From Old to New: Repurposing Malls for New Uses


Repurposing malls represents a complex, yet increasingly necessary, response to the changing dynamics of consumer behavior, urban development, and economic revitalization. The decline of traditional malls has been driven by the rise of e-commerce, changing consumer preferences, and economic shifts. This has presented significant challenges and opportunities for communities, developers, and policymakers alike.

Below, we explore various facets of mall repurposing in greater detail, including zoning ordinances, neighborhood views, economic impacts, construction challenges, and potential new uses. With some dedication and creativity, these large complexes can go from failing, to thriving economic engines for the locations in which they reside.

Local Mall Repurposing: The Lloyd Center

The City of Portland has it’s own mall project to think about, as the Lloyd Center Mall, originally opened in 1960, faced foreclosure following the exodus of most of its traditional tenants in the mid-to-late  2010’s. This all took place in spite of its urban location, close proximity to the downtown core, and variety of transportation options available.

Most recently sold in 2021, developer Urban Renaissance Group released a new vision for the outdated space, which includes:

  • New multi-family housing
  • Commercial office space
  • Outdoor amenities
  • Restaurants
  • Experiential retail
  • Entertainment venues
  • Improved pedestrian walkways

Important to the local community, the developer has been committed to leaving the long-standing ice-rink in place. Some have even speculated that the Portland Diamond Project, an effort to bring Major League Baseball to Portland, should land in the Lloyd Center Mall area. Whatever happens with the Lloyd Center, it will be a fascinating case study to watch as malls in other locations face similar circumstances.

Zoning Ordinances and Community Engagement

Adaptive reuse of malls often requires navigating complex zoning landscapes and potentially advocating for changes to accommodate new uses. Zoning ordinances are critical to the repurposing process, dictating what activities can occur in a given area. This process involves engaging with municipal planning departments, community stakeholders, and, sometimes, the broader public through meetings and hearings.

Successful projects typically involve early and ongoing dialogue with these groups to ensure that the redevelopment aligns with community needs and visions. Good communication can lead to a smoother approval process and greater public acceptance.

Neighborhood opinions are equally important. Community support or opposition can significantly influence a project’s trajectory. Often known as ‘NIMBYism’, the attitude of ‘not-in-my-backyard’ by locals can create significant opposition to redevelopment efforts. It’s often particularly prevalent when projects include low-income housing or services for mentally ill citizens. 

Developers and city planners often engage in community outreach efforts to gather input, address concerns, and integrate community feedback into their plans. This engagement helps build a sense of ownership and investment among local residents and businesses, which is crucial for the long-term success and sustainability of repurposed malls.

Economic Implications of Mall Repositioning

The economic implications of repurposing malls are vast. On one hand, these projects can stimulate local economies by creating jobs, both during and after construction, and increasing tax revenues through enhanced property values and new businesses. On the other hand, they require significant investment, not just in terms of construction and development costs, but also in planning, community engagement, and potential infrastructure upgrades.

The return on investment can be substantial; however, transforming dormant properties into productive, vibrant spaces can attract residents, businesses, and visitors and boosts local economies. In this four-part series by Camoin Associates, an exploration of the benefits to local communities is described, and they include:

  • Economic revitalization
  • Job creation – both temporary and permanent
  • Increased tax revenue
  • New business integrations
  • Improved property values
  • Diversification of land uses
  • Tourism or destination appeal
  • Adaptive re-use
  • Community enhancements

While redevelopment efforts for these types of spaces may take years and significant hurdles to achieve, the local economic benefits are substantial.

Construction and Development Challenges

The construction challenges of repurposing malls are diverse. These buildings were initially designed with a specific use in mind and transforming them for new purposes can uncover a range of structural, architectural, and environmental issues. Depending on the geographical location, seismic upgrades could be a considerable challenge. According to JLL, more than 54% of mall redevelopments include residential uses and 35% office uses. Others include hotels, medical spaces, and entertainment, among others.

Source: JLL

Most redevelopments still include a significant amount of retail space. These multi-use redevelopments seek to achieve a ‘live, work, play’ community.

Some examples of challenges might include:

  • Retrofitting a large, open retail space into office units or residential apartments may require extensive demolition and reconstruction to meet current building codes, provide adequate natural light, and ensure proper ventilation.
  • Environmental assessments may reveal contamination from previous uses, requiring remediation.
  • Upgrading infrastructure to support new technologies and utilities can be both costly and complex.
  • Existing parking or transportation constraints must be considered, particularly for new uses that may generate excessive vehicle traffic.

Many of these projects are significant in square footage and cost. This adds a layer of complexity for financing and funding these projects. Public and private partnerships might be the answer to creating new spaces for the community while also making these projects feasible for a developer to pursue.

Potential New Uses and Innovations

The potential new uses for repurposed malls are limited only by imagination and community needs. Beyond conversions into mixed-use developments, housing, or office spaces, innovative projects have transformed these spaces into cultural centers, educational campuses, medical hubs, and green spaces.

For example, some communities have turned vacant malls into indoor farms, leveraging the expansive square footage for sustainable food production. Others have introduced public amenities such as libraries, community centers, and parks, adding value to the neighborhood and fostering a sense of community. Recently, several vacant office spaces have been turned into vertical farm spaces. This same concept could be applied to mall spaces.

The integration of technology and sustainability practices into repurposed malls can set new standards for urban development. Smart building technologies, renewable energy sources, and green building materials can reduce the environmental footprint of these large structures, making them more sustainable and efficient in the long run.

Final Thoughts

The repurposing of malls is a multifaceted endeavor that requires careful consideration of zoning laws, community needs, economic impacts, construction challenges, and the best way to innovate the spaces. By addressing these aspects comprehensively, developers, communities, and policymakers can transform obsolete retail spaces into thriving hubs that serve the evolving needs of their surrounding areas. Such projects not only contribute to the economic and social revitalization of communities but also offer a blueprint for sustainable urban development in the face of changing retail landscapes and consumer behaviors.