When Toys R' Us closed, it seemed like just the latest in an unending onslaught of retail giants closing, leaving strip malls and shopping centers with enormous vacancies - not to mention the loss of jobs and tax revenue for the cities and towns they are located in. After Toys R' Us filed for bankruptcy and closing their stores, they will vacate 735 stores and lay off over 31,000 employees. It's a staggering number when put into this context: with the average size of a Toys R' Us store at 35,000 square feet, Toys R' Us is vacating nearly 600 acres of retail space - over 50 acres larger than the entire neighborhood of Old City Philadelphia (Walnut to Spring Garden, River to 6th), and that doesn't include the normally immense parking lots. From a real estate leasing perspective, it's a nightmare. From a planning/economic development perspective, this is just the first wave of a coming tsunami of retail/big box stores that will be closing in the coming years.
When Radio Shack closed/became Sprint stores, it was an economic impact, but with most Radio Shacks having small footprints, it wasn't quite the leasing problem. Radio Shack had over 7200 stores - it now has 70 - but each store was only 1500 square feet. The impact of Radio Shack on a national level was half that in terms of square footage, and on a municipal level, leasing a white-boxed 1500 square foot store is what they call in the business "an easy commission".
What came with Toys R' Us though, which hasn't happened yet on a national scale, is the full-wave closure of huge retailers en masse. It's starting to happen with Sears, JC Penny's, Macys - but none of these companies have fully closed up shop - yet - but many will. Market Street in Philadelphia is littered with the remains of buildings that housed major retailers back in the day - Gimbels, Strawbridges, Lit Bros - they all, for one reason or another closed. These and other retail companies will unfortunately face the same fate - not because brick and mortar retailing is dead (if Amazon is buying Toys R' Us locations and opening its own stores, that's proof it isn't) - but because tastes, preferences, and human geography changes.
It's a massive economic question as well as a practical planning problem - what are we going to do with all this dead space? If the website DeadMalls.com is anything to go by, America hasn't really figured out a proper answer to this problem. They list HUNDREDS of vacant, derelict shopping centers, accounting for tens of millions of square feet and thousands of jobs. There's a few examples of shopping centers being reused - medical offices, schools, and one example I find particularly interesting is a greenhouse. Residential is also trotted out as a preferred reuse, though with the general lack of external windows residential is a tough conversion process and needs the right type of store.
So, what are we going to do with these, and other stores? Here's my top 3 ideas for reusing dead department and big-box stores:
1. Warehousing and Distribution Centers
As mentioned, Amazon's buying Toy's R Us. Whether they want to use them for brick and mortar retail remains to be seen - but with thousands of these stores littered across the country, what a better strategy than to use these stores for logistics? They come with built-in loading docks, loads of parking that can be cannibalized for the industrial use, are often located adjacent or close to major arterials, and have clear-span floor plates (means few columns) that allow for easy storage set up. This of course works best in warehouse type stores (Best Buy, Sears), but given the proliferation of online retailing, allowing these spaces to be reused for shipping centers is a better use of land in my opinion than building a new million square foot facility on farmland.
2. Extreme Sports & Experiential Gaming Venue
It depends on the size of the facility, but given the trend towards experiential activities (think axe throwing, escape rooms), these stores would be perfect for skilled operators to cobble together a few uses and make them into full "fun houses" in a manner of speaking. The parking lots could be out-door go-karting tracks, inside there could be escape rooms, axe throws, and on the roof could be rappelling. It's hard to expand this many uses to a mall, but for the right store in the right location, one could make it work.
3. Urban Farm
As the organic foods movement continues to pick up momentum, the demand for cheap, quality, non-pesticide food will get louder and louder. Enter the shopping mall farm. Cannibalize the parking lot for planter beds, while inside there can be processing facilities for canned and frozen goods. Even enough room for chickens too I would imagine - though zoning would be tricky. The appeal to local restaurants and the general public to buy fresh food from the farm without having to wait for a farmer's market is a strong incentive. Maintaining good relationships with the neighboring T-Mobile store though may be somewhat challenging if there's actual livestock though.
So what do you think? Do you see yourself at a Best Buy Urban Farm one day? Or perhaps JC Penny's extreme emporium is more likely? Have another idea you think is more practical?
Leave your comments below!
General thoughts and musings about the work SSC Solutions does and other things happening in and around Philadelphia