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What Happens to Abandoned Malls?

What Happens to Abandoned Malls? thumbnail
Interior of the abandoned Wayne Hills Mall in Wayne, New Jersey
Interior of the abandoned Wayne Hills Mall in Wayne, New Jersey John Arehart / Shutterstock

In a report last week from Fort Wayne, Indiana, I noted what I considered the mid-century tragedy of big, sprawling, “modern” shopping malls displacing historic downtowns, only to become bankrupt eyesores after the malls’ few decades of fashionability had passed.

The difference between those vintage-1970s big malls and earlier eras’ structures is what happened after the businesses inside the buildings died. If a factory from the 1880s, a warehouse from the 1920s, or a corner grocery from the 1940s closed down, in theory the building could be reused and reborn in some new economic role. Deb and I have seen that happening coast to coast: with ex-factories that are now art studios or small-manufacturing zones, ex-bakeries that are now hotels or residences, ex-churches that are now schools or libraries or breweries.

But when a 1970s mall becomes an “ex-” structure, it usually just sits there, sucking life from everywhere around it.

Or so I argued—from my own Boomer-era perspective on American architectural and urban history.

A reader from Michigan, Vasav Swaminathan, says I may need to take another leap of generational imagination. He writes:

I’m an older Millennial (born 1986), so I think most of my life is seeing box stores and strip malls give way to “revived” downtowns. I remember hating sitting in traffic as a kid on Saturdays while we went from mall to mall, and much preferring the days we went to Oak Tree Road or Nassau Street to buy things.

Which is to say—I much prefer what we’re moving to, reviving the downtown concept, to the old style.

But how did the previous generation feel about the boarded-up downtowns and the big-box stores when they were new?

The abandoned GE factory where Electric Works is hoping to bring new life
The abandoned GE factory where Electric Works is hoping to bring new life Courtesy of Electric Works

Today’s theme: what happens to buildings, after they die.

Today’s locale: a major manufacturing center along Indiana’s I-69 corridor, the industrial stronghold of Fort Wayne.

The second lives of buildings—or third, or fourth or tenth—after they’ve outlived their original economic or civic purpose, is a topic that has commanded Deb’s and my attention more and more, with each new American venue we spend time in.

  1. If a city is unlucky—or shortsighted, which often turns out to be the same thing—it bulldozes its architectural heritage of the past decades or centuries, for whatever is the fad of the moment.

    This happened, disastrously, to my small home town of Redlands, in inland Southern California. In the late 1960s, when freeway-based sprawl-malls were just beginning to hollow out downtown retailers, a short-sighted city leadership made a choice that the city has yet fully to recover from. It approved razing about half of the downtown’s historic business structures—shops, civic clubs, a famed 1930s-vintage hotel—to make room for one of that era’s Brutalist/penitentiary-style in-town malls, surrounded by parking lots. Nearly 50 years later, that mall stands abandoned and bankrupt, its only activity a national-chain drugstore that clings to its long-term lease. (For locals: I’m talking about the former State Street west of Orange Street; the structures on State Street east of Orange were spared.)

    Meanwhile, the other half of the Redlands downtown, the part that was spared the wrecking ball, went through its 1970s and 1980s of hard commercial times. But the buildings survived; starting 10 or 15 years ago they began attracting new activity; and now they constitute one more of the nation’s vibrant smaller-city downtowns, working around the decayed molar of the mall.

    Time and again we’ve seen evidence of cities that made the same mistake. Here’s an easy way to spot them: When you see a break in the downtown architecture of a mid-sized city—when a classic early-20th-century office building, or an Art Deco facade from the 1930s, suddenly gives way to a multi-level downtown parking garage—odds are you’re seeing the physical legacy of civic short-sightedness half a century ago.

  2. If a city is luckier, or if it was less energetic in the mid-century build-a-mall era, it will have left its original architecture in place. The shops may have been boarded up or concealed beneath aluminum siding. They may be doing duty as pawn shops or worse. They may seem beyond hope. But as long as they exist, they lie waiting and full of potential, like wildflower seeds in the desert waiting for the eventual rain.

