Don’t blame the internet (or COVID-19) for killing malls 

Drew Romanic
Drew Romanic
Principal & Partner

It’s been a tough year for retail. Actually, it’s been a tough couple of decades, especially for big indoor malls. E-tail is often cited as the reason for their decline, but the problem is much older. One reason is that for the last 50 years, malls were built too closely together. This has hastened their decline, with some malls changing hands for pennies on the dollar.

Owners who are able to adapt may find they are sitting on goldmines: acres of mostly unused parking lot close to established neighborhoods, mass transit and interstate highways prime for redevelopment.

Singles, young couples, and empty nesters often want to live in walkable communities, close to shops, restaurants and entertainment, but such neighborhoods are in high demand and short supply. To meet the need, residential development can take the place of dying anchor stores, creating a captive audience for new stores and services.

Hunt Valley Mall

Take, for example, Hunt Valley Mall north of Baltimore, Maryland. Twenty years ago, it was on life support—a bland, nearly empty shell of its former self. That’s when the owner, Greenberg Gibbons Commercial, came to Martin Architectural Group looking for a new concept.

In collaboration with GGC, Martin began redevelopment by taking down the claustrophobic indoor mall and creating an outdoor main street shopping area with a Wegmans Food Market, a cinema and restaurants.

Over the last two decades, as GGC and Martin saw opportunities in the marketplace, they pivoted, adding office space, more restaurants, market-rate apartments, senior living and a hotel. The once desolate mall is now a vibrant 24/7 community that supports the shops, which in turn provide the walkable lifestyle that residents desire.

Hunt Valley is successful because it was designed to be a fun destination. The original master plan included community gathering places around a fountain and fireplace, a bandstand, restaurants and a theater. For Martin, every project is unique, with the type of structures, residences and amenities determined by climate, demographics, site characteristics, land assignments, REAs and lease covenants.

It’s important to note that mall redevelopment is not for the faint of heart. A team of experts, including an architect/land planner, land use attorney, civil and traffic engineers, all with experience in mall redevelopment, is a must.

Just as important if not thee most important consideration of redevelopment is buy-in. If you cannot get that buy in from open discussion with the community and municipal authority you will be in purgatory. Without the cooperation of the local planning and zoning board as well as town council, it is a non-starter. For example, The Promenade at Granite Run (formerly Granite Run Mall), spent several years in discussions with the municipal and community leaders, in order to gain approval to re-vision the property to a horizontal mixed-use project, with two phases of rental apartments planned. Phase two was conditioned on percentage of occupancy of phase one, based on concerns from the municipality of the apartments’ delivery to the market. Michael Markman, President of BET Investments gives the following advice: “Working on zoning ordinances for a dead mall can be a long and arduous process. While most municipalities want to see their properties redeveloped, they often have concerns related to new uses that previously did not exist on the property. We found that maximizing the list of potential uses in the ordinance can help with creating a new and successful mixed-use environment. It is probably a good idea to look at the better mall redevelopments around the country and including every potential use that has been considered in the past. Keep in mind that there may be pushback with non-customer related uses such as warehouses, but the key is making your new ordinance as broad as possible when the mall is dead as there may not be as much flexibility if you are successful in your redevelopment.”

The devil is in the details – many items require discussion and reassessment, from signage to accessible routes through and around the property. Currently we are seeing those routes to include connecting pedestrian pathways, as well as connecting to the surrounding neighborhoods. These are all good things that take time, energy and a dedicated team.

Most importantly, you need deep pockets, a strong stomach and a lot of patience. You will have to work with local government, tenants and neighbors, some of whom won’t like you. Zoning will have to be changed, and tenants may have to be relocated.

It’s a lot to consider, but when faced with losing the mall or revisioning it as a vibrant part of the community, the choice is clear.


Children's Hospital of Philadelphia at Granite Run

The Martin Architectural Group was established in 1967 with a commitment to client service and design excellence. Our diverse portfolio includes mixed-use, multi-family residential, senior living communities, retail and office designs, transit-oriented developments, and sustainable projects. We are award-winning architects and planners committed to delivering the highest quality professional services to private sector real estate development. Image of the new CHOP center at the revisioned Promenade at Granite Run

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