When the number of American malls peaked in 1990, 1,500 dotted the nation’s suburbs. Today, hundreds of them sit empty. 

Abandoned malls account for millions of dollars in lost tax revenue, thousands of lost jobs and less public space for a community.   

And a massive dead mall is, well, depressing.  

In August, Rep. Carolyn Bordeaux (GA-07) introduced legislation aimed at “redeveloping dilapidated malls” through federal grant subsidies. She held a news conference at the nearly empty Gwinnett Place Mall, which was once the pride of the growing metro Atlanta suburb.  

But where suburbanites rankle at the post-apocalyptic eyesore of a sprawling abandoned mall, developers see opportunity.  

“So suddenly you’ve got this 100-acre property that can help address issues of climate change, issues of inequity, affordable housing, providing medical services, providing more jobs,” said Ellen Dunham Jones, director of the Urban Design Program at Georgia Tech. 

Jones is co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.  

She joined GPB’s Rickey Bevington to discuss the history of American malls and the possibilities for their future.   

Rickey Bevington: Walk us through the last few decades of shopping mall history. When did they become popular and why are we now claiming the "death" of them all?  

Ellen Dunham-Jones: The 1970s are sometimes referred to as the "malling of America." They really go back to the '50s. But by the '70s, that was when they just exploded, mostly built at good highway locations where you had a ring road meeting a spoke road. And that's when we started to get the really, million-square-foot, big enclosed malls.  

Surprisingly, already by 1990, the number of new malls getting built began to decline. Throughout the '90s were really so overbuilt that the malls began to kind of cannibalize each other. And so we started to see a decline already. At that point, mall owners started buying up other mall owners. That was the only way to grow. And they'd end up owning competing malls in the same market and so be interested in repositioning at least one of those malls.  

By the 2000s is when we really start to see some real challenges to the malls. That's when online shopping starts to come in. And it's not a real worry early on. But by the recession in 2008, towards the end of the first decade there, you start to see a lot of people don't have any income. Suddenly jobs are disappearing. The middle class is beginning to shrink. So a lot of that population that had supported the malls really didn't have the money to spend in the malls anymore.  

Then through this last decade, the way that retailers in general (not only malls) began to fight with or to compete against online shopping, was to provide what is sometimes referred to as "experiential retail." Bring in that much more food, a lot more gyms, experiences you cannot get online and mix that in. So we already saw a decline in the number of retailers, which frankly was a good thing. The U.S. has twice as much retail square footage per capita than any other country — at least we did during the height of the malls. So there'd been a little bit of a natural attrition.  

When COVID hit ... suddenly, experiential stuff isn't working. The malls have to actually close and that's how we've arrived where we are today. At one point that we had 1,500 properties in the U.S. that at one point were an enclosed mall. We're down to .. I don't even know if we really still have 1,000 of them open anymore. But at least 500 have closed. So there's been a real change.  

Rickey Bevington: And it isn't just real estate or the Internet or the pandemic that have led to the decline of malls. It's also demographics, right?  

Ellen Dunham-Jones: Absolutely. In the 1970s, that early part of the heyday of the malls, teenagers were the No. 1 group that really hung out at malls and they didn't really have much money to spend. But parents loved that. They could drop the kids off and say, "I'll pick you up in four hours." The centering of a lot of suburban life around the mall through the '70s, '80s, '90s was very much driven by teenagers. The group shopping the most would be often their mothers. In the 1970s, we had about 40% of households had kids in them, including teenagers. And today it's about half that.  

So, especially in the suburbs, we have a lot of those same the moms ... they're now the baby boom generation. They have plenty of wealth but they also already have a lot of stuff. And they may enjoy shopping at the malls, but they aren't building up that many of the new purchases.  

So between just changing demographics, the aging of society, not as many households with kids, we're seeing pretty significant market changes as well as actually changes in ethnic background and income levels. So a mall that might have been built, in the '70s or '80s, for a population that was very solidly middle class ... today the chances that that's really still the profile of the people within their market area are pretty slim.  

Rickey Bevington: We're seeing all of these proposals to revive the mall — at least the footprint that the mall takes up. What are the primary strategies that are being done right now to reimagine these spaces?  

Ellen Dunham-Jones: It's really kind of fascinating. There's so many different things that people are figuring out, I think are being quite creative about what to do with malls. I've seen zombie paintball go into these dead malls, taking advantage of the sort of post-apocalyptic kind of gloom and doom. My coauthor June Williamson and I focus on how these properties provide an opportunity for communities to actually address contemporary challenges they were never designed for. So suddenly you've got this big 100-acre property that you can use to help address issues of climate change, issues of inequity, affordable housing, providing more medical services, providing more jobs for a community.  

