If you’ve been to a shopping mall in the past year or two, it should come as no surprise to you that they’re closing at a rapid and accelerating pace. (The last time I went to a mall, old people with hand weights and fanny packs, speed-walking for exercise, outnumbered actual shoppers by a ratio of about 2-to-1.) Of the approximately 1200 malls in the U.S., experts estimate that a third of them are dying – and now that the Retail Meltdown of 2017 is underway, that percentage is likely to rise. As of 2012, there were 31 malls in the DC area, of which almost half were dead or dying.
So what are we going to do with all these abandoned malls? Well, the good news is that, while the shopping mall seems totally unrepurposable, people around the country have been working hard at finding a second life for their abandoned malls.
Nashville’s first mall, First Oaks, opened in 1967, but by 2007 it was pretty much dead. Vanderbilt University bought the entire second floor of the mall and turned it into a vast medical center. Now people can register for doctor’s appointments and wander the remaining shops with a beeper to summon them when the doctor’s ready to see them. They did something similar in Jackson, Mississippi, and Jacksonville, Florida, in each case turning an old mall into a hospital for low-income residents. Call me crazy, but I think it would be kind of cool to have open heart surgery in what used to be the x-rated birthday card section of a Spencer’s Gifts.
In Mountain View, California, Google bought an old mall to use as office space for its Google Glass project, which died like fifty times faster than malls did. Companies have done similar mall-to-office conversions in Texas and Colorado. You used to spend hours in one airless, windowless space, so you could afford to spend hours in another airless, windowless space, but now you can shop and work in the same airless, windowless space. Progress!
A dead mall in Euclid, Ohio, houses 24 separate congregations in former retail spaces. You could literally go and shop for a new church to attend! There’s nothing more American than that. In Lexington, Kentucky, a church bought an abandoned mall for $8 million (*suspicious eyebrow raise*) and turned it into a 3000-seat megachurch. And in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Beech Park Baptist Church has taken up residence in a former shopping center; you enter through what used to be a thirty-lane bowling alley.
In Joplin, Missouri, they used an abandoned mall as a high school after the existing one was leveled by a tornado, and in Boise, Idaho, a charter school has opened in a 100,000 square foot empty mall, converting the vacant bank into a playground, and various stores into classrooms. I feel like this might be some kind of damning metaphor for the state of youth today, but I couldn’t really articulate it until I listened to several thousand hours of talk radio first. It makes some sense to me, though, to have a school in a mall, since I learned many important life lessons in malls, such as “girls love it when you ride up on your skateboard and ask if they want to help you use the Orange Julius coupon you stole from your mother’s purse.”
Is it ironic or tragic that the internet, which killed malls in the first place, is now taking up residence in the empty malls? In Baltimore, the largest wing of the Marley Station Mall was converted to a huge server farm by a company called AiNET, which expected to do $1 billion in annual business from the data center. The setup was so successful that in 2013, AiNET tried to buy the rest of the mall, but was rebuffed by management, who was sure that an upturn was just around the corner. Since then, the mall has plummeted in value and was recently auctioned off for pennies on the dollar. Internet companies have set up data centers in abandoned malls in Texas, Mississippi, and Indiana, too, like a deadly snake that kills its victim and then nests in the corpse. Don’t mess with the internet, man.
The Arcade Providence, in Rhode Island, dates back to the late 19th century, and was America’s first mall. But by the 1980s, business had flagged, and the city, desperate to save the historic building, decided to convert the upper-floor retail spaces into micro-lofts. There are now 46 one bedroom units in the former shopping mall, some of which are as cheap as $550 a month. If there’s still an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels open on the ground floor, I would sign a lease tomorrow.