    The Main Street America project, which is based in Chicago and originated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, keeps a master list and coordinates downtown renewal efforts. We’ve seen examples from South Dakota to Kentucky to Oregon to Florida, and places in between. (For instance: our previous report, on Angola, Indiana.)

  3. If a city is willing to make its own luck, and is foresighted, it will begin purposefully refitting its old structures for new roles. This has become a nationwide trend. In the fastest-growing big tech centers, practically any structure that was once a warehouse or a machine shop has returned as a new office space, startup zone, hotel or condo, or brewery or restaurant.

    It is happening in smaller places too. Five years ago, our colleague John Tierney wrote about the reincarnation of the old Mack Truck works in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as a research and startup center. Not far from Allentown, in Bethlehem, the spookily beautiful abandoned U.S. Steel works have become a concert center and arts venue. Something similar has already happened in Birmingham, Alabama, with the former steel mill known as the Sloss Furnaces; and is underway in Danville, Virginia, with former tobacco warehouses (on the model of Durham, North Carolina, with the old American Tobacco works); and is envisioned in tiny Eastport, Maine, with what had been the East Coast’s biggest sardine cannery; and on through what could be an endless list.

    Former places of worship whose congregations have dwindled are also undergoing this process. Yesterday I mentioned how a former church in Angola, Indiana, has been converted into a new performing arts center. The ambitious Jefferson Educational Society, a civic think-tank in Erie, Pennsylvania, has its headquarters and public events in a former synagogue. The St. Joseph brewery, in Indianapolis, operates (and seats patrons) in what was once the St. Joseph church.

Fort Wayne is now attempting to make its own luck, with the remains of what had been its grandest industrial site.

32 Comments on "What Happens to Abandoned Malls?"

  1. Cloggie on Sun, 5th May 2019 5:43 am 

    “What Happens to Abandoned Malls?”

    In my hometown of Eindhoven, we have huge abandoned Philips electronics factories…

    …that once housed tens of thousands of workers, producing light bulbs, televisions, fridges, washing machines, ANYTHING electronic. The full spectrum. The cassette tape and CD-ROM was invented here.

    All production work is gone. To Asia.
    Have these endless factories turned into industrial mausoleums? Not really.

    Eindhoven is blossoming more than ever before, so much so that even the NYTimes came to town and all the other big American media outlets:

    From a production town it became, when the (Jewish) Philips family came to the insignificant Eindhoven hamlet in 1891, producing the first major light-bulb factory in the world, it now is a major design and R&D-hub, with global reach, so much so that it is seriously threatening Silicon Valley, as far as hardware technology is concerned.

    In 2011, Forbes dubbed Eindhoven “the most intelligent city in the world”, based on patent counting. Eindhoven had twice as many as #2, San Diego:

    Almost every computer chip that was produced in the last 10-20 years all over the world, be it in iPhones, laptops, flat-screen televisions, Russians nuclear submarines, US intercontinental missiles, anything, was produced by a machine made in Eindhoven.

    Here both the High Tech campus (where I am currently raking in my last 200k euro retirement money) and ASML campus, where it is all happening and a new EUV technological breakthrough has been achieved last year, giving Moore’s Law another 10-15 years lease on life. Expect your next smartphone to replace your desktop/laptop, courtesy Eindhoven.

    Morale: there is life after death.

    P.S. Sorry for the plug, but as good old Rockman used to present Texan wisdom: “it ain’t bragging if it is true”.

  2. Cloggie on Sun, 5th May 2019 5:59 am 

    Forgot the HighTech-campus/ASML-campus link:

  3. Davy on Sun, 5th May 2019 6:07 am 

    “it ain’t bragging if it is true”.

    Yea, but, sometimes it is more about why people brag than the true or false of it. One must ask the value of what is being bragged about as well. Computer chips??

