Transforming Vacant Malls into Community Assets for the Future



Ecommerce and the pandemic have changed the world forever in many ways; unfortunately, these changes hit the retail industry hard and have accelerated the decline of traditional retail and shopping malls. The pandemic of 2020 accelerated online shopping exponentially which forced hundreds of retailers into bankruptcy and emptying out struggling malls across the country. A record 12,000 US stores closed in 2020 and while high-end malls filled with activities and restaurants still draw visitors, Coresight Research estimates 25% of America’s roughly 1,000 malls will close over the next three to five years; these closures present the opportunity for redevelopment.

The expedited shift in the retail real estate landscape has spurred significant demand for solutions on how to maximize the value of the growing portfolio of vacant retail property whether through re-development or change of use. Value is considered for both the property owners and the quality of tenants they attract, and surrounding residents that have the potential to make the redevelopment project successful, whether that’s solving a gap for educational facilities at a growing university, providing office space for a market with a growing workforce, or adding greenspace and trails to connect with an adjacent high-traffic pathway system.

An added pressure is the timeliness to come up with a solution before additional vacancies further impact values of mall properties, which can compound issues when co-tenancy clauses are triggered. But the commercial real estate industry has always found a way to navigate these unexpected changes and external forces on consumers’ behaviors, and with strong public-private partnerships and a focus on looking to the future of consumer behavior, including investments in technology, the design concepts are limitless on creating a thriving future development.

The benefits of redeveloping vacant malls are dependent on the value they bring to the future users and the communities they are based, whether that is job creation for a vacant mall converted into an Amazon distribution center or into an office space for a large-tech company that provides high-paying jobs or refreshing a vacant mall with outdoor retail, based on the existing strong purchasing power of surrounding residents. Additionally, because of the scale of the re-developments, infrastructure improvements are often included in the public-private partnership agreements established in the re-development. There are also instances where the benefit of redeveloping a vacant mall doesn’t outweigh the effort to complete the project, particularly if it could cause the project to fail, like redeveloping a vacant mall into residential where population growth is decreasing or adding more retail and restaurants where job growth is stagnant or declining.


After conducting research on previous mall conversions and researching the benefits of different solutions, the GF team has thoughtfully re-designed a currently vacant mall into a micro-village. The drawings above display a concept design which converts former anchor stores into co-working space, medical space, grocery space, a food and recreation center and a school while the smaller retail stores are converted into residential space. Each space provides solutions:

  • Co-Working: Having office space can generate foot traffic into the remaining stores / restaurants. With co-working space expected to grow at an annual rate of 25% through 2023 (pre-pandemic) this option is a safe choice for developers.
  • Residential: In September 2020, total housing inventory hit a record low of 2.7 months supply, October sank further into 2.5 months. Having residential space in this micro-village would help aid the housing shortage.
  • Healthcare: With the growing trend of medical services moving outside hospitals and into communities, having a healthcare space will increase foot traffic to the other remaining stores/restaurants.
  • Grocery, Food, & Recreational: In order to make this development more like a micro-village having amenities available to residents as well as visitors is essential.


One of the bigger challenges in converting a shopping center into an environment that people would desire to live in is the stark contrast in spatial and environmental aesthetics between the two. The common suburban shopping mall was designed with the idea people would be spending one or two hours on-site. The challenge is converting this existing design into a place people can spend all of their time. A strongly desirable living environment is the engine that makes this conversion concept work. The residential component of this concept will populate this site, drive the business on this site, and draw people to this site daily.

When considering the site in its entirety, we imagined the transformation of the empty, vast parking lots. These large portions of the site that typically surround the mall structures allow for the opportunity to develop green spaces around the newly conceived micro-village. The parks created here would not only serve the future residents of the development but further act to beautify the city and immediate neighborhood. The goal for this conversion concept is to develop a plan that successfully alters the use of the mall and exists to positively impact the surrounding neighborhood and environment.

The mall conversion design concept began with consideration of the existing plans and structure. We broke down the existing smaller retail stores while considering the typical residential unit and building widths. With the space that remained, we expanded on the existing atrium to create an incredible open indoor/outdoor public environment. This newly created atrium space would be the heart of what we believe will be the future of these buildings; ground floor cafes, restaurants, and shops that are surrounded by residential urban living – the micro-village.

We designed the atrium open to the sky, imagined it with trees and plenty of green to truly create a one-of-a-kind indoor/outdoor atmosphere. The materials selected are natural woods, light and bright colors, lush greenery, with darker structural components that created sporadic, beautiful shadows throughout the space. We believe this space would serve as a social hub for the micro-village community and neighborhood at large. It would act as park space, garden space, event space, and playground for its residents and the public.

The anchor stores presented specific design challenges. Developing programs that fit within these larger floorplates that can support the residential complex and the surrounding neighborhood while still allowing necessary light and air to create comfortable environments was our design goal. We imagined the two anchor stores with vast courtyards, eliminating the deep, dark floorplates. These two anchors now have central courtyards that can act as private green spaces within the development. A private green space is an ideal amenity for the school and co-working offices we are proposing here. The smaller anchor stores were repurposed with existing floorplates to larger programmatic elements that could support the residential living; grocery, medical, restaurants, and entertainment.