I’ve argued before that Utah County’s malls appear to be dying. I also may be the only person who was disappointed when Sears recently announced it was staying in the Provo Towne Center mall; my feeling was that it simply delayed the inevitable, possibly giving the community a false and detrimental sense of security along the way.
But if malls are dying — and Orem’s 66 percent anchor vacancy rate is just the most local evidence that they are — what can communities do with them?
Earlier this week, The New York Times reported on a man in San Antonio who had one possible solution. According to the article, Graham Weston saw his community’s dead mall and decided to make it his tech company’s headquarters. And it worked:
Today, his idea to move his company to the very mall where he got the blue ruffle tuxedo he wore to his junior prom seems more innovative than insane, with 3,200 Rackspace employees keystroking in cubicles set up where retailers like J. C. Penny, Zales, Casual Corner and Piercing Pagoda used to be. The project suggests that there might be hidden opportunities in the nation’s glut of dead and dying malls and represents one of the country’s largest and quirkiest recycling efforts.
The article goes on to point out that malls are indeed struggling, but that Graham invested heavily in customizing his mall-office. Now, additional development has sprung up around the site:
Shops and restaurants now encircle the mall, hoping to lure Rackspace employees, whose average salary is $69,000, far above the local average of $37,000. Stratford Land, a real estate development company based in Dallas, purchased 111 acres nearby in January, promising to build restaurants, shops and multifamily housing for Rackers.
This exact strategy may not work in Utah County because there likely isn’t a billionaire looking for a massive office space.
But the point is that communities should think creatively about what goes into a mall. When an anchor leaves, it doesn’t necessarily have to be replaced by another anchor. Instead, mall operators could consider repurposing the space as housing or offices. In reality, such projects would benefit everyone, including the mall itself, by building more customers into the immediate area. Malls could even become more authentic, vibrant developments as they evolve naturally in the market place.
The result, at least for Utah County’s malls, could be something similar to Salt Lake’s City Creek, but at a tiny fraction of the cost and in a less fabricated-all-at-once kind of way. In reality, there’s no reason to build new, mixed use development to replace malls when current development can be adapted more readily.
The possibilities are endless, but the point is that it may be time to stop thinking of malls as “malls” and more as potential developments, or even neighborhoods. The alternative is watching them languish, die, and be razed.