Mall Redevelopments May Be One Key to the Future

by Jeff Shaw

Projects offer amenities, valuable locations and vibrant lifestyles.

By Leslie Moldow

One key lesson we learned from the pandemic is that just about anything we can dream is now possible if we set our minds to it, and re-examining housing, service options, and opportunities for seniors is no exception. A few years ago, Perkins Eastman undertook “The Clean Slate Project,” where we projected into the future and wiped the slate clean of traditional forms of senior living. By identifying disruptors, new competitors, and market changes, we spotlighted opportunities for new scenarios.

One scenario we highlighted identified two disruptors: the reduced need for brick-and-mortar retail centers, which is a trend that has accelerated during and post-pandemic, and many seniors’ desire to be engaged in an intergenerational environment and live close to transit hubs. Brainstorming these factors generated a scenario we entitled “Vertical Main Street” in which underutilized malls located on transit lines could be combined with senior living, civic and community college programs.

Recently we conversed with a number of national shopping center developers who are reinventing the shopping mall by “de-malling” the current retail experience, making them more authentic places to enjoy. These developers are actively looking to create mixed-use environments by adding housing, office space and even civic programs such as libraries and community colleges, some of which can be added on upper levels, on underutilized parking areas or in place of vacant stores such as Sears. Given this progressive thinking, we posited: “Why not add seniors to the mix?”

What do retail developers get?

As anchor stores close at malls across the United States and online options like Amazon take over our shopping needs, many malls are losing tenants. Locating a senior living community adjacent to or within a mall may be the solution to bring vitality and purpose back to these areas. 

Baby boomers, many of whom have turned or will soon be over 65, spend comparably to other generations on all aspects of retail (86 percent) and restaurants (81 percent), according to a consumer survey by tenant type and generation “Where Shopping Center Visitors Have Purchased since January 2019.” They are a generation with a high percent of disposable income (70 percent for 50 and older) and time to shop. Elders also bring their children and grandchildren shopping to create a family experience, thus increasing the foot traffic to the commercial uses that can be attractive to tenants. 

What do senior living providers get?

Many shopping malls are located in highly visible and easily accessed locations in the heart of communities where development sites are often otherwise unavailable. A good portion of these are also suburban hubs and transit centers, providing more mobility options for seniors. 

The easy access and the mixed uses are beneficial for staff recruitment, often one of the largest headaches for senior living operators. Senior living developers can leverage food courts, theaters and gyms as amenity spaces to reduce the amount of area a project needs to build, thus reducing construction costs and improving the pro forma. 

The draw of the shopping center also has marketing appeal to the extended family of the seniors. Add to the mix a community college partner and you get an exciting, intergenerational community that provides training opportunities for students majoring in hospitality and healthcare while providing seniors with the opportunity to take classes and mentor young adults.

In total this scenario becomes a very interesting proposition that may cause retail developers who think outside the box to take notice, and senior living developers to consider creating new partnerships.

Wellness Enhanced Lifestyle Living, or WELL, is a for-profit senior living development company centered on helping seniors live their “next act.” They are referred to as an “anti-traditional senior living company.” One of its founders, Ryan Haller, is keen on the idea of locating senior living developments at prominently located shopping malls. 

While Haller acknowledges it takes some additional time to educate the retail developer, once they understand the benefit, they can make a good partner. Perkins Eastman is currently exploring several locations across the country with WELL and Haller. One involves co-locating a life plan community with corporate offices, a wellness-focused gym and retail on a former Sears Automotive Center site at a mall with a transit hub.

Senior Resources Group and Perkins Eastman developed a site within a mixed-use, master-planned community. Maravilla at the Domain in Austin, Texas, leverages the resources of a vibrant, regional lifestyle retail center one block away. The forward-thinking building features community spaces including a bar, dining, wellness center, amenity spaces and a community clinic on the main floor that supports independent living and assisted living towers. Future plans include a membership program for the neighboring active adult community to partake in all the offerings. 

Perkins Eastman is also working with Akara, a multifamily and student housing developer, to create an active adult apartment complex on the site of a former out-lot restaurant and associated oversized parking lot of Southwest Plaza Mall in Littleton, Colorado. Akara’s goal is to create a new brand that is differentiated from the typical senior provider. 

Akara’s ACTIV Littleton is a 252-unit, age-restricted community that will feature an enhanced amenity offering for its residents, as well as access to an abundant suite of services and programming thoughtfully designed around health and wellness. Located at the edge of Colorado’s foothills, it has a youthful, outdoorsy vibe. Residents can use a discount card to restaurants and theaters in the mall and will turn typical interior resources to the outside, so that elements such as a sports clinic and distillery bar can be shared by all in the greater community.

Paradigms change in senior living

Once an organization sees beyond the business-as-usual model, it opens up tremendous possibilities to meet market needs in line with its core mission. Organizations that consider new options are in growth mode and are known for their innovative thinking. 

The necessary component in all of these organizations is that they all have leaders who understand that seniors’ expectations of their possible living environments are much less rigid nowadays and there are powerful disruptors affecting the market. If organizations do not become change agents themselves, they will remain limited to a narrow niche and will face increasing competition from a variety of project sponsors including government, tech companies, hospitality developers, retail specialists, housing builders and so forth. 

When we proposed our scenarios, including “Vertical Main Street,” we thought perhaps it would be realized by the year 2030. However, it is evident that change, perhaps accelerated by the pandemic, is happening more quickly than imagined due to radical disruption in all sectors, particularly those relating to seniors. 

What we are learning from the 2020 pandemic is that we can and need to affect change faster than we ever thought possible. The time is now to clean the slate and consider new scenarios that fit your organization’s unique mission and resources. The idea of revitalizing shopping mall locations to create new, intergenerational synergies may just be one of those ventures.

Leslie Moldow is a principal with architecture firm Perkins Eastman.

You may also like