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After the mall: retrofitting suburbia

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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.

“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.”

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