Last Updated: December 16, 2021
Strip mall redevelopment should be on the agenda for almost every suburban government. This topic applies to small towns, small cities, and many central cities as well. Strip retail centers oriented primarily parallel to major streets or highways, with parking in the front, are the ultimate in automobile-oriented retailing.
We wrote our headline before the coronavirus pandemic hit, but we think that now you have to "double down" on addressing strip malls that are not thriving. Some less viable businesses probably have gone away, and others are hobbling along trying to regain their previous sales level.
Strip shopping centers may consist of a series of small convenience retail storefronts, such as the one shown above. Typically uses such as dry cleaners, beauty salons or barber shops, pizza joints, sandwich shops, or maybe a tiny locally owned pharmacy would occupy 1500-2000 square feet each.
Larger developments may include one or more anchor tenants, the most common being a grocery store. A chain drug store or even a smaller version of what is typically a big box, such as a Target or Walmart, might be included in the largest of this type.
Satellite stores might be in the same building or in other buildings sharing the same parking. Shapes of the largest building might fall into a straight line or an L shape or U shape. But we think all of these types bring many potential pitfalls, especially if they are not located at an important intersection.
Let us explore a little further the phenomenon of younger people wanting to live in exciting and unpredictable urban environments, even preferring in some cases to forego automobile ownership in favor of more walkable environments.
In many cities, this hunger for urban life fades about the time that children arrive, but yet the demographic pattern of delayed marriage and child-rearing means that for a number of years, young people who are establishing households want to walk through an urban type environment.
We are now observing many young parents who want to continue their pre-baby habits of walking to shops, restaurants, and bars. But when those destinations lie within a strip mall, most young parents will think that is not a safe or desirable environment for walking with a stroller.
All of this adds up to decreased demand for retail activity along highways and major streets, and in the suburbs or in suburban-type built environments, regardless of whether inside the boundaries of a central city or not.
Since we expect the pace of strip mall redevelopment experiments to pick up considerably in the next few years, there is no single conventional recommendation or solution just yet.
That's a good thing, as it will allow us to experience a variety of proposed and built redevelopment approaches. Once a solution becomes formulaic, it too may become failure-prone.
Thus far what tends to happen is that the strip mall will be sold and the new owner will attempt a major facelift. Sometimes this works for a time, especially if star tenants can be attracted. However, it is unlikely to be a solution that lasts for very many years. Notice that most of the trends cited at the beginning of this article do not refer to the appearance of the shopping center.
Sometimes new owners will be a bit smarter and will attempt to develop a new outlot, or a liner building or two, as new shallow buildings up next to the street in front of the suburban-style parking are called. This new space also may lead to success for a few years, but it is unlikely to be a long-lasting win for the community, due to the oversupply we have cited already, which in turn leads to an excessive vacancy factor. Even improved urban design cannot compensate for lack of market demand.
In sound suburban markets, a new owner may demolish the existing structure or structures and build a more contemporary-looking center, perhaps with some or many storefronts near the arterial street. In some areas, land may represent two-thirds of more of the value of the center, so this approach can make sense. (Tax allowance of too generous depreciation of retail facilities also lends a helping hand toward this rapid obsolescence cycle.)
The demolition and reconstruction approach often represents an improvement for the community, providing that is sufficient demand for retail and service businesses common in strip centers. But it will be an improvement only if it incorporates the basic element of walkability. Many strip mall redevelopment projects will sport a wide sidewalk next to the street or highway, but are not really very pedestrian friendly due to the speed of traffic, lack of appropriate landscape buffer from the road, and lack of pedestrian connections at the ends and rear of the strip mall.
A more radical approach, but the one likely to bring more long-range results, starts with a sober assessment of the demand for retail and services of the type often located in strip centers. An analysis of the competition frequently shows that the supply already exceeds demand.
Often planning commissions and city councils are told that market analysis is none of their business. We don't believe that. If you are in a state where case law upholds the obnoxious idea that demand is none of the public sector's business, of course be careful what you do. But formally or informally, public planning decisions should take place in an atmosphere of realism about markets. Adopting such a stance would include the probably unpopular process of down-zoning where appropriate.
In the somewhat probable event that you find that your strip mall
redevelopment is unlikely to
be successful if it encompasses the same or very similar uses, then you
need to become open to some fairly drastic changes of land use.
Effective strategies for moving away from neighborhood commercial and
service businesses might include:
Ultimately many municipalities need to consider the housing solution to strip mall redevelopment. Demand for land for churches and offices is finite, just as the need for retail space is limited, so some jurisdictions are as seriously overbuilt for office as for retail land uses. In some places the demand for housing is maxed out as well, but healthy and growing economies continually need a few more housing units each year.
The possible variations for your situation are endless, of course, but in closing, we would emphasize: