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Malls and the mixed-use fix


As architects who have completed lots of projects for retail, we are often approached by mall owners looking to resurrect properties by turning them into mixed-use developments. The truth is that while mixed-use can be a fix for troubled malls, it’s not an easy fix.

One must have a deep understanding of a specific marketplace to design the mixed-use project that will work — or if it will work at all. Owners must be prepared to consider creative design and construction solutions and to accommodate the unique demands of non-retail tenants looking to adopt retail formats and efficiencies. The ability to navigate leasing and zoning complexities is a must.

If marketplace conditions are right and the correct formula is employed, mixed- use can be the answer. Even dilapidated properties can be totally reimagined. The Town and Country Mall in Houston’s Citycentre, by way of example, was successfully redeveloped into a vibrant mixed-use development with new retail, apartments, town homes, and offices.

Integrating mixed-use is much more art than science. While hotel, residential, and medical office are three of the most common uses being incorporated in new and renovated malls, not every component is a good fit for every project and sub-categories in each segment can complicate design, development and leasing decisions.

Redevelopment projects can be especially tricky. Taking existing structures that weren’t originally designed for residential or hospitality uses and finding a cost-effective way to modify them is no small technical challenge. For example, floor-to-floor heights may be less than ideal to transform the space and the layout and traffic flow of the site may present difficulties.

Flexibility is necessary as the retail industry evolves, so buildings should be designed with that in mind. Whether it's a parking structure designed to lend square footage to a future office building, or increased loading of a structural slab to accommodate a change of uses, designing infrastructure and structural systems with flexibility should be top-of-mind.

Every project is unique, and zoning rules, codes and variances can make navigating the regulatory thicket a challenge. With mixed use comes more detail, and even a seemingly small zoning or building code detail can potentially throw a big old wrench into the works of a project. To the extent possible, the developer and design team should practice meticulous master-planning and site planning. Don’t make assumptions, and if possible, have all the players in the game lined up as early as possible. Failing to do so can have big zoning implications.

With new uses coming to malls, it’s inevitable that non-traditional tenants may adopt a more retail-centric model. In the healthcare industry, for example, medical providers are empowering patients to become more engaged in wellness. The model for care is shifting away from treating illness and more towards keeping patients healthy. To facilitate this, the healthcare industry is starting to treat patients more like consumers. Part of that means making it easier and more convenient for patients to come in for more frequent treatment, therapy or consultation. For developers, that may mean accommodating an expanded desire to make use of mall amenities, including park space, adjacent coffee shops, fitness areas, and a tech infrastructure to accommodate iPad self-check-in and other conveniences. It’s all about making it easier for patients — enhancing the patient experience, which a familiar mandate for retail professionals.

It might not be “rudimentary,” and you’ll have to research the potential setbacks, but bringing mixed-use to the mall has the potential to make retail spaces more appealing, more enjoyable, and ultimately more profitable.

Lori Bongiorno serves as principal and commercial studio director at M+A Architects, a Columbus, Ohio-based architecture firm. For more information, visit
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