Many times I’ve mentioned that my upbringing was far from urbanistic. Growing up in the 3rd-ring Rochester suburb of Victor, New York meant that the happening place to be as a teenager was Eastview Mall. One of the higher-profile malls in New York State, Eastview went through multiple additions and upgrades in the first 20+ years of my life. Even in a time when suburban malls are struggling to keep up with online shopping, Eastview Mall remains a retail pinnacle that accounts for a significant portion of Ontario County’s sales tax revenue.
When I was about 14, I thought the mall was such a magical place, but I always believed it could be more, though not in a Robin Sparkles sort of way.
I loved the sun that poured in from the glass roof as I walked the concourse to the food court. I loved the Ficus trees, fountains and pools of water. Finally and oddly for the time, I distinctly remember thinking it would be “cool” to live in the mall instead of just visiting. In other words, what if the mall could be more of a community center than strictly a retail hub? This was the teenage urbanist in me that did not have the language or understanding to grasp the benefits of sustainable, walkable livability that we’ve tried so hard to build out of our daily car-driven communities.
Imagine that the vacant retail spaces in our malls, ghosted by the dominance of online commerce, were immediately re-imagined as housing? That former Swarovski near the entrance would be the perfect size for a tiny yet affordable studio apartment. The vacated Brookstone space would make for a nice 1-2 bedroom. That large corner space that used to house a toy store would make for a fabulous penthouse. The JC Penny that finally said farewell? It could be re-purposed into dozens of livable spaces.
Interspersing the mall concourses and the still-relevant retail and dining options with housing has the potential to create livable environments unlike anything we have seen before. People from all walks of life could live in a space that was as much an urban-lite collective and a thriving community center as a retail Mecca. And who’s to say that small-to-midsized corporate employers couldn’t set up shop in these retail spaces as well?
Imagine you’re a 25 year old, just getting started in life. You wake up in your mall studio apartment that used to be an Orange Julius. You shower, get ready for work, and head out the front door. You look up into the glass roof to see a snow storm pummeling the region on a brisk 15-degree January day. Unaffected by the weather, you stroll on down to the cat cafe just a few paces from your apartment. You order a latte and enjoy a few moments petting some furry creatures before your day begins. Once there, you run into your neighbor and you share a brief conversation about the happenings of the previous weekend.
Eventually you end up at your destination, a tech-startup company where you are a programmer. During your day, if you desire a snack to get you through, a short walk to the food court is always an option.
After work, you might pick up a prescription at the mall Walgreens, go clothes shopping for a new work outfit at Banana Republic, Ann Taylor or Loft, get your nails done or join a friend for a nice dinner at an elevated restaurant. All in the walking environment that we have always known as the American mall.
As for the public amenities, imagine the space that used to be Sears housed a plethora of after-work options from a gym to a lazy river with a swim-up margarita bar. Imagine leaving work, buying gifts for a friend’s birthday, then going to the gym and finishing the evening by floating down a calming stream on an inflatable device sipping a Mai Thai. All this activity while the aforementioned winter storm raged on outside.
Or maybe it’s seeing a local band you dig in the old Forever 21 on a Saturday night, followed by a visit to the “entertainment district” for good food and drinks with friends in what used to be the corridor that housed Hallmark, American Eagle, and Pretzel Time. Worried about having one more drink? Don’t, because you can walk home to your mall apartment without thinking about getting in a car and becoming a danger on our roads.
Perhaps you’re parents of two children. You want that safe neighborhood feel but also want the ability to experience the convenience and fun of everything you used to love about Seinfeld, Sex in the City and How I Met Your Mother. Living in the mall can bridge all of those desires by providing a walkable life of stroller-pushing and adaptive-adulting as you bring your kids to the in-mall brewery in what used to be a Hollister.
Seniors? What better place to feel like you’re part of a community than to have multiple levels of assisted living within a shopping mall? Step outside of your living quarters for a walk in mid-January, sheltered from the elements and free to explore shops, restaurants and other establishments. The empowerment of creating a community that doesn’t require its residents to use a car is transcendent!
Stepping back, I fully understand that our antiquated zoning laws would make the above difficult. I also realize that the straightforward nature with which I have presented this information is, in reality, speckled with economic nuance that is our capitalistic America. But that doesn’t preclude us from seeing how our one-dimensional retail malls could conceivably be re-imagined to cater to the multi-dimensional lifestyles of today’s Americans.
Simply thinking about this makes us more aware of where we have gone wrong in our society. The zoning-based standard of separating where we live and what ever else we do is archaic, and needs to be revisited if we are going to change the narrative and appeal to young people in the future. Seeing malls as the real opportunity to blend suburban Main Street with urban convenience is a path we might explore if malls are going to transition into the future.