Why “The Mall” will Inspire a Main Street Renaissance

Jonathan Berk
Sep 4, 2019 · 11 min read

While shopping malls around the world continue to close, what can we learn from their early successes, their eventual demise, and the recent revivals to help save our Main Streets.

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Shopping malls across America are closing at a rapid rate. A recent report by Credit Suisse estimated nearly 25% of US Malls would close in the next 5 years with over 10,000 retail locations closing nationwide in 2017 and 2018 while many see the downsides to these closures, the opportunities presented by them for Main Street are striking.

With the advent of the automobile in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, shopping malls were built en masse across the suburbs. New investment vehicles were setup to encourage these “greenfield” developments and they quickly sped up the suburban sprawl and flight from our downtowns. Even today, as malls struggle across the country, main streets still struggle to drive the foot traffic back to the Main Street.

Why Malls Thrived for so many years…

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Mall’s thrived because they brought convenience for an American public now heavily reliant upon driving from place to place. They provided a central gathering place, the food court was the central hub similarly to the popularity of the European town squares. moms would walk their stroller, the elderly would enjoy a morning walk and workout before grabbing coffee or lunch with friends. Teens would find the latest toys, clothes or gadgets at their favorite stores.

Mall owners were incentivized to design the most inviting spaces, create the cleanest, most welcoming environments, pay to host concerts and run robust marketing programs and initiatives to drive foot traffic to support their tenants as their survival meant the malls survival. It was in their best financial interest to ensure their mall ran like a well oiled, welcoming, clean and safe main street. Beautiful fountains, sporadic seating to provide space to relax, interact with your neighbors and take in the passing crowds.

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Everything happened at the mall… until it didn’t anymore…

Younger American’s with more disposable income began fleeing the bedroom suburbs surrounding the shopping mall for big city living again, reversing decades of a suburban flight trend. Consumers began purchasing more and more items online, forgoing the trip to the mall in favor of a click of the mouse. The entertainment value of shopping itself began to decrease as shoppers turned to the convenience of online retail to find the products they desired most. Malls began to rapidly decline while owners scrambled to adapt their massive store floorplates to the new demands of the 21st century mixed uses.

How Some Urban Shopping Malls are Adapting…

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While some malls in this country continue to close, others are envisioning and creating their next lives as vibrant, mixed use walkable meccas of commerce, community and entertainment. The Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee lost the vast majority of its retailers. It’s large department store and anchor tenant, Boston Store, closed leaving a gaping hole in one section of the Mall.

Now, the mall’s owners, Hempl Companies, are embarking on a major restoration project. The second floor, formerly home to shops and department stores, is being turned into multple levels of apartments with balconies overlooking the excitement and energy of the new shops and food hall below. The idea coming to fruition in this case is to bring a renewed purpose to what had become a tired and in many cases blighted mall space…Combing the experiences of shopping with the energy, foot traffic and eyeballs of office and residential buildings to create a more dynamic, vibrant, energized space for different groups of people to mingle.

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A new food hall replacing the tired old food market aimed at becoming a destination in itself is aimed at being a destination and another way to drive increased traffic to the Mall.

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A Diversity of Uses to one Downtown Boston Mall

New Restaurants, Retail and a Beer Garden

In Boston, Boston Properties, the owner of the Prudential Center Mall has harnessed and expanded a mix of users and tenants, increasing it’s number of adjacent office tenants, connecting with nearby hotels and public transit directly and providing a mix of high end and more approachable brands to attract a wide variety of consumers.

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The tired old food court was replaced with Eataly, a destination in and of itself and a gathering spot for many with numerous options for shopping and dining in or taking out or heading outside to enjoy the patio seating that blends with a public court yard and gathering space tying the entire facility to the busy Boylston Street on one entrance of the mall.

TreeHouse brewing one of the most popular breweries in America has a new one day a week beer garden popping up at the heart of the Mall’s courtyard space that draws thousands each week during the first Summer of the activation, many coming specifically to the commercial center for the beer garden itself.

…and How Main Street Can do it Even Better!

Main Street has always provided something that mall’s have never been able to create and continue to struggle to recreate today. The sense of individual character… of community of place and of belonging are engrained in each of our Main Streets and commercial districts.

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Changing Consumer Demands lead to renewed Main Street Opportunity…

The suburban malls of old don’t fit with the rapidly changing geographic and demographic changes occurring locally and globally..

  1. It’s about PEOPLE. Today more than ever people want experiences, they want to be able to get off their computers, walk away from their phones, out of their cars and enjoy experiences with family, neighbors, old friends and new.
  2. Where we live has changed: We’ve all heard the stat before but by 2030, the United Nations estimates over 60% of the global population will live in cities and so called “Mega Cities.” The city of Boston, only 90 square miles, is home to one of the most densely populated regions in the United States. The city had a population of 618,000 people in 2010, which has increased to approximately 667,137 in 2016 and only continues to grow.
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And with all that rapid movement towards urbanization, the largest increases (by percentage) are occurring in the secondary and tertiary cities across the Country (according to the latest US Census).

3. With all that movement… Our big cities are expensive and getting worse… With more jobs and new residents moving to our coastal cities for jobs and quality of life, demand is surging and prices are matching the surge. The map above shows where in the US issues of economic segregation, income inequality and housing affordability are becoming worse (dark purple). Steep real estate price increases in our major cities are beginning to price out both residents and new businesses and push them out to other cities and towns that offer similar densities and walkable opportunities to their lives ones lived in our Cities.

