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One Side Effect Of The Retail Industry’s Downturn: More Creepy Abandoned Malls

Creative new uses are turning the haunting structures into vital community solutions

The decline of brick-and-mortar retail stores may be closely studied by Wall Street and industry experts, but the shift in consumer shopping habits from real-world stores to online outlets has many effects on a local level. Not only do store closures affect employees, but the downturn is also turning many neighborhood shopping centers, once bustling hubs of commerce and community, into abandoned eyesores, relics of a retail age quickly coming to an end.

Thus far, the effects on most modest strip malls or town squares are subtle. You wouldn’t look at a 15 percent vacancy rate in a shopping strip and feel a chill down your spine. On a larger scale, however, seeing empty malls the size of city blocks just might.

Granted, it wasn’t the threat of online shopping that kicked off the first wave of wholesale mall closures that began in the early ’90s. Developers drastically overestimated both the need and the desire for shopping malls as centers of commerce and community. Often, they were able to flail long enough to stay afloat for a decade or two, but when the time came to renovate or redevelop, the cash just wasn’t there, and slow deaths quickly turned into rapid ones.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architect and professor at Georgia Tech, estimates that, of the 1,200 enclosed malls in the United States, a third of them are dead or dying. That was before the buzzards of online retail began to circle. Expect that number to grow faster as individual retailers contract their brick and mortar presence.

This is bad news if you’re in favor of activated neighborhoods, real estate prices, and local employment. But if you’re a fan of creepy, abandoned malls—as many people seem to be—things are certainly swinging in your favor, and it’s only going to get better (er, worse).

Abandoned mall fans carry the same zeal that roller coaster or theme park enthusiasts do, only the fun comes in a very different, often distressing, package.

Online, fans of dead malls can share photos and stories that are at once macabre and nostalgic. They offer locals and former residents the opportunity to gawk at something they once loved as it leaves the world.

A video posted shows the Rolling Acres Mall in Akron on the day before the lights were turned off in 2008.

Eight years later, an abandoned mall enthusiast documented the state of the building before its demolition, taken from the Facebook page Ghost Malls, Haunted and Abandoned Places of America.

Facebook/Tyler Joshua Frederick

Often, a lone movie theater or inexplicable food court will hold out long after the other tenants have gone, creating a creepy paradox of access without activity.

Abandoned malls capture the public’s interest—not only because of their expanse and the memories tied to the giant, once vibrant centers—but also because even once they’re empty, they’re just damn hard to get rid of. Once a single-purpose entity which owns a mall declares bankruptcy, it can pass through the hands of banks, discount buyers, and land acquisition firms for years before being truly pronounced “dead.” And even when that happens, it can take cities years to demand that the eyesores be torn down.

Then, once it’s decided that the building has to go, there’s the matter of who’s forced to pay for its demolition. By the time the vacant structures have been bought and sold, the value of the property is far less than the cost to demolish it—meaning that, for one final time, it makes more sense for an owner to declare bankruptcy than to deal with this albatross.

So they remain.

If the ratings companies are to be believed—a big if—retail will replace energy as the most distressed sector right around the time you finish reading this sentence. (Well, soon, anyway.)

But there’s a glimmer of hope.

An article in The Atlantic says that, thanks to skyrocketing land, labor, and construction costs, the sprawling structures are being redeveloped in inventive new ways. While I wouldn’t call any of them “aesthetically pleasing,” it’s nice to see that 1,000,0000 square-feet buildings aren’t being razed because of a lack of creativity.

The CEO of Austin Community College witnessed firsthand the side effects of the failing Highland Mall, stating, “What happens when a mall begins to deteriorate and no longer function as a mall? In the surrounding neighborhoods, you begin to see the crime rate increase, other homes and buildings being vacated—the whole community surrounding it begins to deteriorate.”

The school, realizing the stakes, bought the mall and converted the entire structure into a mixed-use center to complement the campus. Now the space features offices, a library, 200,000 square feet of instructional space, and 604 computer terminals.

So this:

Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects

Found new life as:

While it’s unlikely, if not impossible, that these malls will again be home to dozens or hundreds of retailers, recent successes have shown that they’re not necessarily doomed to a life of smashed glass and slow atrophy. Adaptive re-uses of malls elsewhere have found new homes for churches, doctors offices and clinics, apartments, and even city services.

Again, getting an outdated mall to look like anything other than, well, an outdated mall is often prohibitively expensive, but for social necessities and nonprofilts that require an affordable base of operations, these dilapidated relics might be the perfect solution.

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