Big Mall Makeover: Using Empty Malls for Farms, Housing, Wedding Receptions

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In recent years, consumers have been buying more and more goods from outlet malls, dollar stores and online retailers. By no small coincidence, over the same time period traditional shopping malls have suffered, and now have the highest vacancy rates in 20 years. All those empty stores—and sometimes, entirely empty malls—have developers and community planners trying to figure out what to do with a shopping mall when people don’t want to shop there.

The research firm Reis reported that during the fourth quarter of 2011, large regional malls had an average vacancy rate of 9.2%. The Wall Street Journal noted that, after hitting a 9.4% vacancy in the previous quarter—an all-time high since the tracking of such data began in 2000—this was something of an improvement.

But by most signs, the classic American indoor shopping mall is dying. The last time a new indoor shopping mall opened in the U.S. was 2006. Rents charged at large regional malls also stand at about the same levels as 2006. Vacancy rates have been rising steadily since 2007, when the rate was around 5.5%. The vacancy rate at shopping centers and strip malls recently hit 11%, the highest level since 1991.

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The economic downturn is surely responsible for why many malls are being deserted. But shoppers aren’t staying away from malls just because they don’t have the money, but also because it’s becoming increasingly clear the standard mall is a less than perfect fit with how we now live our lives.

The New York Times explores some of the ways that some abandoned, or largely abandoned, malls are being reinvented for purposes other than housing Macy’s, Sears, Gap, and food courts:

Schools, medical clinics, call centers, government offices and even churches are now standard tenants in malls. By hanging a curtain to hide the food court, the Galleria in Cleveland, which opened in 1987 with about 70 retailers and restaurants, rents space for weddings and other events. Other malls have added aquariums, casinos and car showrooms.

Other malls are welcoming community gardens, dog runs, ice rinks, and just about anything else people can dream up as a means to attract consumers.

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The Times has made a habit of covering the epic decline of the American shopping mall, with a particular focus on what can be done with all of those vast buildings that, after hosting retailers like Blockbuster Video and Circuit City for years, are now empty. During the heart of the recession, in a discussion about what to do with a deserted mall, one theme brought up again and again from architects, suburban historians, and other experts is that the traditional mall is failing because it’s so isolated from the community.

Shoppers once viewed malls as destinations that were swankier and more convenient than crowded, rundown downtowns. But now? The main convenience of a mall—abundant parking, via acres and acres of blacktop—is an overwhelming turnoff.

For a mall to succeed, it should be woven seamlessly into the community, and that’s impossible if the stores are surrounded by half a million parking spots. One interesting idea is that, since people are growing reluctant to leave their homes to head to the mall, it could be possible for people to actually live in the mall. You can’t use laziness as an excuse to avoid shopping if the shops are only an elevator ride away.

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Designers in Seattle and Buffalo are trying to add housing to malls, or even to completely convert old malls to apartments. Sections of a glass-covered mall in Cleveland, meanwhile, are being used as a greenhouse for growing vegetables, while a proposal in Detroit would transform a mall into a community farm. That could make malls more sustainable than they are now—in more ways than one.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.