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Repurposing Malls to Serve Current and Future Public Needs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore 
November 9, 2020

For the past few decades, online sales have continued to increase.  State and local governments complained about the loss of sales taxes and store owners complained that shoppers would shop in their stores, but then order online and escape the sales tax.

On June 21, 2018, the United States Supreme Court, in the case of South Dakota vs. Wayfair, created a pathway for states to tax remote sales after two decades of lobbying Congress by the National Conference of State Legislatures and business groups, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Although states are now able to collect the sales tax on remote sales through online purchases, the brick and mortar stores are still forced to act as a showroom for many people who ultimately purchase the goods they’ve previewed in stores on the Internet.  Malls have been losing favor with shoppers since the “Great Recession” of 2008, and downtown business districts even longer.  This is a trend that has accelerated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as more stores have closed from lack of in-person shoppers, as Chuck Sudo wrote in Senior Housing News in 2019.

While it may be too soon to determine, many businesses with office workers have, at least temporarily, switched to remote workplaces.  Some are deciding to continue that work practice even after the pandemic. Empty shopping malls and vacant downtown office towers mean less tax revenue and fewer jobs to power the remaining retail stores and restaurants.  There are other options that are being explored for repurposing vacant malls and office buildings, according to the New York Times October 24th, 2020 article entitled, “Once Meccas of Retail Therapy, New Homes for Elder Americans.”  A few months earlier, Bloomberg News in a June 30, 2020 article entitled, “A Dying Mall’s New Lease on Life,” stated, “As the pandemic hastens the retail apocalypse, some developers are betting that empty malls can mix housing with stores and community space.”

Several excellent guides to help planners and zoning administrators re-imagine a better use for vacant commercial buildings have been developed.  One from Eppig and Brachman at the Ohio Policy Center is the Guidebook to Linking Property Re-use to Economic Development. The Guidebook includes advice on conducting market analysis, funding gaps, working through legal hurdles and evaluating re-use options.

Beyond putting property back on tax rolls, eliminating the eyesore of vacant buildings and helping remaining businesses to survive, there are other community issues that re-use can help to solve.  One oft-heard comment is that many parents worry that their children are unable to afford to live in the town where they grew up.  CTV News, in an article in May 2, 2020, entitled “How Parents Can Help Their Offspring Enter the Housing Market,” suggested delaying downsizing so the children can move back home, among other suggestions. Parents could purchase apartments in re-designed office buildings or malls that include convenient stores and fitness centers, and let their children have the old homestead as their own families grow.

Senior Housing News wrote in December 2019 that, “More failing and abandoned malls are being redeveloped for a mix of uses, including senior housing. One group is exploring converting entire shopping malls into sprawling senior housing and care settings, inspired by a pioneering Dutch memory care community.” Such malls are increasingly popular for healthcare centers and physician offices that are appropriately close to their patients.

Another popular area for housing older adults and people with disabilities that is being explored in the Greater Boston, Massachusetts area is to encourage multi-unit housing near transit stations and bus terminals. Communities with single family housing close to rail and bus stops are considering allowing more units on housing lots near such amenities.  Affordable apartments next to a mass transit station would be ideal for young professionals just starting out and for seniors who prefer public transportation to fighting rush-hour traffic.  These apartments would also help to reduce urban traffic and make commuting less stressful.

Whether affordable housing for older adults is attracted to re-purposed malls and office buildings or in neighborhoods around public transit stations, such projects would help people to remain in their communities rather than face the prospect of losing independence in a nursing home.  If fewer elderly needed nursing home care, the cost for the state to maintain nursing homes would decrease, or at least, be able to shift to more popular and age-friendly home and community-based supports and services.

“Is it time to consider abolishing single-family zoning within Newton? This is now actively discussed in the zoning re-design meetings and would be very interesting to discuss here. Sounds interesting and perhaps it’s finally time,” reporter Jerry Reilly, wrote in the local newspaper on July 5, 2020.

In Newton, Massachusetts and other Boston area communities, local leaders, “Are now giving serious consideration of abolishing single-family zoning 0.25 miles from T stops as part of the rezoning.  Even more generally, the idea of doing away with single family zoning across the board has also been raised,” Reilly added.


Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He also served for a time as President of the Massachusetts Assisted Living Association. Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. His email address is [email protected]

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