Moving to the mall

Shopping centres are getting a makeover.

The pandemic has turned the future of cities into a hot topic. Most questions centre on how we emerge from lockdown. Should we close more streets to vehicle traffic? Should we give more public space to restaurants and businesses? How will public transit recover?

Others are longstanding but have been changed by the pandemic. One of these is the future of shopping malls. Once retail engines, some malls had fallen on hard times. Most malls sit on large pieces of land. This makes them attractive sites for redevelopment.

This was already a well-established trend before the pandemic hit. But even then, it was the result of necessity. As online shopping has cut into store traffic, many malls have gone quiet. It’s a phenomenon that is more pronounced in the United States than Canada. American developers have responded in a few ways. Some malls renovated to include small apartments alongside stores. These “micro-apartments” range from 225 to 775 square feet. They are ideal for those who alone, which could mean millennials and baby boomers. 

The possibilities are vast. Even before the pandemic, malls were in trouble. A report from 2016 predicted that one-quarter of the malls in the U.S. could close by 2022. But rethinking malls is not limited to the U.S. In Taiwan, a shuttered mall is now a public park that incorporates some of the former parking garage. In Canada, malls are being reimagined in Toronto, Edmonton and Fort Saskatchewan. But it is most advanced in Vancouver. There, it’s a reflection of the overheated housing market. Adding residential to malls is a relatively quick way to bring homes to the market. Quick for developers but also for cities that want to settle more people in established areas.

The aim is to create a mix of retail, office and residential spaces. It’s a win-win. The mall gets a new lease on life. The municipality sees a community rise on land that was being used to park cars.  And there is a potential added bonus because malls are often nodes for public transit. Residents may find easy access to transit to be a selling point. 

That transit-oriented development could become critical. The pandemic has hit transit hard, so encouraging new ridership would aid recovery. Of course, stores and small businesses have also been hit hard. In the U.S., some 25,000 stores could close in 2020, with more than half of these stores located in malls. 

It’s important to remember that these are forecasts. There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the recovery from this pandemic. But with so many unanswered questions, some of things that are up in the air may well be condo towers rising above established shopping centres.

June 25th, 2020

Pandemic recovery means rethinking shopping malls.