News | NCST Researcher Identifies Opportunities for Affordable Housing in Failing Malls

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According to a recent CNBC article, 25% of America’s approximately 1,000 malls will face closures within the next 3-5 years. When these malls close, they will leave behind more than nostalgia for those who once spent time in these social centers with family and friends. Failing malls may also provide a needed resource: land and space for redevelopment. Building on the historical repurposing of commercial properties, the higher rate of mall closures nationally will provide additional opportunities for housing. California, in particular, will be able to capitalize on redevelopment as it attempts to resolve its nearly 3.5-million-unit housing deficit.

The National Center for Sustainable Transportation (NCST) released research findings on mall redevelopment in a report titled Failing Malls: Optimizing Opportunities for Housing led by University of Southern California (USC) Research Professor Hilda Blanco and Research Assistants Buddy Burch, Des Alexander, and Shiqi Tang. Recognizing that the acceleration of online shopping and the increasing trend away from physical mall experiences could lead to large tracts of land becoming available for redevelopment, the researchers sought to determine the feasibility of redeveloping the sites to address California's severe housing deficit.

First, the team identified ten mall sites to examine as case studies, using three criteria:

1) status as a Regional (40-100 acres) or Super-Regional (60-120 acres) mall;

2) location within the four major California metro areas (Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad; Sacramento-Roseville-Folsom); and

3) status as a B or C quality mall (measured by average sales per square foot for non-anchor stores) that had vacant or vulnerable anchor stores like Sears, Macy’s, and J.C. Penney.

Each mall profile included information about who owned the property, existing redevelopment plans, the local/aerial footprint, history, and the surrounding neighborhood context – e.g. city demographics, housing needs, potential for site redevelopment, local transportation information, and environmental assessments from CalEnviroScreen (which measures vulnerability to environmental harms like air pollution).

The researchers’ framework for evaluating a site’s redevelopment potential integrated environmental, social, and economic factors. They used two metrics: how much the local population participated in the process and the number of affordable housing units that could be generated in comparison to the local government’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). Several major issues were also examined, including: proximity to highways, which may cause excess diesel fumes and air/noise pollution; the limited resources available to the site owners to re-develop a given site; community hostility, or “not in my backyard-ism" (NIMBYism), the mitigation of which researchers consider especially important to successful affordable housing efforts; potential deficits in available transit options post-redevelopment; and economic concerns, such as additional costs incurred by infrastructure and local service demands. Case study results suggest that redeveloping failing malls could fill in existing housing gaps, but with a few necessary considerations. Specifically, developers must address environmental issues unique to each site, continuously engage the local community, and consider public transit access.

Although the issues identified in the research may likely slow progress toward affordable housing redevelopment, Blanco’s research reveals the potential of reconceptualizing unused space. Although abandoned or failing malls face a bleak commercial future, these left-behind spaces will have a new opportunity to renew their purpose as critical centers of community-building and neighborhood.