Malls to Main Streets in New York State


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ShoppingTown Mall in DeWitt is just one of countless opportunities for mall to main street retrofits

A pending market opportunity for small, close-by and accessible housing is upon us as the baby boomer generation ages and younger people demand alternatives to the “family home”.  There remains nothing inevitable about suburbia as New Yorkers are getting older and the family size is smaller — it is projected that by 2025, only one home in four will have even one child.  Looking forward, one of the largest impending concerns is providing meaningful and affordable residential choice for the estimated 75% of people over 50 in Upstate New York who still live in single-family detached housing.  The State and each local municipality will need innovative solutions to create communities that are affordable for those with limited resources, who cannot maintain the family home, but want to continue to live in town.

One opportunity for developers lies in the greyfields retail complexes — indoors malls, big boxes and outdoor strip malls.  These include underutilized, vacant or abandoned property and being that New York is over-retailed, are overly abundant.  Thoughtfully planned, that vacant strip-malls or abandoned big boxes along crucial transportation corridors and near existing residential populations could be re-imagined to create the cost-effective, affordable lifestyle center that will be needed by tomorrow’s seniors.

In 2001, with 19% of the nation’s “regional malls” (larger than 35 stores) either vacant or dying, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) teamed up with PriceWaterhouseCoopers on a Greyfield Regional Mall Study to bring the adaptive reuse idea to a national audience.  A followup book, Greyfields Into Goldfields: Dead Malls Become Living Neighborhoods and a third study in 2005, Malls into Main Streets, all indicated that blighted malls could be transformed into sustainable mixed-use development.  Unfortunately, a tumultuous decade for the real-estate market saw few projects commence, with even fewer examples from slow to no growth areas.

Today though might be more ripe than ever for these projects to commence in New York State.  More and more studies on the fiscal impact of sprawl, such as Onondaga County’s Sustainability Plan (2012) and a scenario study in the Capital Region (2007) are proving that growth into suburban and rural areas often costs more to a community in infrastructure and services than the tax revenue returned.  Inverted demographics (an increase in the ratio of retired age persons (65+) to working age) will also prove the need for a new approach to development.

So as working baby boomers look to retire and downsize, a prospect that will become significant by 2015 and enormous by 2025, how do we turn New York malls in our older industrial regions into main streets?  How do we incorporate efficient and accessible townhouses and apartments, with nodes for walking and biking to shops that provide groceries, recreation, medical services and community space?  We have at least one example of where this conversation is taking place.

The Three Phases as proposed by DesignConnect

In DeWitt, a suburb of Syracuse, a group of Cornell University students organized as DesignConnect has been charged with envisioning a new and sustainable use for ShoppingTown Mall, a downtrodden mall that has fallen victim to multiple regional competitors.  Started as an open-air mall in 1954 and remodeled in 1991, the property covers 53 acres.  The mall’s footprint is 750,000 square feet with 4,600 parking spaces.  A developer bought the property in 2005 with the idea to turn it into a mixed-use center, but eventually defaulted on the property in May 2011.  With the fate of the mall up in the air, the students were brought in by the Town of DeWitt to develop a design that is walkable, attractive to current and future retailers, adds housing and commercial space, increases the availability of low-maintenance open space, and that connects to other important centers within the town.  The team was charged with identifying market data, demographic analyses, site plans, and recommendations for zoning changes that would entice a new developer to turn the town’s vision of a vibrant mixed-use center that will become a center of economic and community activity, into reality.

Following their analysis, the DesignConnect team suggests that the mall be redeveloped in three phases to make the project economically feasible.  Phase 1 (3-5 years) focuses on removing impervious pavement and interior improvements; Phase 2 (5-10 years) introduces the mix of commercial and public space. Phase 3 (10-20 years) would deconstruct the mall structure — reintroducing the street grid and adapting the remaining structure — allowing for opportunities like additional residential forms for seniors.  This project is designed to start the conversation on the best reuse for the site and is not a final plan.

Courtesy: Robert Charles Lesser & Co.

New York’s communities should see the opportunities that exist for developing the housing options needed to retain their long term, solvent citizens as they age out of their larger homes.  This smaller, nearer, closer housing fortunately is very similar to what is appealing to younger people, like the 77% of 22 year olds who indicate that they want to live in an urban core (RCLco).  The opportunity and challenges will look different in some communities;  maybe it will arise in the redevelopment of a former commercial property, or brownfield.  Other municipalities might be better served by rezoning single-family districts to allow for “granny flats” or the conversion of carriage houses or garages.

The worst case scenario is that our communities will consist of a plethora of poorer older people who can not maintain or sell their large suburban homes matched to a paucity of young people that can not find the right living arrangements to complement their lifestyles.  The best case is that our seniors stay, share their experience and wisdom here in New York, while our youth stay, become invested in their communities, improve them and themselves.

This piece was contributed by David Hogenkamp, Project Manager, Empire State Future

For more information check out New York State’s Livable New York Resource Manual: Mixed Use Residential Redevelopment Opportunity: Malls

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