  4. makati1 on Sun, 5th May 2019 6:27 am 

    If the land has any value, empty malls will be torn down by huge machines. The materials going to a landfill. If the land has little value, they will just decay on site until they are vandalized (Recycled by the needy?) and an ‘accidental’ fire destroys what is left.

    As the US economy continues to decline, thousands of malls will be empty. They are not designed to be easily renovated into something useful and those that might be are in areas that will not have the money to do so.

    “Major Wall Street Firm Expects 25% of U.S. Malls to Close by 2022”

    Another decade will see many abandoned buildings as factories close, schools shut down, hospitals and even colleges become unprofitable.

    My last visit to my home town in PA saw the demolition of a huge factory that was there before I was born and made most of the carpets for new autos. Now, it is destined to be leveled and rebuilt as a retirement home. There is also a mall that is about half empty. I expect that to close anytime.

    The West is in a decline, not growing. Has been for at least 20 years. What real growth that is left is in the East.

  5. Cloggie on Sun, 5th May 2019 6:43 am 

    Yea, but, sometimes it is more about why people brag than the true or false of it. One must ask the value of what is being bragged about as well. Computer chips??

    Computer chips are at the core of the meaning of your existence. Your 24/7 presence here proves that.

  6. Davy on Sun, 5th May 2019 7:55 am 

    I am seeing a reconfiguration of retail in my area. An old Walmart became a JC Penny. On old Kmart multiple different retail. Mega malls like buildings above 5 stories are a poor use of resources long term in a world of declining net energy. Glass and steel without windows that open likewise have no future. If we find a sustainable cheap and abundant energy source then the sustainability and resilience of buildings size won’t be such an issue. Currently I see it as a vital issue that needs to be debated for any new construction going forward. Romans had some great ideas we need to revisit. Mega American malls being copied across the globe are a consumeristic error on a grand scale.

  7. Davy on Sun, 5th May 2019 8:03 am 

    “Computer chips are at the core of the meaning of your existence. Your 24/7 presence here proves that.”

    Even you, Mr. 20/7 are not here 24/7 dummy. I am off here early evening usually around 6:30. If I am on longer it is because dumbasses like you, makato, and juanpeeee are attacking me which you all do jealously and obsessively. I read nightly then get a good night sleep. I get up around 4. If I am here during the day it is at a break from farm work. Lunch time I spend some time here. Cloggo, you don’t leave your chair. You must be as big as a house by now, fattsoo. Makato, has an old-style desk top so we know he is stuck indoors in a chair. I utilize a laptop and a smart phone for mobility. Its spring now so I have less time to moderate you extremists. As a matter of fact I am heading out now.

  8. Davy on Sun, 5th May 2019 8:25 am 

    I am a smart phone with a dummy.

  9. Davy on Sun, 5th May 2019 8:26 am 

    Sorry, mispellt.

    I am a DUMMY, with a SMART Phone.

    Beat that if you can Makato.

  10. Cloggie on Sun, 5th May 2019 8:41 am 

    Even you, Mr. 20/7 are not here 24/7

    Nitpicking, to deflect the attention from the fact that microprocessors (made by machines from do very well play a central role in his wannabee collapsenik life (all dressed up and nowhere to go).

    are attacking me which you all do jealously and obsessively.

    Wtf gave you the idea that I’m somewhat “jealous” of your low-ambition-level life amidst of goats?!

    you don’t leave your chair.

    That “sitting in my heavy leather chair with an iPad” is 2 years ago. Currently I’m dividing my time between making big bucks in the Eindhoven lithography industry cluster…

    The two geniuses behind the lithography in Eindhoven: a Dutchman and a Russian:

    (200 million euro per container, 11 billion turnover, profit 3 billion. By 2025 it will be 25 billion, provided we can find the brains. Somebody like Antius can start tomorrow, hint, hint)

    …and in the evening I’m involved in consulting the Dutch renewable energy storage industry:

    I will do that fulltime once I’ve reached my 200k euro retirement target, in perhaps 12-18 months (no fixed date, the work is highly interesting in itself). But the social significance of the storage industry is much higher. Getting storage of renewable energy to work is FAR more important than replacing your desktop-laptop with a smart-phone or having an 8k, 85 inch wall-mounted flatscreen.

