There is no doubt that the heaving change in retail malls and major store closings will leave structural buildings demanding reuse. And this has all happened before-as reported in Citylab Sears built several “plants” across the country ninety years ago that were subsequently transformed into multi-use buildings and offices. Even the main headquarters for Seattle-based Starbucks is a former Sears warehouse. The locations of these former plant buildings were close to rail lines on the edges of cities, with lots of parking. These plants were huge, often a million square feet, and were local landmarks. Some sported towers, but these were really to provide water storage for the plant to provide water pressure for bathroom use during workers’ break times.
As Sears lost the need for rail transportation and chose trucking for deliveries plants near railway lines were no longer necessary and became opportunities to attract jobs and commerce. In Minneapolis the mayor and City morphed the old plant into the Midtown Exchange building with a corporate headquarters and 178 units of affordable housing and a food and crafts hall. This food market also used the existing railway bed beside the building as a new “Midtown Greenway” to bring customers to the hall by walking and by bicycle.
This pattern of reuse was also experienced at other Sears plants, where period architecture detail became a feature of the building reuse, and former rail access provided a green walkway and bikeway to the structure. Contrast this with shuttered suburban mall stores which are not near rail lines, but are industrial shell islands in huge tarred parking lots with no linear park greenway access and not near downtowns. Think of Amazon’s large warehouses. Can you see mixed use development occurring in those?
Where the previous Sears plants from nearly a century ago left industrial architecture and locations that were accessible by foot and valued, the shell structures from abandoned malls will be more difficult to readapt. Will these locations become sad decaying testaments to 20th century consumerism, or can these more remotely located malls be completely rehauled to new uses? As Ellen Denham-Jones states “the growing number of empty and under-performing retail sits throughout suburbia gives an opportunity to take the least-sustainable landscapes and convert them into more sustainable places. This allows us to redirect growth back into existing communities that could use a boost, and have the infrastructure in place, instead of continuing to tear down trees and to tear up the green space out at the edges”.