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From Shopping to Seniors: Re-Energizing Malls with Active Living

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Across the country, shopping malls face an uncertain future. The pandemic has highlighted or even accelerated the decline of many malls as consumers turn to the convenience of online shopping. Retail and the experience economy are certainly not dead, but many of these suburban meccas of shopping show fewer signs of life year after year. What if the solution to revitalizing these sites lies with our aging population?

Today’s older adults are seeking connected, walkable communities to thrive in their third act. Building senior housing in urban areas is not always feasible due to availability and cost of land, but there’s great potential in transforming suburban shopping mall sites into intergenerational, mixed-use communities. Instead of building in an already dense area, why not re-densify the large, well-connected suburban sites developers once selected to handle masses of shoppers?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to transitioning these sites into thriving senior developments – the right mix of living options and scale of amenities will vary greatly with geography, local economies, and interested developers or partners. Instead of limiting the possibilities with the “what” of this transformation, let’s focus on the “how,” and review six priorities for redevelopment that leverage the common characteristics and potential of suburban malls.



       1. Evaluate existing conditions

As obvious as it sounds, evaluating the existing building stock, roads, and infrastructure of the mall is critical to understanding what opportunities are possible for the site. Some redevelopments might focus on re-using as much of the mall as possible to reduce embodied carbon, whereas others may target selective demolition to free up space for internal streets, sidewalks, and green space. Considering the mall structure itself, restaurants with commercial kitchens are ripe for re-use with their expensive equipment and systems. When it comes to existing retail spaces, consider how the scale and exterior exposure of anchor stores and smaller boutiques can suggest appropriate uses for adaptation.

Additionally, consider the ample space eaten up by surface parking on the perimeter of malls – could new uses be inserted here to supplement the new development? What about on the adjacent commercial blocks? Part of re-densifying these sites will include eliminating a significant amount of surface parking in favor of structured parking, either below or above ground. While garage parking is more expensive to construct than surface parking, the spatial and environmental implications of making this switch cannot be underestimated in re-densifying large suburban sites.

       2. Break down the scale

Malls are often located in a sea of parking surrounded by a long ring road. The scale of the block is significantly larger than even their adjacent commercial blocks, and even more so compared to nearby residential areas. This scale easily accommodates heavy car traffic but precludes walkability.

Consider subdividing the site with a new network of streets so that the size of each building block starts to approach the scale of nearby commercial and residential blocks. A new network of streets, bike lanes, and sidewalks can shift the site away from a cars-only focus and toward a multi-modal, pedestrian-friendly transportation network.

       3. Transform connectivity

Malls are typically only a couple blocks away from a major freeway. Cars exit the freeway and access malls via a major multi-lane commercial corridor, often with additional restaurants and shopping on both sides.  Even if bus routes are located on this main commercial road or the ring road around the mall, the experience for pedestrians walking to the bus stop is very poor – imagine dodging cars while crossing driveways, with cars whizzing by at high speeds and breathing in exhaust fumes.

Planned redevelopment with new streets, sidewalks, and buildings provides opportunity to both connect to transit and prioritize the pedestrian experience. This can take many forms, whether that means densifying development along bus lines; widening sidewalks and creating safer, more pleasant streetscapes; or creating separate pedestrian-only access routes throughout the site and to adjacent blocks. These strategies will balance convenient access and pleasant street experience for residents and visitors of all ages.


       4. Landscape with intention

Re-greening mall redevelopments may be just as important as re-scaling them. Most malls have incredibly high percentages of impervious pavement between the buildings and su­­rface parking, which can place a heavy load on stormwater systems. If you’ve ever visited a mall in the summer, you can also feel the heat radiating from the sea of asphalt. These sites are unfriendly to local biodiversity and generally unpleasant for any non-vehicular experience.

In planning new roads, sidewalks, and buildings on the site, consider intentional re-greening of the site.  Design buildings to frame comfortable outdoor “rooms,” and create multiple scales of outdoor areas for use by the new residents and surrounding community. Identify opportunities for rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs and other features that reduce loads on stormwater systems. Craft welcoming and shaded pedestrian routes with street trees and street-level landscaping.

       5. Identify component pieces

Many full-service senior communities essentially duplicate amenities and services already offered in the surrounding neighborhoods simply because they’re not easily accessed by residents. However, in a dense, walkable community, there’s no need for this duplication – saving senior living operators space and money while creating opportunities for intergenerational engagement. When considering new complementary uses to bring to the site, developers should take an inventory of the surrounding neighborhood and understand what might be missing – perhaps convenient grocery stores, health services or childcare – and decide how those pieces can be incorporated in the redevelopment to drive outside traffic onto the site.

Understanding how to build adaptability into these projects is also key to future-proof communities against unknown disruptors. Underutilized retail, hotels, and office buildings across the country are being transformed into new uses as consumer demands and behaviors change, so how can the design of new buildings accommodate changes to new use types? Even considering structured parking, what if the need for personal cars dwindles with increases in ridesharing, driverless cars, and public transportation? Developers might consider building flat-plate garages with external ramps so that these structures could one day be enclosed and transformed into occupiable buildings.

       6. Create phasing opportunities

Redevelopments of malls at this scale will take considerable stakeholder buy-in, time, and resources. As with any major planning undertaking, a master plan should identify phasing opportunities within the grander plan. Physical considerations for phasing include maintaining operation of and access to remaining retail and restaurants, minimizing traffic disruptions, and planning ahead for utility access and upgrades. Economic considerations such as motivated developers and partners, available capital, and the success of initial phases could also shape the structure and pacing of phasing.

For the full-site redevelopment of malls, phasing must also consider the possibility that the entire plan may not be realized for any number of reasons. Phases should be scheduled so that the community can still feel “whole” if future phases are never built. This can be achieved through identification of major axes or foci on the site and developing outward or inward from those points of interest.



So where do we go from here?

All these strategies and considerations are secondary to one key focus: creating a lasting, intergenerational community with senior housing at the core. To many older adults, senior housing is a place of last resort – where you live only if all your other options are exhausted. But creating vibrant senior housing in walkable communities could attract a cohort of older adults eager to remain active and engaged with each other and the surrounding community. As they age, the density gives older adults easy access to care and services they need while remaining socially engaged.

Not all malls are dying, but for those shopping centers where tenants are leaving and parking lots sit empty, senior housing operators and developers should consider these sites prime real estate. Their connections to transit, amount of available land, and proximity to existing residential and commercial neighborhoods make them well-suited for this re-densifying and community-building effort. The scale of redevelopment to turn malls into thriving intergenerational communities necessitates involvement from multiple partners along with local civic leaders, neighbors, and zoning and planning boards. Redevelopments of this size are significant undertakings, but they can have lasting positive economic, social, and environmental impacts on the towns around them.

It's time to think big – I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can re-imagine shopping malls to create sustainable, active senior communities!

Icons adapted from the Noun Project users remmachenas, Zach Bogard, Adriedn Coquet, LUTFI GANI AL, Made x Made Icons, and Kamal.

Jennifer Sodo , AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Senior Living Market Leader

Jennifer is a Senior Living Market Leader in our Living Environment Studio in the Milwaukee office. Her inspiration for design stems from people and their stories.