Build Neighborhoods Out of Malls

Malls in Utah County and everywhere else are struggling. If this is news to you trying reading this article that has some background and history, or click here, here, or here for recent posts on the subject.

The now-vacant Nordstrom space in Orem.

The now-vacant Nordstrom space in Orem.

Or just go to a mall. Trolley Square is in serious financial trouble, two thirds of the anchor spaces in the University Mall are empty, and rumors indicate that the Towne Center Mall is about to lose the Gap.

Like many cities, Provo doesn’t seem to have grasped the enormity of this problem; the question isn’t “how can we save the mall?” it’s “what can we do in the not-too-distant future when we are required to move to Plan B?”

I believe the best answer — at least along the rapidly growing Wasatch Front — is to turn malls into neighborhoods.

This idea likely would involve two components: 1) repurposing existing mall infrastructure for housing, etc., and 2) building new (mostly residential) structures in underused mall parking lots.

Repurposing existing mall structures is the most exciting part of this concept. Basically, former retail spaces could be carved up into condos or apartments. Anything would be possible, though a natural outcome would be semi-industrial feeling units — cement floors, exposed ducts, concrete pillars, etc. This type of housing doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it basically doesn’t exist in cities like Provo.

This is a loft in Salt Lake City that was convert from an old warehouse. It's small, and therefore relatively affordable, but costs a lot per square foot. Provo has nothing like this.

This is a loft in Salt Lake City that was converted from an old factory. It’s small, and therefore relatively affordable, but costs a lot per square foot. Provo has nothing like this but could easily use it’s mall spaces to cater to a similar niche.

In other words, converted mall spaces are the warehouse lofts of tomorrow. Even up in Salt Lake City converted warehouses are popular and command high prices per square foot of real estate. For example, listings here, here, here, and here are all unlike anything in Provo right now. This listing is a new building that’s even trying to copy the aesthetic of a converted warehouse.

Aesthetics aside, this type of development provides the opportunity to create big multi-unit buildings at a fraction of the cost. And because the units can vary in size, they can also remain affordable. Right now, Provo basically loses anyone looking for housing in the nice-but-affordable multi-unit market.

The second part of this concept would involve building more housing — as well as other things like schools, libraries, parks, etc. — where mall parking currently exists.

The advantages of this plan are that the land is open, already surrounded by infrastructure, and privately owned. It would take a horrible space and make it desirable and profitable at a fraction of the cost that similar projects require. And if the owners were on board, it would combine the best aspects of both infill and new development.

And there’s a massive amount of space:

Provo's Towne Center Mall, surrounded by staggering parking lots.

Provo’s Towne Center Mall, surrounded by staggering parking lots.

At the Provo Towne Center Mall much of the existing parking already goes unused so there’s no reason this part of the plan couldn’t beginning immediately. It’d almost certainly help the mall by adding customers. The development could be single family homes, apartments, condos, etc. The point is that there’s room for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of residences in this space.

There are an infinite number of possible configurations, but take a look at the pictures of the Towne Center’s north side:

Sears and a parking lot in Provo.

Sears and a parking lot in Provo.

Now imagine if front doors were cut out of the Sears wall for condos, essentially turning it into row housing. On the right side of the picture, where there are cars, there could be more row homes, cottages, or tall buildings. I’d favor something that created a pleasant street wall, but regardless it only takes a little bit of imagination to see this as an incredibly vibrant neighborhood. It’d be a narrow little street filled with families. And it’d make a developer rich.

Here’s another picture:

The same spot from a different angle.

The same spot from a different angle.

In the picture above, imagine homes lining the left side of the street. And again, the great thing about this idea is that much of the infrastructure already exists. It’d be like getting a City Creek (with a bit of Daybreak) in Provo that was far cooler and vastly cheaper. It could be done in a way that incorporated some of the mall’s current function as a retail center, or the entire site could be reimagined. There’d be ample space — perhaps the first floor of the Sears that faces east — for a grocery store like Harmon’s.

This idea really coalesced for me after I wrote a series on building houses in the street. People liked the idea, but thought it’d be tough to overcome the political and physical obstacles. Malls spaces don’t fix existing streets, but they are open, underperforming and not ruled by existing infrastructure or NIMBY problems.

In fact, if cities can make something like this work malls may become major assets, much like old factories and warehouses turned out to be beneficial to post-industrial cities.

Variations of this idea already exist. The Atlantic Cities recently mentioned one, and City Creek and The Gateway also probably both fit the bill.

But all of those projects are firmly grounded in a mall mentality and frankly I wouldn’t reside in any of them. Provo and cities like it, on the other hand, have an incredible opportunity to treat their malls as exercises in adaptive reuse. And in the end if we do nothing that’s exactly what we’ll have in place of our malls: nothing.



Filed under building, construction, Development

8 responses to “Build Neighborhoods Out of Malls

  1. With Buy Low closing, Plum Tree is a great candidate for adaptive reuse. Fill the parking lot with housing, convert the smaller spaces to row houses, and turn the anchors into some sort of community center or a multi-ward meetinghouse and you might have an attractive development.

  2. Joanna

    My observation is that new developments generally are much more dense, but they still have the commercial areas so significantly separated that people are basically forced to drive anyway.

  3. Joanna

    I don’t think most malls would convert to residences very well. Old warehouses usually have character on the inside and outside (they are usually brick), and generally have large windows in place. The concrete and industrial look for residential living is a fad that will pass. You have to look to history for what people have sought over time, and that is a place that is on a human scale and makes them feel good. However, a mall could potentially be converted to a school (with population growth, Provo will need more schools), shops for everyday needs (groceries, etc.), community center (for everyone of all faiths), and build the residential in the parking lots along with a community park and community garden. The key is community: bringing people together.

  4. Pingback: Provo Needs More Housing Without Parking | (pro(vo)cation)

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  7. bbelement

    We need to separate fashion from function. Indoor malls are awesome although currently passé. The idea of expanding beyond only retail commerce is great, but it should become more of a community center with recreation (publicly owned indoor parks), education, arts, music. True it needs to be rethought from current use, but expanded beyond retail, not replacing it entirely. Don’t forget how cold it is in January in Provo. It could be an amazing community center, but the city needs to invest and get involved.

  8. Pingback: More malls should follow Orem’s example and become neighborhoods | About Town

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