When Texas-based developer ATR Corinth Partners purchased Nashville’s 100 Oaks Mall in 2006, the 40-year-old shopping center was looking a little long in the tooth.
While the mall still possessed a number of active retail tenants, many others had shuttered their doors, leaving large empty spaces throughout the building. ATR Corinth was betting it could revitalize the space, but doing so would require taking a somewhat unconventional tack.
Instead of signing new retail tenants, the developer inked a deal with Vanderbilt University to use empty space as a medical center. Today, says ATR Corinth partner Frank Mihalopoulos, the mall is thriving, as Vanderbilt’s clinic provides not only a flow of rent but also a steady stream of foot traffic that benefits the center’s other occupants.
All around the U.S., hundreds of underutilized shopping malls are withering away. This doesn’t necessarily spell the end for these spaces, though, as many, like 100 Oaks, are being repurposed—turned into everything from mega-churches and paintball stadiums to hockey rinks and high schools.
Of the roughly 1,200 enclosed malls in the U.S., around one-third are dying, says Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she specializes in suburban redevelopment. And these structures, she says, are prime candidates for conversions.
What form their second life takes, exactly, largely depends on their location, she says.
For instance, older malls in inner-ring suburbs are in some cases playing key roles in the urbanization of these suburbs, Dunham-Jones notes, sprouting apartments and office space above ground-floor retail and becoming, she says “the downtowns these suburbs never had.”
If a mall dies because there is just no market, you aren’t going to try to redevelop it into a new downtown.
Such transformations, however, require strong local demand for such amenities. And so, Dunham-Jones says, in the case of failing malls located amidst less vibrant economies, redevelopers have to get a little more creative.
“If a mall dies because there is just no market, you aren’t going to try to redevelop it into a new downtown,” she says. “Instead, you might try to reinhabit it with everything from churches to health clinics to manufacturing.”
Take, for instance, Euclid, Ohio’s Euclid Square Mall, where today, a little over a decade after its demise, 24 different churches rent space for their services. Or the former Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch, Tenn., which is now called Global Mall at the Crossings and hosts a branch of Nashville State Community College as well as a practice rink for the Nashville Predators, an NHL hockey team.
Successful mall conversions don’t just happen. It has to be the right location, the right demand—a lot of pieces have to fall into place.
Successful mall conversions “don’t just happen,” Mihalopoulos says, noting that “it has to be the right location, the right demand—a lot of pieces have to fall into place.”
When the pieces do come together, though, such projects have definite advantages, he says. In the case of 100 Oaks, for instance, reusing as opposed to rebuilding the space generated significant savings.
“We didn’t have to rebuild, so we were able to be sustainable with our product,” Mihalopoulos says. “If you have to tear down and build new, it can be very expensive.”
In addition to 100 Oaks, ATR Corinth recently opened the West Manchester Town Center in York, Penn., a revamped version of that city’s former West Manchester Mall. And, Mihalopoulos says, he’s now back on the road evaluating additional malls for conversion projects.
“We’re very active in repurposing of malls,” he says.