Aging in Place The IDEA Series: Dead Malls

Opportunity often comes disguised in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat.

~Napoleon Hill


With the sad news of SEARS selling off Craftsman tools and closing many anchor stores in malls around the country, this got me thinking about the fate of an American architectural Icon…The shopping mall. How did the concept begin? and where is it headed?

Aging in Place The IDEA Series

Victor Gruen was a visionary and a man of his time. Born in Vienna in 1904 to a Jewish family, he left Austria in 1938 for New York City; where he made a name for himself designing shops and retail spaces during the challenge of the lean years of the late 30s.

Gruen believed that good design equaled good profits. His thinking went something like this; the more beautiful the displays and surroundings, the longer consumers would linger to shop. Attracted by aesthetics which delighted the senses, sightseers would be transformed into buyers. He was on to something…

This new form of consumerism leads to an equally new form of urbanism. Gruen observed in his travels around America, that too much time was spent riding around in cars as a result of suburban design. This architecture of isolation meant that people are cut off from the city and from each other in their attempts to purchase goods and services. And so he created the shopping mall seated squarely in suburbia.

The suburbs lacked what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls third places.  If home is the primary place, and work is a second place, then a third place anywhere else one goes to be around other people—to build community, to hang out, to feel connected. Gruen wanted to give the American suburbs that third place.

Victor Gruen imagined designing an environment full of greenery and shops. An indoor plaza which could be an island of connection in the middle of the sprawl. One that would get people out of their cars in order to walk and stroll within them. ~ Producer Avery Trufelman

Lasting about 60 years the shopping mall has its place in American architectural history. Once a place for pimply teenagers to do their mating rituals and seniors to get their 10,000 steps in, the mall has run its course to a sure death…Or have they?

There’s no question as to whether or not malls are dead. In our post-recession world, these monuments to consumerism have moved into a state of decay as people have kept their wallets closed or moved on to open-air shopping models (and of course, pop-ups). Few enclosed malls have been built since 2006 in the U.S., and the sprawling complexes are increasingly standing empty, waiting to either be torn down or transformed by some new program. ~ Alex Garkavenko

This last line in Garkavenko’s above statement: “…or transformed by some new program.”  Is a potential lifeline to the consumer icon that was the Mall.

Repurposing for an Aging Population

The baby boomers are the first suburban generation, having grown up in the culdesac:  safety 1950’s Americana. Now that same generation is turning 65 at a clip of 10,000/day and will continue to until around 2030—and 70% of them will be aging in rural and suburban environments. The very same neighborhoods where these dead malls lie dormant from neglect.

Want a BIG Opportunity—find a BIG Problem

One of the biggest challenges for boomers and seniors aging in place is isolation—both social and physical due to living in communities that were built with “Peter-Pan” thinking. In the 1950’s we were youth-oriented and growing with the vitality of a new beginning. No one foresaw that these same communities designed for younger inhabitants would someday STILL be home for these very same individuals.

Now called NORCs or naturally occurring retirement communities, these areas are where people stay and grow old together. These places are going to be in grave need of goods and services—the kind of need that generated the shopping mall over 60 years earlier. Only now, the focus needs to shift from Orange Julius and Old Navy, to senior in-home care services, travel for boomers, senior fit centers, adult education centers, nutrition stores, Walgreens, meals-on-wheels, local area agencies on aging, churches, walk-in beauty shops, pet care, volunteer centers, home monitoring stores with the latest aging in place technology offerings, boomer sports bar, AARP center, career training, Harley shop, the list is endless.

Take these outdated resources and repurpose them to serve the aging populations in the communities in which they are resting—breathe new life into the mall. Design them as centers to come and not just consume relevant products and services, but make them a third place that is compelling and supportive.

Here’s why this might just be a good IDEA:

America’s 75 million Baby Boomers, between the ages of 52 and 70, control about 70 percent of all disposable income in the U.S. according to Nielson.  On top of that, Boomers are set to inherit about $15 trillion dollars over the next 20 years.  With that kind of financial might, analysts expect Baby Boomers will continue to ignite a consumer spending boom over the next several years.   ~Laura Lee


This is what opportunity looks like; turning Silver into Green



Dead Malls: Welcome to Retail History

This is the Gruen Effect

A giant wave of store closures is wreaking havoc on shopping malls

Designing Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging Population: Design Solutions for Aging in Place

Is suburbia ready for retiring baby boomers?

(image credits Architizer)