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Dying Malls Become Vibrant Communities

CNU Presents Malls into Mainstreets, a Manual for Converting Dying Malls into Vibrant Communities


Residents of Lakewood, Colorado were desperate. Villa Italia, a 1.4 million square-foot enclosed mall on 106 acres located in Denver’s historic Belmar Estate, was dying, and they feared the area would become an eyesore and a liability to their community. At its lowest point, the mall was 30% occupied, due in part to competition and changes to the retail industry.

Enter Continuum Lakewood Development, a firm with extensive experience in retail and mixed-use development. Continuum purchased ownership of the mall from the Bonfils Stanton Foundation, the family trust that owned the land; the City of Lakewood also intervened and used eminent domain to purchase the leasehold rights for certain anchor stores and separately owned pad sites. Eventually, the Lakewood City Council and Continuum developed such a trusting relationship that the city transferred its design control review powers to an architectural control committee that included both city and developer representatives, along with three design professionals.

The developers demolished Villa Italia to develop 960,000 square feet of retail space, 1,300 rental apartments, 200 for-sale housing units, and 760,000 square feet of office space. These uses are organized within a new street system that uses small blocks to integrate the site with surrounding neighborhoods and to create a true town center where one never existed. The project opened in 2003 to great reviews; the public responded well to Belmar even before its completion because of its attempt to replace blighting influences and its emphasis on a new neighborhood that creates a strong sense of place.

Communities looking to follow Lakewood’s example now have a new tool for transforming their dead and dying malls into cherished downtown spaces. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) recently released Malls Into Mainstreets, the third publication in its study of dead and dying malls. CNU has labeled the troubled malls “greyfields” for the sea of empty parking lots that typically surround them.

In 2000, CNU broke new ground when it commissioned a survey of America’s dead and dying shopping malls from PricewaterhouseCoopers. PWC found that 19% of America’s malls were either already dead or dying due to a variety of factors, including changes in the market and increased competition. The survey kicked off the first comprehensive study of the potential for converting greyfield malls into vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods. Discouraging archaic retail patterns and encouraging vibrant town centers is at the heart of new urbanism, and can allow communities to deal with blight while embracing a better sense of community.

CNU went on to publish Greyfields Into Goldfields (2002), focusing on a dozen case studies that involved a transformation of a dead mall into a mixed-use neighborhood development, characterized by walkable streets, high density and a range of uses from offices and housing to shopping and museums.

Malls Into Mainstreets summarizes the experience and lessons from six of the case studies. It serves as a manual for developers, community leaders, property owners and planners frustrated with the troubled malls in their backyards. By exploring key criteria such as market conditions, anchor tenants, ownership, site conditions, financing, and community involvement, the guide reveals what makes a greyfield revitalization project successful.

When done right, a mixed-use redevelopment can relieve traffic and help reduce pollution, while offering residents a valued place to call downtown. As Lakewood’s Mayor Steve Burkholder said, “This is a historic moment for the City of Lakewood. Lakewood has its first downtown where people can enjoy a rich array of art, restaurants, entertainment, shopping and community spaces. I think people will be enthralled with all Belmar will have to offer. We are proud that it also will serve as a national model.”

Some of the key lessons from the manual:

Consider all of the key factors when making a decision about a reuse project: For the timing to be right for a revitalization project, certain conditions are required, including market conditions, ownership and anchor tenant status, site and location factors, municipal and community capacity, and developer and lender capacity.

Use parking carefully: Too little parking can lead to congestion and frustrated visitors; too much parking can damage the quality of the place and waste space and money. The parking needs of residences, offices, entertainment and retail vary throughout the day. Mixed-use projects should take advantage of shared parking opportunities, rather than planning enough parking for all uses at their peak at the same time.

Explore major physical change: Malls are characterized by a field of parking surrounding an inward-facing structured used primarily for shopping. An urban form-factor development is characterized by sidewalks and streets, a mix of uses with blocks, outward facing buildings and public space. The transformation is challenging – while some developments successfully turned portions of the old mall inside out, many properties will require extensive demolition.

Incorporate public and civic amenities: parks, plazas, theaters, museums and town halls distinguish developments as civic spaces rather than private developments and help shape public opinion of the development as an important public place. These uses also help generate activity and bring in visitors.

To read more about the report and to download a copy, please visit