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5Qs for Joan Insel about parking lots

Al Urbanski
Joan Insel
Joan Insel

Everything about physical retail centers—the look, the function, the feel, the tenants—is now in flux. Almost everything is being questioned, and almost everything is being considered. But what about one of the most important aspects of neighborhood centers, malls, outdoor centers, and outlets alike? What about the parking lots? It turns out plenty is going on out in the lots as we learned from Joan Insel, the VP of brand strategy of CallisonRTKL, a leading international architecture firm that has designed centers in Europe and Asia, as well as the United States.

The majority of space in malls and shopping centers is taken up by parking lots. Is that going to be different in the future?
Actually, parking space has been reducing over the last 10 to 15 years. It used to be you needed five spaces for every thousand feet of shopping center space, then it went down to four, and now three.

What changed?
We’re seeing the need for dedicated curbside pick-up as well as Uber and ride-share stations. Meanwhile, the closing of anchor stores has reduced the amount of parking space malls need. I would say we’ve seen a 25 percent reduction in the parking spaces needed over just the past five years. Conversion of uses to office, residential, and healthcare are also driving changes in shopping center parking requirements.  

What’s the best use for that extra space?
The good thing for mall and shopping center owners who are losing anchors is that, if they can’t get as much money as they used to from interiors, they can make more from exteriors. Flexible parking lots will allow these spaces to be used for other seasonal uses like drive-in movies, fitness, pop-up events, farmers markets. Doing that right, though, takes a lot of planning and designing. It’s already been done in other parts of the world.

Such as?
In Southeast Asia, art parks travel from shopping center to shopping center with mobile structures. If you look to Northern Europe, it’s common to see Christmas markets outdoors. I was just reading an article from Norway about all the outdoor events and activities that take place in the winter months. Owners of American malls and shopping centers need to continue to adapt and evolve.

How have they been doing so far?
I think that, well before COVID-19 hit, they were looking for a more flexible model for retail centers that they could change out relatively quickly. You’re seeing a lot more of alternative retail approaches like pop-ups, mobile retail, and food trucks, and you’re going to see a lot more of this. They’re going to the customer, rather than the customer coming to them.

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