By now, we’ve all heard the common refrain that malls are dying—and, to some extent, the numbers support that. In 1998, the number of shopping centers peaked at 42,000, accounting for about 40% of all retail sales in America. Today, only 1,000 remain, while countless “zombie malls” keep thrill-seekers and photographers entertained. But there’s a different story to be told.
A new book chronicles the rise, fall, and ongoing reinvention of the mall since 1956, when Victor Gruen designed the first American enclosed mall in Edina, Minnesota. Out today, Meet Me by The Fountain dives into the storied, almost nostalgic, past of the American mall and makes a case that, no, malls aren’t dying—they’re just changing with the times.
In the early 2000s, the U.S. was over-malled — blame “capitalist competition,” says Alexandra Lange, an architecture critic and author of the book. Then, one by one, malls started to close. “People attribute it to the rise of online shopping, but it also has to do with the decline of department stores, which were anchors for malls,” she says. Between 2016 and 2020, 360 mall-based department stores closed, then the pandemic happened: J. C. Penney closed 165 locations, Macy’s announced 125 of its stores would go dark by 2023, and Neiman Marcus filed for bankruptcy protection.
But even with the global pandemic, the rise of online shopping, and the slew of financial crises this country has gone through, some malls have evolved. From schools and libraries to medical centers and even housing, malls around the country have reinvented themselves, cementing their place as palaces of consumerism, but also community. “Victor Gruen’s original idea was that the mall would be a sort of one-stop-shop for the suburbs, with the amenities of a Main Street or small downtown,” says Lange. “People still need a place like that, even if the items and services they need have changed.”
Here are five ways that malls are getting a second life.
A vibrant community college
When Highland Mall opened in 1971, it was Austin’s first indoor mall. But after it closed in 2015, an unlikely new owner started buying sections of the then-vacated property. In April of this year, the former Highland Mall reopened as a campus for the Austin Community College.
Now known as ACC Highland, the campus was transformed by BGK Architects and now features a huge indoor courtyard plus a bookstore; multiple kitchens for the college’s culinary program; and a television studio for radio, television, and film students. “The architectural underpinnings of malls as fairly grand public spaces are meant for people to come and go,” says Lange. “The idea that the mall can still be filled with people going from room to room versus shop to shop—and have those be members of the public—is really exciting.”
A satellite medical center
In December 2019, a former JC Penney at the Charleston, South Carolina, Citadel Mall was turned into a 126,000-square-foot outpatient facility for the Medical University of South Carolina. The $33 million renovation includes a surgery center and multidisciplinary physician clinics, as well as an antibody infusion center on the site of a former restaurant.
The MUSC facility is part of a broader trend that has seen malls being transformed into medical centers. It’s a surprising marriage, but it makes sense: Medical centers get a bigger location, the mall fills the hole that was left by a departed anchor tenant, and the community gets access to a convenient location.
A “white-bread mall” gets a Latino makeover
Sometimes, malls need to reinvent themselves on a cultural level. The Buford-Clairmont Mall opened in 1968, on a highway near Atlanta. Then the mall went through a series of owners, including one that turned it into “Oriental Mall,” modeled after a crowded Hong Kong street.
Meanwhile, Georgia had become the third-largest state for migrating Hispanics and Latinos, in part after the 1996 Olympic games, which brought in thousands of Mexican workers to help build up the city for the games. So in 2000, the Legaspi Company spent $11 million to transform Oriental Mall into Plaza Fiesta—a strip-mall-meets-Mexican-market that’s since become a Latino hub. “They took what was a pretty beige, boxy, boring white-bread mall and resurfaced it, but the whole inside is now like you could be in Latin America,” says Lange. Today, Plaza Fiesta counts specialty restaurants serving up Oaxacan pizza-tostada and caramel-filled churros, hair salons, and, bus service to Mexico. It also boasts the largest indoor playground in Georgia and a traditional tile fountain at the center.
A mixed-use development
After a long and slow decline, the Northland Shopping Center, in Southfield, Minnesota, closed in 2015. But this wasn’t the end for a mall that was dreamed up in the 1960s by Gruen himself. In 2021, Contour Properties spent $11.1 million on the 97-acre site and announced a multiphase redevelopment that will include 14 new buildings built on top of the 8,000-car parking lot. Northland’s ground-level retail spaces will be turned into 250 apartments, and the old 4-story Macy’s building—the one that was built by Gruen—will be reborn as a vast food hall.
A resilient park
In 1971, the Meriden Mall in Meriden, Connecticut, was built on top of three brooks that were obstructed by a maze of underground pipes. In the ’90s, the blocked water streams resulted in two floods, which caused $30 million in damages to the downtown area. Eventually, the mall was razed—and replaced by a 14.4-acre park in 2016.
And while reusing existing buildings is often seen as a more sustainable solution, Lange notes that there is no viable future for buildings that were simply built in the wrong place. “If you tear it down and build something new while also creating more green space, and recalibrating the underlying land closer to its original state, then that is better.”