4. Traffic and Increased Congestion: Traffic on our roadways is getting exponentially worse and vehicle ownership alone can cost the average big city commuter $10,000 a year, nearly a quarter of that amount is wasted just sitting in traffic. Many are looking to live/ work/ play closer to home and will find places to live and opportunities to shop in village centers and Main Streets presenting less congestion and better walkability. According to one recent survey of Chicago area young professionals… “More than half said a car is not worth the money spent on maintenance, and that they would rather be doing something other than driving.” Time is valuable and the growing desire for walkability is one of Main Streets biggest opportunities, built and designed to support an organic, live/ work/ play environment for its residents and businesses.

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5. The Best Opportunity for New Housing exists on our Main Streets: To deal with the increasing pressures on urban housing while building new, walkable neighborhoods, we can look to our Main Streets to provide much of the opportunity to quickly and effectively build that much needed new, walkable, housing. Smart Growth America’s 2019 “Foot Traffic Ahead” report, recently concluded; “drivable sub-urban real estate products have been losing market share to walkable urban real estate products in all 30 metros. In some metros, walkable urban places have accounted for almost 100 percent of net new office and rental multi-family space while drivable sub-urban places have added no new space or lost occupancy since 2010.”

With this in mind, the addition of new housing in these walkable dense areas and the disposable income it brings in these areas can support a thriving, rejuvenated Main Street and enhance the local small business community’s presence.

How Main Street can position itself to take advantage of the best opportunity in decades

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  1. Collaboration: Unlike the malls of the past, Main Street’s tend to lack a cohesive structure supporting the small business communities that tend to make up the bulk of the businesses. Establishing a BID or less formal Main Street organization or other entity to oversee this work can be hugely beneficial to the sustainability and longevity of a commercial center or Main Street. One of the best things Main Street has going for it that most Mall’s haven’t had until today is the inherent mixed-use nature of the built environment. Harness the fact that consumers live just upstairs from your “mall.” Engage the community on what they’d like to see in Downtown. It’s your most important piece of the puzzle and the greatest asset.
  2. Experiences & Events: They can help to not just bring people onto a Main Street for the first time, but can also help them discover the small businesses and opportunities within the district, encouraging them to come back again in the future. Harness the character, the walkability and the opportunity to build and support opportunity on Main Street.
  3. Placemaking: The smallest, lighter, quicker, cheaper placemaking interventions can provide long term impacts when it comes to changing peoples patterns. Making a place more desirable to not just drive through but to go to, spend time and money in and be so pleased with the experience that they come back again, and hopefully tell their friends.
  4. Encourage a Diversity of Uses: Easier said than done of course… Especially since, in recent years, much of the predominant zoning policy in the United States discouraged different use types in the same district. Today, the malls that are succeeding like those in my previous examples in Milwaukee and Boston have increased the variety of uses. Encourage later hours for restaurants and local businesses. Encourage and support activation of residential and office vacancies in the neighborhood and look to support recruitment of new companies and support for a local business and startup ecosystem in the district. Don’t be afraid to bring work uses onto the street level with storefront coworking and event spaces. In an earlier post I wrote about “excess capacities” that exist within seemingly “occupied” spaces.. Check it out for some ideas for creative space activations like Spacious in New York City which activates restaurants and other spaces excess capacities during “off” hours and utilizes them as creative work spaces. Startups like Neyborly have developed a flexible space-as-a-service model encouraging flexible uses at different hours of the day. This can be great to introduce into a Main Street looking to increase foot traffic and bring new visitors to a district.
  5. Create and expand upon your unique Sense of Place: What old and new Malls lack is a sense of “place.” Every mall seems to have a similar feel to it. You could be inside and not know whether you’re in Missoula, Montana or New York, New York. What Main Street has always done well is embrace its geography, it’s local culture and it’s people. Harness that through new placemaking engagements to build upon that unique sense of place, not create something… out of place.
  6. Culinary and Craft Beer Destinations: Food halls and craft breweries and beer gardens have popped up around the world and are GREAT draws to your Main Street. I wrote last year about some of the impact’s of “Meanwhile Uses” including London, England’s Boxpark, a short-term food hall and beer garden activation popping up in vacant lots across London. These were planned as temporary activations aimed at utilizing shipping container retail of vacant development sites to drive foot traffic to an area. A “regeneration” tool for economic development purposes aimed at driving new customers and residents to an area and change the shopping habits of area residents and visitors.
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A similar concept but on a much smaller scale in a City outside of Boston, PROVA Brockton brought hundreds of visitors to Main Street in Brockton who may not otherwise have come to the Downtown. The project transformed a vacant lot slated for development into a pop-up beer garden with live music, local food, tables, games, seating and an opportunity to enjoy the summer nights with the community. After one summer of activation, the project site is being turned into a mixed use development while the equipment and materials for PROVA have picked up and activated another vacant lot just down the street for it’s next summer activation!

7. Retail Incubators like FourPost provide opportunities to divide space to smaller tenants at shorter, more flexible lease terms allowing small businesses to test the market to potentially grow their business into a permanent setting on you Main Street. This model is one a number of the largest mall operators across the country are currently using to activate currently vacant space within their malls. This could be a great opportunity for Main Streets as well to help support and incubate local as well as out of town businesses to grow and expand their footprint in their main street and business district.

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Main Street has been presented the best opportunity at a comeback that they’ve had in decades. Time will tell which Downtowns can put their best foots forward and harness the opportunity to thrive and which others will squander the opportunity and fall the way of hundreds of America’s suburban shopping malls.

Jonathan is a Director at the placemaking and civic crowdfunding platform Patronicity supporting community lead placemaking initiatives on Main Streets across the country. He’s also a Co-Founder of Retail Reimagined MA, an initiative that seeks to support thriving Main Streets and retail centers across Massachusetts through cross sector collaborations and on the ground interventions and engagement. Follow along and engage the conversation on social media on Twitter @berkie1 and Instagram @berkie382.

Opportunity in "Excess Capacity"

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