  11. union-of-muzzie-lovers-of-america-AKA-fmr-paultard on Sun, 5th May 2019 9:07 am 

    the instagram economy is doing fine w/o consideration for the availability of a drop of oil. we must develop the next gen profitable muzzie killing economy because there are so many muzzies.

    and they are perpetual like whack a mole. snoop dogg is a muzzie and he supported muzzie idealogy complete with beheading and everything, or he wanted to be a muzzie game player.

    and caliphate urging is in sudan where they want to go full sharia.

    as a public service announcment. please exercise caution irl when engaging other tards because it’s spring mating season aggression. look for master race edrich to post extra extra long messages and eurotard running acorss the country with all adrenaline. he will make even more frequent posts.

    we’re tard we look out for one another. avoid the fight, luke is best not put in use.

  12. JuanP on Sun, 5th May 2019 9:31 am 

    Low IQ juanpeee is out of bed

    Not Davy:
    Davy on Sun, 5th May 2019 8:25 am
    Davy on Sun, 5th May 2019 8:26 am

  13. Davy is retarded on Sun, 5th May 2019 4:07 pm 

    Davy is retarded is out of bed

    Not JuanP on Sun, 5th May 2019 9:31 am

  14. Not Davy on Sun, 5th May 2019 5:27 pm 

    Juanpee posted this

    Davy is retarded on Sun, 5th May 2019 4:07 pm

  15. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 6th May 2019 1:15 am 

    Old shopping malls?
    Blow ’em up with a tactical nuke.
    Or a MOAB.
    Bezos will cover the costs of the equipment.

  16. Cloggie on Mon, 6th May 2019 10:35 am 

    The war on tourarism:

    “‘We must act now’: Netherlands tries to control tourism boom”

    “‘We’ve been here since 1747’ – Dutch windmill villagers take on tourist hordes”

    Economic collapse? What economic collapse?

  17. Davy on Mon, 6th May 2019 11:36 am 

    Economic collapse? What economic collapse?

    More like economic decline if you were honest about it all. Gloating about non-collapse just shows sliminess.

  18. Cloggie on Mon, 6th May 2019 11:54 am 

    More like economic decline if you were honest about it all. Gloating about non-collapse just shows sliminess.

    I know how keen you are in throwing insults around and demonize, to compensate for your lack of substance.

    Now, here is my proof that your collapse baloney is just that, baloney:,kst248657_3.html

    What’s your proof that the economy is in decline?


  19. Davy on Mon, 6th May 2019 12:06 pm 

    What collapse balony??

    here is the proof your EU economy is in decline: trading economics.


  20. Cloggie on Mon, 6th May 2019 12:12 pm 

    Joe Biden: “(We want) unrelenting immigration, non-stop. Whites will be an ABSOLUTE minority in America – that’s a source of our strength.”

    Vice President Joe Biden welcomed a top Latin American leader to Washington by declaring that “those of us of European stock” will be the minority in less than two years, and, he added, “that’s a good thing.”

    What he probably meant was that new born white babies will be in the minority soon, at the time he said it, probably during the Obama years. Currently the truth is much bleaker… em… make that: darker:

    Although he won’t say it that explicit anymore in the race for 2020, it is still his program and that of the Demonic party.

    In the US there is a war going on over demographics. The Dems want to import as many non-whites as possible and strengthen their electoral base and eventually wipe out white culture in America.

    But, at this very late stage, white America is finally reacting, so much so that Richard Spencer is probably right when he predicts that electoral white flight from Dems to Reps will be sufficient strong to compensate for demographic decline and ensure another term for Trump, the last one.

    We in Eurasia should understand the immense geopolitical gold that can be dug up in the wake of a serious conflict in the US over demographics, that will almost inevitable get out of hand majestically.

    The entire world wants to live in white lands, if they get the chance. Now European-Americans want to live in white lands too. These two tendencies do not go together very well, to put it mildly.

