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Here's What's Becoming Of America's Dead Shopping Malls

Federal Realty Investment Trust
Courtesy of WDG Architecture
New transit-oriented, mixed-use walkable downtowns, like this one in Rockville, Md., are often replacing indoor shopping malls and strip malls that once defined suburban America.

Chances are your local mall is hurting. There are roughly 1,200 enclosed malls in the U.S. and only about a third of them are doing well.

Online shopping, the recession and demographic shifts are some of the factors killing shopping malls. And as these changes leave behind huge concrete carcasses, they're being "reimagined" into everything from medical centers to hockey rinks.

/ Courtesy of Beech Park Baptist Church
Courtesy of Beech Park Baptist Church
The entrance to and sanctuary of Beech Park Baptist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., used to be a bowling alley at the Tri-County Mall.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Institute of Technology, has been following dead and dying malls in both urban and suburban landscapes. She speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Interview Highlights

What are malls being turned into?

Usually when a mall dies, there's a reason — there was too much competition from other malls or something — so it's not always the best move to try to replace it with retail. We find all sorts of interesting things. They're being turned into office space — Google Glass happens to now be in a former dead mall. They're being turned into medical centers, churches, schools and universities, civic functions. Some of them have played a role in disaster recovery.

/ Courtesy of Gresham, Smith and Partners
Courtesy of Gresham, Smith and Partners
Michael Lewis / Courtesy of Gresham, Smith and Partners
Courtesy of Gresham, Smith and Partners
The former main entrance to the One Hundred Oaks Mall (top photo) and the new lobby and reception desk to the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

On new suburban downtowns replacing malls

There's about 40 malls that have more or less bulldozed the existing mall and are now building the downtown that that suburb never had before. One example is Belmar in Lakewood, Colo., just outside of Denver. It used to be the Villa Italia Mall, a very large regional mall on a 100-acre single, superblock site. Today it's 22 blocks of walkable, urban streets that connect up with the neighboring streets. At the ground floor you get a lot of shops, and then above that, a lot of either offices or apartments. At the same time, they basically tripled density on that site but they've more than quadrupled the tax revenue that the town is receiving and ... actually cut traffic because so many of those people now are able to walk to their daily needs.

On the mixed-use development real estate trend that has replaced the shopping mall trend

It's often referred to as "new urbanism," the movement that's been driving a lot of this, because it makes so much sense from an economic point of view, certainly from a sustainability and environment point of view, from social — building more opportunities for people to get together. And it also just really makes sense in terms of our changing demographics. Folks in their 20s — millennials — most of them grew up in the suburbs and most of them have made very clear they want to live a more urban lifestyle. They don't want to become their parents.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.