Malls Vs. Main Streets

Communities Reclaim Malls and Shopping Centers to Reflect Their Needs

Drive around most communities in Atlanta and you'll find acres of property clogged with shuttered big-box stores, dying shopping malls, and abandoned strip malls with "for rent" signs plastered in storefront windows. The same image is replicated across America as malls and shopping centers have been on a steady decline for decades.

“Those closures have accelerated over the past decade, and now we’re left with hundreds of properties that are ripe for being redeveloped, reinhabited with more community-serving uses, or regreened,” said  Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor and director of the Master of Science in Urban Design (MSUD) program at Georgia Tech. She is one of the nation’s leading voices on suburban retrofitting, having built a database of more than 2,000 projects across the country. Her new book, Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges, highlights how retrofits of dead and dying asphalt-oriented sites are helping their communities address new challenges.

“When these properties were initially built, nobody was thinking about sustainability and climate change, issues related to equity, how to support an aging population, and improve public health,” Dunham-Jones noted. In the latter half of the 20th century, shopping centers and chain stores represented modern living and the good life compared to the dusty, old mom and pop shops on historic Main Streets. And any local shops that managed to survive what is sometimes referred to as the “malling of America” in the 1970s were killed off later in the 1990s, largely replaced by antique/consignment stores after Walmart and the category of killer big-box stores swept the country. 

But, as Dunham-Jones points out, now that the malls and big-box stores are increasingly failing to compete with online retail, let alone with fears of crowds in indoor spaces, guess what’s coming back? Countless historic Main Streets are rebounding with events programming and unique local shops that provide an experience of community one can’t get from surfing the internet.

At the same time, struggling commercial properties across the country are increasingly and similarly being retrofitted as walkable mixed-use town centers with brand new Main Streets. Designed around the pedestrian more than the car, they are lined with retail stores and restaurants on the ground floor, apartments and offices above, and replace up to 40% of what would have been car trips with walking or bike trips. Many are replacing department stores with sports, entertainment, or civic anchors. And most center on some kind of actively programmed town green or park space where yoga classes, farmers markets, and movie nights help build social capital, dampen the loneliness epidemic, and improve public health.    

“The desire for community spaces continues to grow in popularity,” Dunham-Jones said, “especially as people are moving out of cities and into suburbs for more space and open air.”

And when examining the economic aspects of shopping local, the benefits are significant: For every dollar spent at a chain store, approximately 14% remains in the community — much less than the nearly 70% that remains when spent at a local business. 

To demonstrate how a modest retrofit can link local, global, social, and economic benefits, Dunham-Jones points to the Plaza Fiesta mall in Atlanta. After a 250% increase in Hispanic immigrant patrons, the 350,000-square-foot mall was rethemed as Plaza Fiesta. One of the chain store anchor spaces was subdivided into 140 small stalls, doubling the overall rent to the owner while providing 140 mostly immigrant entrepreneurs the chance to start a small business. Akin to a Mexican mercado, it provides mostly Mexican goods and Spanish-speaking services to the new faces along Buford Highway that had traditionally been ignored by mainstream retailers reluctant to modify their product offerings. A true community center, Plaza Fiesta now hosts events ranging from carnivals, quinceañeras, and concerts to celebrations of cultural heritage and protests.

“Malls and Main Streets will continue to evolve,” Dunham-Jones added. “For every two malls that are becoming a mixed-use town center, another one is being reinhabited as a job, medical, or educational center. Today’s supply chain problems only reinforce the need for more homegrown production and reuse of local assets.”

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Siobhan Rodriguez

Institute Communications

sar30@gatech.edu