Mall Redevelopment is a Growing Trend

Active adult emerges as new market for work-live-play conversions.

By Tom Thrasher, Kaufman Lynn Construction

The term “re-urbanization” has often been used to describe the movement of people back into an area that has been previously abandoned and is usually a government initiative to counter the problem of inner-city decline. However, with the rise of online shopping, many suburban malls have become vast, vacant tracts of land that require the same holistic vision as city re-urbanization plans.

Developers are looking on a national level to refine the large parcels of land where malls are becoming ghost towns. The downward trend for malls started about 20 years ago, when enclosed malls morphed into big-box retail shopping centers, with a more spread out land-use concept. 

With the dot-com boom, many of the old mall anchor sites were repurposed into call and data centers, which needed the same large tracts of land and proximity to the workforce as malls once enjoyed.  For example, two years ago, Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. leased roughly 75,000 square feet at Orlando’s West Oaks Mall for a call center, taking up about a third of the space that was formerly occupied by a Belk department store.

From a land-use perspective, it has become clear that the price to buy an entire shopping mall is better than piecing parcels together. The work-live-play concept has been increasingly popular, but utilizing the land through mall conversions started to become a top option as people did more and more of their shopping online. Mall sites also often come with parking garages, which can be easily repurposed for residential use.

Sensible redevelopment plans

Converting a mall into a community makes sense for builders, developers and municipalities. Shopping malls are generally located in densely populated areas, but it can be challenging to re-urbanize a huge piece of land. That requires infrastructure and amenities that can meet the needs of diverse groups. 

Florida is an exciting case, as its population and business landscape are constantly in flux while housing is always needed. Ground-up construction of whole communities is an attractive proposition for developers and builders.

One example of this emerging trend can be found at Plantation Walk. Located in proximity to Fort Lauderdale, the Plantation Fashion Mall was once a shining star in the shopping universe. Opened in 1988, Lord & Taylor and Macy’s anchored the property in its heyday, when it housed 110 stores and service providers. 

The Lord & Taylor store closed in 2003, when the chain temporarily exited the state of Florida. Macy’s remained open until 2005, when
Hurricane Wilma caused significant damage to the store. In 2006, the entire mall was permanently shuttered.

Like its counterparts across the country that catered to a population center, the site of Plantation Walk is already an ideal location for a work-live-play development. It is near a hospital, church, shopping and the main South Florida transportation corridors.

When completed in the spring of 2020, Plantation Walk will feature 700 homes offering more than 1 million square feet of residential space, 190,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and 36,000 square feet of amenity space. 

Demographics change the approach

The original goal of re-urbanizing South Florida’s Plantation Fashion Mall — as with many mall conversions — was to cater to millennials. Many of them are seeking housing that is accessible to workplaces, with community amenities like gyms, pools, delivery lockers, dry cleaning and other work-live-play options.

However, by 2050, the number of Americans age 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Therefore, when it comes to re-urbanization, and the future of such planned communities, 55+ living should rightfully be a huge area of focus for the construction and development industry.

Retirement communities have come a long way in comfort, amenities and lifestyle as evidenced by Moorings Park at Grey Oaks in Naples, on Florida’s west coast. The project was a new construction of 96 high-end independent living units in a continuing care retirement community. Each of the 12 buildings has four residential floors with two units each over parking. Site work includes more than $1 million in water features and a lushly landscaped environment.

Reaching a new benchmark is Sienna Lakes, also in Naples, which will open in July 2021. When completed, the 30-acre Erickson Living development will feature 355 independent living units and an additional adult living section with 35 assisted living beds and 30 skilled nursing and memory care beds. 

New options emerge

But there are other trends afoot as well. As reported by AARP, author and journalist Beth Baker observes that roughly 10,000 baby boomers a day are turning 65. “A significant cultural shift is underway,” she wrote. 

The current and coming generation of older adults is realizing “that they can make other choices about where and how to live,” says Baker. “With intention and planning, people across the nation are creating ways to live in community alternatives that give them more control, more companionship, dignity and choices than generations past.”

The AARP report cited such options as co-housing, house sharing, housing cooperatives, naturally occurring retirement communities, niche (age-restricted) retirement communities and neighbor-helping-neighbor villages. What the report did not foresee is the senior living opportunity offered by the very same communities that are embraced by young professionals. 

Unlike traditional 55+ housing, work-live-play communities are designed to appeal to a certain demographic, which was originally thought to be a younger group. Their vision aligns with market research on what millennials are looking for. But as builders, we received a big demographic surprise.

The fact is, work-live-play developments being built on the sites of vacant malls are also ideal for seniors. They also want to be nearby shopping and have on site amenities — not to mention the gym, where “silver sneakers” are going strong.

Those over 55 don’t necessarily want to be in a retirement community. And, they most certainly don’t want to be isolated. In fact, young neighbors themselves are a draw for seniors who don’t want to live in traditional age-segmented housing. Additionally, developments are often built near hospitals, which are large suburban employers. The short distance to healthcare is also a plus to seniors. 

With all of the land available at former mall sites, these communities can offer boardwalks, trees and beautiful spots for seniors to stroll and just sit and enjoy a nice day. In fact, these conversions are actually a re-envisioning of such planned communities as the once pioneering Columbia, Maryland, where a mix of demographics was woven into the social fabric. Some other similar work-live-play developments have added on mid-rise and high-rise buildings for senior living, which also makes a lot of sense.

While the construction industry continues to build senior living housing that caters specifically to the 55+ market, the fact that so many seniors are gravitating to work-live-play communities means that mall conversions are going to provide housing options that draw both young and old alike — and surprisingly, for the same reasons.

Tom Thrasher is a senior vice president at Kaufman Lynn Construction, a full-service commercial construction company headquartered in Delray Beach, Fla., that has built several senior living communities.