Breathing life into the U.S.’s dying malls through community-based programming

Lindsey Peckinpaugh and David Sheldon—leaders from our Sports, Recreation, and Entertainment and Commercial practices, respectively—discuss the future of malls as community centers.
America's first indoor mall, Southdale Center, opened in Edina, Minnesota 64 years ago this month.
Photo from Life magazine photo archive

We have too much retail space in the United States: 8.5 billion square feet of dedicated space, or upwards of 25 square feet of retail space per person. That’s an astonishingly high number, especially in comparison to other countries. The average square footage per person in Europe is 4.5, or about five times less than in the U.S.

How did we get here? On October 8, 1956, in front of 40,000 visitors, America’s first indoor mall, Southdale Center, opened in Edina, Minnesota. Southgate Architect Victor Gruen, considered an innovator in retail, first began to ideate the prototype of the future shopping “center.” He envisioned spaces where libraries, civic uses, and even postal services could be brought together inside within the new future mall. What a concept! When Southdale opened, it was largely modeled after European communal gathering spaces. It was, in Gruen’s words, “a new outlet for that primary human instinct to mingle with other humans.”

A novel concept. While Mr. Gruen was well-intentioned, we’ve strayed far from the course. In the decades following Southdale’s opening, we’ve opened millions of feet of strip malls, regional malls, lifestyle malls, town centers, and several other fancy-named versions of the same thing: product-driven buildings. As more of America suburbanized, more retail opened. Within real estate, the typology became synonymous with “highest and best use—the more stores, the better.

Retail’s Continued Evolution

Jumping forward from 1956 nearly four decades, a major shift in commerce was in the works. In 1990, Tim Berners Lee published a proposal to build a “Hypertext project” called the “Worldwide Web.” So, what happens when ecommerce and the World Wide Web collide? Suddenly, we see a multi-decade shift from malls being the sole place for product distribution to the rise of “experience.”

As our accessibility to e-commerce has increased—more than 60 years after Southdale Center served as a blueprint for bringing Americans together through in-person retail—the model has shifted yet again. No longer do we need to visit a retail store in order to fulfil a need, as online shopping is accessible to most people. As a result, we’re migrating toward an economy of experience over one of just product.

The transition of retail as places of procurement to places for experience leaves us with an abundance of space that’s empty, vacant, and uninspired. According to Coresight Research, in 2020 the U.S. is already seeing nearly twice as many store closures as anticipated. That’s upwards of 25,000 stores closing by year’s end. Furthermore, that research shows projections that 300 of the 1,000 malls in the US will shutter over the next decade.

A Return to Gruen’s Vision

We are in a moment of distinct opportunity: Thousands of acres, millions of square feet can be recreated in Gruen’s original vision of spaces with vibrant, essential typologies and community-based programming. A powerful and proactive example can be found in the reimagining of Fair Oaks Mall in Columbus, IN.  Like many North American communities, the City of Columbus has faced a declining retail environment in the past decade, leaving the 413,000-square-foot indoor mall in the heart of Columbus’ retail district largely vacant. Concerned about the impact the mall’s collapse would have on the broader mixed-use business district, community leaders looked to repurpose the nearly 36-acre site into a meaningful community asset.     

In partnership with Columbus Regional Health (CRH), the City of Columbus identified a need to reinvest in the Fair Oaks Mall property and create a place where residents, community organizations, and businesses can thrive. In October 2018, the City and CRH partnered to form the Fair Oaks Community Development Corporation (FOCDC), a non-profit corporation, which acquired the mall in December of 2018.

Experience is at the center of the retail Venn Diagram.
The programmatic approach that we explore at one site lends direction to others. Every property has specific needs within each community. Cultural and contextual connectivity, synergies in programming, flexibility in leasing, and financing are all considered as we look to the future of renewal. Simply put, there is no “one-size fits all” approach when our studios look to support communities in turning vacant properties into thriving ones.

From Mall to Community Center

In June 2019, the FOCDC hired us, along with urban planners MKSK, to provide a master plan and long-term vision for the future of the Fair Oaks Mall. Through extensive community engagement and stakeholder input, we helped craft a vision for the mall as a new state-of-the-art community health, wellness, and recreation center focused on improving the holistic well-being of Columbus. Although the Fair Oaks Mall project is currently on hold due to the pandemic, it is expected to move into design once project funding is realigned—and serves as an exciting case study and successful master plan exercise.

In Columbus, throughout the master planning process, we leveraged language from the World Health Organization and National Institute for Health to shape an overall project vision:

  • Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
  • Wellness is an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.
  • Recreation refers to all those activities that people choose to do to refresh their bodies and minds and make their leisure time more interesting and enjoyable.
  • Holistic Wellness is the pursuit of health and wellbeing throughout the interconnected dimensions of self and community.
The Fair Oaks Mall master plan proposes the renovation and expansion of the mall into a new 526,750-square-foot health, wellness, and recreation center.

Creating Place Through Health, Wellness, and Recreation

Our master plan vision establishes the future of the mall as a health, wellness, and recreation center, operated in partnership between the City and CRH. The project represents their cooperative relationship in bringing the City’s recreational offerings and CRH’s health services to residents across the community. This renovated and expanded facility will allow guests to engage in a range of health and wellness services such as fitness programs, group fitness classes, nutritional and clinical services, centralized at one location.

The master plan proposes the renovation and expansion of the mall into a new 526,750-square-foot facility that is anchored by a large multi-purpose fieldhouse expansion to the north.  The multi-purpose fieldhouse will support recreational needs of the community and regional youth sports tourism and drive critical traffic back to the mall to support complementary retail, such as food and beverage, spa and financial services, clothing and sporting goods retailers.  Approximately 25% of the building is reserved for future retail and complementary community partners to backfill the space.  The existing mall concourse will be renovated and maintained as a walking path for the loyal mall walkers in the community and provide an integral sense of community in the building.

On the exterior, the 36-acre site will also be enhanced to provide indoor/outdoor connectivity with a new signature open space, outdoor seating and plaza areas, enhanced site circulation, parking, drop-off areas, and multi-use trail connections. The primary south façade will be transformed into a new community “front door” with access to the community recreation and wellness center.  While the design of the Fair Oaks Mall in Columbus remains on hold, our team has continued to develop guiding framework principles that will be applied to this and future mall repositioning projects as they move through the planning and design phases.

From a dying mall to a vital community center, we're crafting a new vision for retail.
The Future of Retail through the Lens of its Past

We are investigating how to support a community infrastructure that is positive culturally and contextually. We define this as designing comfortable spaces for people; designing spaces for social interaction; designing spaces that can be programmed with flexibility; and designing spaces with equity and inclusion in mind.

We believe that most promising future for our indoor malls will result in a nexus of meaningful experience that will drive traffic and vitality back to these sites. With longevity in mind, these future centers will be flexible with programs tailored to meet the community’s needs; connected to the outdoors; and always in service of user comfort and well-being.

We can’t look toward the future of retail without looking at the past. Mr. Gruen was ahead of his time in thinking about the mall as a community gathering destination. Applying the same thinking, but within the context of our societal and economic needs today, will ensure a prosperous transition.