Mall Makeover: Reinventing Shopping Centers for a New Era

by Jules Coke October 16 2023

For decades, malls and shopping centers have been an indelible part of our social experience. Whether you know them best from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Season 3 of Stranger Things, or hours spent at the food court as a teenager, malls have given us a cultural backdrop for fashion, friendship, drama — and more than a few cinnamon buns.

It’s no secret that the classic shopping mall has been in decline for years. E-commerce has been a death knell for many shopping centers, causing anchor tenants to go out of business and leaving property developers and urban planners scrambling to find new uses for vacant space. Now, there are only 700 malls in the United States, down from 2,500 in the 1980s. (One expert predicts there will be only 150 left by 2032.)

The pandemic accelerated the trend. Remote and hybrid work reduced foot traffic in city centers, and people got used to entertaining themselves at home. When it was finally safe to return to the real world, the standard for shopping and dining had been raised. People were no longer willing to leave the house to have just a mediocre time; the destination had to be worth the effort. By the end of 2022, American malls had an 8.7% vacancy rate, the highest rate of any kind of retail property.

But the prognosis for the good old mall isn’t as bad as it seems. Although some shopping centers are closing permanently, many others are being reimagined as gathering hubs, gardens, experiential art sites, and more. Now, we’re on the cusp of a major shift that will transform declining retail spaces into incubators for innovative consumer experiences.

To shop or not to shop: rethinking the mall store experience

The shopping centers that thrive in the future will offer a hybrid blend of physical and virtual experiences. AI will help customers curate their own shopping experience, allowing them to order in advance certain pieces of clothing to try on in the store. Other technologies will facilitate cutting-edge brand demonstrations, product personalization, and more.

The most successful shops within malls will be those that use virtual and digital elements to become more than just warehouses of clothing racks and gadgets. The Apple Store was a frontrunner in this, curating physical locations to become sleek, all-in-one help desks, repair shops, classrooms, and showrooms. Some stores offer Today at Apple programs with hands-on workshops and educational experiences to showcase the benefits of the brand and help customers make the most of their Apple products.

Other retailers are following suit. For instance, the On Running brand has put tech to use by establishing a 12-meter track with markerless motion capture to analyze customer running motions in its flagship store. The store then creates a full biomechanical profile of the shopper’s running gait and uses it to offer customized product recommendations.

The bottom line? Malls are transforming into community hubs, centers of sophisticated experiences, and even art installations. Read on to see the top ten ways that global malls are getting a long-overdue makeover.

1. Interactive Entertainment

Immersive and interactive attractions are allowing a rethink of the consumer experience.  As part of the larger Area15 experiential and entertainment district, Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart riffs on the concept of a supermarket with surreal cereal boxes, radioactive-looking cleaning products, and a deli counter displaying extraterrestrial meats.

The interactivity of Omega Mart is key both for captivating visitors and ensuring they come back. It’s not just a passing viewing experience; rather, guests walk through portals and crawl into secret corners. They “become an employee” with trippy “training presentations” and look for Easter eggs hidden in the virtual and physical designs. When visitors are ready for something else, they leave Omega Mart and enjoy old school arcade and bar games, a panoramic observation ride, and a virtual Formula One racing experience in the broader Area15 complex.

2. Immersive art galleries galore

Beyond Omega Mart, other malls are using their space to feature artwork. The Canopy at the 900 North Michigan Shops in Chicago has created a permanent but ever-changing art installation on its 190-foot atrium ceiling. It’s a sophisticated digital media installation featuring colorful designs that evolve over time, created by artists around the globe.

The same site also previewed a Future Galerie immersive digital art exhibition with cutting-edge machine learning algorithms. These initiatives show that art experiences have strong potential to draw in both art enthusiasts and the general public to underused retail spaces.

3. Break a sweat

The days of mall walking are largely over — but that doesn’t mean malls are leaving exercise behind.

In Missouri, Ballparks of America created replicas of several Major League Baseball stadiums within the former Red Roof Mall. Although some of the mall’s facilities were demolished, others were cleverly renovated into spaces for team dormitories, concessions, restrooms, and a pro shop. The site now brings in baseball teams from around the world and has generated over $50 million in revenue for the surrounding area.

Meanwhile, space in the Manassas Mall in Virginia is being repurposed as an indoor pickleball facility. The 16,000-square-foot facility will include six regulation-sized pickleball courts and offer pickleball clinics, private lessons, and leagues, drawing a wide variety of players to the space.

4. Extravagant luxury: Hong Kong’s K11 Musea

A shopping spree fit for royalty? That’s the approach that Hong Kong’s K11 Musea has taken. By putting major luxury brands like Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Christian Louboutin, and Versace front and center, K11 Musea has elevated shopping into an opulent haute couture experience.

The center features 250 retailers in all, plus 70 destination restaurants, 40 artist installations, and an array of educational programs to appeal to a broad cross-section of shoppers. Its architecture alone is a draw, with soaring ceilings, parquet floors, and a stunning copper-colored atrium. In the words of Vogue, it’s “so decidedly over the top that describing it as a shopping mall would risk offending its sensibilities.”

Photo credit: Eric Laignel

5. The performance venues of the future

For some, finding innovative new uses for old spaces is something of a calling. That’s the case with Fabien Riggall, the founder of the popular immersive film experience Secret Cinema, and his group of artists and creators.

