocket jean long before Marie Kondo came to the scene. My first job in high school as sales associate for the Gap Inc., had me making sure store displays looked like structurally-sound denim towers. Naturally, when I recently discovered the Gap brand was pulling out of malls because of eroding mall traffic and now, the pandemic push to online shopping, my first reaction was sadness. The mall was not just where I worked, it was where I hung out with friends and shopped till I dropped!

Malls have been a part of America since 1956, when the first indoor mall was opened in Minnesota. Not only did this ridiculously oversized horizontal building provide the ability for people to visit their favorite stores during any weather pattern, the Southdale Center had fountains, art installations, and yes, a courtyard with a bird sanctuary! Malls were vital spaces where people congregate to form relationships and create communities.  

Fast forward to today, and social media platforms are where and how people connect. While malls are still staples in many suburban areas, their shape, construction, and contents are evolving drastically to reach the next generations of shoppers, digital natives. Now, malls have become microcities. They are mixed-use indoor/outdoor properties that are home to retail stores, supermarkets, coffee shops, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms. Speaking of home, many new malls like Assembly Row, include apartment complexes so that car-free and carefree living is entirely possible. 

So what happens to the behemoth structures from my childhood years? If Generation Z prefers to shop local, and one-click online shopping is our next vaccine, do empty malls get demoed or repurposed? What can possibly revitalize them back to life? From what I’ve read, malls can be converted into so many things from medical offices, apartments, schools, libraries, churches and even fulfillment or distribution centers. 

I can imagine, malls could be co-working spaces if offices remain shuttered, and have the opportunity to fill other latent needs in local communities, including affordable housing or homeless shelters. On the other extreme, malls can revert to being places of experiencing art and architecture, prompting a next generation of culture consumption instead of goods consumption. 

Clearly, it won’t be easy to rebirth malls overnight. Some things planners have to consider before that happens includes rezoning the space and modifying tax brackets for the new inhabitants. While malls will look unrecognizable 10 years from now, my nostalgia for roaming around in large department stores, long corridors, and food courts will never go away.


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