    Hurry up with your Euro-army, Emmanuel Macron. Not that a European-Chinese intervention is to be expected at an early stage. It will begin like it did in Donbass, where covert Russian help kept the insurgency alive, without the empire being able to prove Russian meddling (that obviously took place at a massive scale).

  21. Cloggie on Mon, 6th May 2019 12:21 pm 

    “here is the proof your EU economy is in decline:”

    All I see is:

    “Stocks Plunge on Trump Tariff Threat”

    There is no proof for EU economic decline in that link of yours, goat farmer.

    The point with which this discussion began is that all major European tourists centers are being overwhelmed by tourists from all over the world, so much so that it is becoming an outright plague. That in itself is sufficient proof that the world or European economy is not declining. The opposite is the case. But you have dug yourself so deep in your fake collapse-hole that the light of truth no longer makes it to the bottom of the deep pit, where you dwell.

  22. Cloggie on Mon, 6th May 2019 12:24 pm 

    Figures global airline industry: steady growth, passenger numbers more than doubled over the last 15 years, a growth rate far larger than the population growth:

    Who is the fraud again, here, mr. Collapsenik?

  23. Davy on Mon, 6th May 2019 12:43 pm 

    cloggo, I am aware you are unable to read economic data. Your above comments shows this yet again.

  24. Cloggie on Mon, 6th May 2019 12:57 pm 

    cloggo, I am aware you are unable to read economic data. Your above comments shows this yet again.

    You are being evasive again. I have shown you data that proves there is no global economic decline, with all the negative consequences for the biosphere.

    You merely posted a mysterious link, showing nothing.

    You lost.

  25. Davy on Mon, 6th May 2019 1:13 pm 

    Please, mr evasive, your indicators are in decline. You can’t see this because the idea is not even in your chauvinistic head. FRAUD

  26. Cloggie on Mon, 6th May 2019 1:53 pm 

    What is chauvinistic about global airtraffic passenger data?

    Try to formulate an answer without name-calling, but instead on data and arguments.

    Too demanding?

  27. Davy on Mon, 6th May 2019 2:04 pm 

    Cloggo, I gave you the numbers. The EU is in decline from previous years. Quit making excuses and being evasive. It is not the end of the world. The whole global economy is in decline. That is not rocket science. Wow, so competitively childish.

  28. Cloggie on Mon, 6th May 2019 3:00 pm 

    “Cloggo, I gave you the numbers.”

    You didn’t.

    You gave a stupid link with this headline:

    “Stocks Plunge on Trump Tariff Threat”

    Why don’t you post a cat video?

    “The EU is in decline from previous years.”

    The GROWTH is slightly in decline, not the economy.
    HERE is the data, you refuse to give, you pathological liar:

  29. makati1 on Mon, 6th May 2019 5:20 pm 

    Cloggie, Davy cannot respond with anything coherent so he resorts to childish name calling. And, he cannot resist doing it. Pavlov’s dog. Woof!

    Makes you wonder what kind of nut house he grew up in, or is it genes? ^_^

  30. makati1 on Mon, 6th May 2019 5:24 pm 

    AS most ALL economic/financial stats today are lies and pure bullshit, they cannot be reliable info. But, the real world outside your door is indicating the decline of the West. Outside my door shows growth in the Philippines. I believe my eyes, not some arrogant “economics” expert or government bot.

  31. I AM THE MOB on Mon, 6th May 2019 5:31 pm 

    Bad news for renewable energy: Capacity addition becomes flat for the first time in 17 years

    The truth is coming out..Renewable’s are a false hope..


  32. Davy on Mon, 6th May 2019 6:37 pm 

    “Cloggie, Davy cannot respond with anything coherent so he resorts to childish name calling. And, he cannot resist doing it. Pavlov’s dog. Woof!”

    makato, dumbass, I gave a link to review or did you skip that? It doesn’t matter you have zero understanding of economics. I think you have the pavlov dog issues. I trigger you daily and you whine like a mutt.

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