So we see a lot of properties that are being redeveloped and generally redeveloped into a much more urban pattern where people can walk to that many more uses. They don't have to get in their car and drive. So you're reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We see a lot of projects that are getting reinhabited with social infrastructure. So whether it is job training programs, a lot of education. A lot of medical is going into small buildings, sometimes the whole mall, sometimes just a piece of it.  

Nobody likes to see a property fail and the social life of the mall fail. But they really are providing tremendous opportunities for communities to address challenges, to address new challenges  

Rickey Bevington: In communities all over Georgia, not just metro Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, Augusta, Warner Robins, Cobb County, the Savannah area, they've all seen some of these creative solutions. Can you give us some examples?  

Ellen Dunham-Jones: Absolutely. They run the full range. In Macon, the Westgate Mall was the very first indoor mall with air conditioning in the state of Georgia. And it is right now being redeveloped as the Middle Georgia Industrial Park. Now, it's not likely that that's going to be a place that teenagers are going to be hanging out. It's not going to serve that social purpose anymore, but it's providing jobs. And that is obviously really important.  

In Savannah, the Oglethorpe Mall is pursuing building multifamily apartment buildings on the site of the now dead Sears and Sears parking lots. That's a similar strategy that we see happening at the Cumberland Mall in metro Atlanta.  

In Columbus, back in 2005, they demolished a mall in the midtown area and built a public library. Warner Robins has reinhabited their mall with medical uses, much as we're seeing at Northlake Mall in Tucker, Ga., with Emory Healthcare having moved in.  

Re-greening. We have an example in Smyrna, where the Cobb Center Mall was kind of reused in a variety of ways. Ultimately, just a small portion of the mall is left that now houses a small school. Part of its parking lot has been rearranged into a park.  

It's not only the malls that are struggling that are retrofitting. In Atlanta, we see Phipps Mall, really quite a high-end mall, and yet on property that they owned that is adjacent to the mall where they planned originally to expand with retail ... They built a very tall apartment building. They've just now torn down one of their department stores and are building a new mixed-use office, food court, gym project right on that. So we really see a lot of opportunities [for] the malls to reinvent themselves, either by redeveloping, [being] reinhabited or re-greening.  

Rickey Bevington: I think all of us driving around in our day-to-day lives, we've seen this. We just haven't really known what's happening or what it's called. So you're helping to explain a lot of what's happening in all of our local communities. I'm speaking, of course, for my audience right now when it comes to congressional action, getting involved to direct tax dollars to incentivize developers to take on a project like a dead mall. What is in it for taxpayers? What's the argument there?  

Ellen Dunham-Jones: I think there are several arguments that mostly come down to money. In order to really redevelop a mall and try to both support your aging population and address climate change, build in more affordable housing, all of those things — you have to put in a lot of infrastructure. It's easy to start building on the parking lots. But that also means you're probably having to build some parking decks, which just raises the costs more and more. So on the one hand, some proposals include ideas that the public sector really should own the infrastructure. I mean, all of us benefit. We want our streets, the wires, the pipes to be publicly owned and part of a whole network. You really don't want an island where they're not publicly owned. So it makes perfect sense for the public sector to be investing in the infrastructure. And increasingly, that also is sometimes including the parking garages as being part of that public infrastructure.  

I think the other piece of it is the jobs piece. Recognizing that as these malls are dying, you're losing a lot of jobs, you're losing a lot of tax revenue in those communities. And so anything that can be done to facilitate that redevelopment can be very successful.  

One of the early dead-mall-to-new-downtown projects that started about 2003 is Belmar in Lakewood, Colo. It's a mixed-use. It was a 100-acre site with a big, 1.2 million square foot mall on it. After it died, it's now been redeveloped with 22 walkable blocks, publicly owned streets, a wide range of housing types, quite a lot of offices and and two streets that are lined with retail and have apartments and offices up above them. It's mostly three stories. A few buildings go up to five. But it's quadrupled. It's raising four times the tax revenue than the mall at its peak. So it's paying off in a lot of sustainability of benefits, but also absolutely paying off financially as well.  

Rickey Bevington: And there's nothing more depressing than driving down the street and seeing a massive abandoned mall. Right? There's the emotional payoff.  

Ellen Dunham-Jones: Absolutely. It's very depressing. And so you find that a lot of the same residents who might normally resist seeing changes there. They don't want to see more density. They don't want to see apartments coming into their neighborhood. When they have a dead mall, they're they're often ready to be like, "Come on, please fix this thing. Give us something. Anything will be better than a dead mall." Because dead malls do have a stigma and you start to see ripple effects of more and more vacancies generally around them.