One of the group’s upcoming endeavors is South London’s Lost City, a massive multidisciplinary performance venue planned on the site of the dilapidated Allders Building in South Croydon. Rather than ignore the site’s history, Lost City will make use of the old shopping center fixtures to create a distinctive backdrop for the music and art venue. The end result will bring together local artists and celebrate the intersection of art, entertainment, and retail.

We’ve aimed for a similar blend of experiential art, performance space, and hospitality with our TSX Broadway project, a one-of-a-kind, 46-story multi-use building in Times Square. Coming in 2024, the TSX Broadway will feature a massive indoor/outdoor performance stage, an 18,000 square-foot wraparound LED screen, and a futuristic retail space that mixes the physical with the digital. Once completed, TSX Broadway will deliver immersive experiences that elevate artist performances and reshape the way fans see pop culture entertainment.

Renderings courtesy of TSX Entertainment

6. From Orange Julius to green farming

Some old malls are being repurposed as vertical farms with state-of-the-art growing technologies. In the American Midwest, the Galleria Mall in Cleveland has turned its vacant spaces into Gardens Under Glass, a project that grows organic food for mall patrons and local restaurants. The initiative features a food cart selling fresh produce and educational resources to draw in shoppers. Meanwhile, Wilder Fields is turning a Super Target into a vertical farm on the outskirts of Chicago, growing greens in the repurposed building to reduce CO2 emissions and provide better ingredients to the local community.

In the Mediterranean, the Green in the City Rooftop Farm is producing 10,000 heads of leafy greens a month above the Dizengoff Center shopping mall in Tel Aviv, Israel. The mall now features various hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture spaces, including bird habitats, a rooftop apiary, a tree nursery, and more. It’s designed as an attraction and educational space for urban agriculture, intended to both sustain the community and attract visitors.

7. Out with the food court, in with the restaurant hub

Food can be a major part of a shopping mall’s revitalization plan, as the Fairview Mall in Toronto proves. To attract more foot traffic, the mall has reinvented itself as an East Asian and South Asian food destination, offering a premium seafood restaurant, a hand-pulled noodle eatery, and multiple bubble tea shops, Chinese bakeries, dessert cafes, and bars. A far cry from the food courts of the 1980s, the revamped mall is expected to become a hub for nearby residents as well as visitors from the greater Toronto area.

From our work designing Le District, the Lower Manhattan dining destination, we know how food can be a major star in its own right. By capturing the tastes of Morocco, Montreal, Paris, and Provence in a hub of restaurants and food markets, we created a foodie mecca with options for everyone. Similarly, in Mercado Little Spain in New York’s Hudson Yards, we designed a Spanish-themed dining experience with 15 food kiosks, a beer hall, and three signature restaurants.

Photo credit: Eric Laignel

8. Aging gracefully at the mall

Recently, a number of senior living communities have been proposed on the sites of former retail centers. The plans typically feature self-contained spaces, walkable communities, and the feeling of a high-end resort — and several have already come to fruition.

In Upstate New York, for example, the Sears store in the old Irondequoit Mall has made way for Skyview Park, an amenity-filled senior housing community with over 150 residences. Similar communities have been developed in Illinois and in Seattle, joining a broader reimagining of mixed-use residential, dining, and entertainment spaces in former shopping malls.

Photo credit: Eric Laignel

9. Tech company headquarters

There’s perhaps no better way to catapult an outdated shopping center into the future than making it the headquarters of a massive tech company. Take Google’s facility in Mountain City, California. Set in the former Mayfield Mall, the property was renovated with modern design and green building techniques without erasing its historic architectural elements.

It was such a successful undertaking that Google is now renovating the Westside Pavilion mall in Los Angeles, which closed in 2018 after its anchor tenants left. Now, the space once featured in the 1995 movie Clueless is slated to become a high-end tech workplace with a garden deck and terraces.

Renderings courtesy of TSX Entertainment

10. Don’t forget the parking structure

Last but not least, some innovative thinkers are expanding their scope beyond the four walls of the shopping mall. In London, Roof East has turned a disused multi-story car park into a multi-story experiential entertainment space and rooftop bar. The 30,000-square-foot space offers batting cages, table tennis, pub quizzes, dance classes, giant Jenga, and movies under the stars.

The fall and rise of the mall

Although the range of possibilities for reimagining shopping malls is vast, successful projects all have a few qualities in common: inventive uses of new technology, a team of creative experts, and skilled strategic planning. With the right vision, there are few limits to how shopping centers and malls may be transformed in the future.

It’s a transformation that we care about deeply, having been at the vanguard of reimagining large facilities with our Battersea Power Station project. As part of the renovation of the massive site, we created a state-of-the-art immersive exhibition in its former Turbine Hall A. Our approach used a mix of physical and virtual design elements to set the scene for the Lift 109 viewing experience at the peak of the station’s northwest chimney. 

To tell a cohesive and engaging story about the space, we turned to interactive tables, LED screens, lighting sculptures, AR web apps, soundscapes, and more. We made aesthetic choices to honor the power station’s past rather than cover it up, designing text animations to mirror the motion of the Lift 109 elevator and creating graphics in the style of technical drawings. Our goal was to both celebrate the building’s historic importance and shepherd it into its new existence as a mixed use neighborhood with premium shopping, dining, parks, and entertainment venues.

As XR technologies and virtual entertainment continue to advance, we’re excited to see how shopping centers, industrial spaces, and yes, even parking structures, can have their lives extended by creative reuse. With the right approach, we expect to see shopping malls regain their status as economic powerhouses, social hubs, and cultural touchstones for decades to come.

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