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After the mall: retrofitting suburbia

As it once sucked the life out of Main Street, the suburban mall is being reconsidered – or torn down – as towns move back to the concept of a multiuse town center.

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Some experts are touting this transformation – from dead mall to sustainable community – as a solution to the so-called “ghost box” syndrome. And developers are paying attention. In Cathedral City, Calif., for instance, a decaying strip mall has been reborn as a tree-lined boulevard, with increased pedestrian access and improved public transportation. In Mashpee, Mass., planners have partially demolished a shopping center and are working to incorporate a “walkable village.” In Boca Raton, Fla., a mall was razed to make way for a multiuse area featuring both retail and housing.

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“Retrofits,” as they’re called, take a variety of forms, from “raze it all and start anew” to creative adaptation of an existing space, such as the Food Lion supermarket in Denton, Texas, that became a public library. Each process shares common goals: reduce the blight, scale down sprawl, cut car traffic, amp up foot and bicycle access, and eliminate barriers between residential and retail space.

“Historically, there were two options for developers who wanted to revitalize a dying mall,” says June Williamson, an architect and coauthor of an influential new book, “Retrofitting Suburbia.” “The first was going downscale into a power center, with Wal-Marts or Kmarts. Alternatively, developers would go upmarket into a lifestyle center – take off the roof, add the high-end restaurants, spruce it up. But we’re seeing [planners] start to approach things from a very different angle – pulling in the retail, and then pulling in other uses as well. They’re really thinking about sustainability [and a] long-term strategy.”

Belmar is the “Cadillac” of retrofits, says Ms. Williamson. Although the district has been hit as hard as any community by the economic malaise, 85 percent of the retail space in Belmar has been leased. Residential leasing figures are even higher: Of 478 available rental units, 94 percent are occupied. Meanwhile, property values in Belmar are now the highest in Jefferson County.

Mayor Bob Murphy says Belmar has become the kind of Main Street that malls ran out of business; the kind of gathering spot that Lakewood never had. “That’s what we hoped it would be when we started out, and that’s what it has become,” he says.

Belmar is nearly complete, and, when finished in 2012, will have 1.2 million square feet of retail space and 1,300 residential units. It already incorporates many aspects of urban life – from a centrally located ice-skating rink to wide sidewalks – and has a host of “green amenities.” A 1.75-megawatt array of solar panels helps power Belmar, and 14 wind turbines generate electricity for parking lots.

Critically, retrofitting refers not just to sustainable architecture and the proliferation of mixed-used facilities. It’s also a matter of urbanization – of changing the social fabric of the suburb itself.

Bedroom communities created in the wake of World War II were low-density, high-sprawl, and decentralized or loosely connected by a small downtown. Developers worked from a car-first perspective, liberally sprinkling in dead ends and cul-de-sacs, and skimping on sidewalks, parks, and other shared space. The classic American suburb had a tangle of single-use buildings and a dearth of public transportation. But over the past decade, with baby boomers headed toward retirement, the suburbs have weathered a profound revolution.