More failing and abandoned malls are being redeveloped for a mix of uses, including senior housing. One group is exploring converting entire shopping malls into sprawling senior housing and care settings, inspired by a pioneering Dutch memory care community.
A student design team at Oklahoma State University led by Assistant Professor Dr. Emily Roberts has worked with experienced senior housing architect Jeff Anderzhon to create a prototype to repurpose a vacant, 800,000-square-foot mall in Oklahoma City into a continuing care retirement community incorporating independent living, assisted living, memory care, a medical center and workforce housing.
The prototype is still in the concept phase, Roberts told Senior Housing News. But she is confident that it can become a reality in the near future, and believes public-private partnerships are the best way to achieve this.
Reusing dead malls
The American shopping mall of the 1970s and 80s — anchored by legacy department stores such as Sears, Montgomery Ward and JCPenney — is going the way of the dodo, a victim of changing retail consumer habits, monotonous design and shifting population trends from the suburbs to vibrant downtown cores.
There were around 1,100 malls in operation in the U.S. when the Great Recession hit in 2008. One out of every four U.S. malls is expected to shutter by 2022, according to a 2017 report by Credit Suisse. One of those casualties is Crossroads Mall in Oklahoma City. When it opened in February 1974 with anchor tenants including Montgomery Ward and JCPenney, it represented one of the largest construction projects to take place in Oklahoma, and was one of the 10 largest malls in the U.S.
Crossroads Mall fell upon hard times in the early 2000s, was foreclosed upon in April 2009 and it fell under the ownership of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York due to the Bear Stearns bailout. A redevelopment announced in 2013 never occurred, and the mall shuttered in October 2017.
Some malls have been repositioned as centers for luxury retail and are thriving. The ones that are not are either being razed in favor of new ground-up developments, or repurposed into mixed-use communities incorporating multifamily, retail, office, hospitality and even health care purposes.
As brick and mortar retail struggles with closures and the rise of online shopping, health care is increasingly becoming a foundational component of mixed-use redevelopments. Toledo, Ohio-based health care real estate investment trust Welltower (NYSE: WELL) is redeveloping a shopping mall in Charlotte, North Carolina, into an acute care campus of Atrium Health, which will anchor a mixed-use development.
Skyview on the Ridge, a vacant shopping mall in Irondequoit, New York, is being redeveloped into a $43 million, 157-unit senior apartment building from Pathstone Corporation and an adult day care center from St. Ann’s Community. Dominium, an affordable housing developer in Plymouth, Minnesota, is building senior apartments as part of a $130 million redevelopment of the Four Seasons Mall in Plymouth into affordable housing.
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And just last week, The Buffalo News reported on a planned $250 million mall redevelopment that would potentially include senior housing. Uniland Development and Mountain Development are the project owners and Gensler is the architect; they reportedly have garnered interest from developers in the 55-plus space. Uniland did not reply to requests from SHN for further comment.
A successful Dutch model
Roberts drew her inspiration from De Hogeweyk, a gated village in Wesep, Netherlands that is designed specifically for elderly people with dementia. These residents are treated with all-day reminiscence therapy, with caregivers and medical personnel on hand 24-7 to provide necessary care. This allows residents to be more active and require less medication.
Roberts, who holds a PhD. in environmental gerontology, visited De Hogeweyk a couple years ago and realized the concept could be retrofitted into large-scale settings such as malls.
“I had an epiphany,” she said.
She reached out to Anderzhon, senior planner and design architect at Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA), who has extensive experience redeveloping obsolete buildings into senior housing, ranging from a Marie Callendar restaurant to high-rise hotels. The two set out to explore how to apply De Hogeweyk’s design features into a large-scale setting.
An in-place built environment
Shopping malls are attractive redevelopment opportunities because the infrastructure is in place to support multiple uses and heavy foot traffic, Roberts told SHN.
“The infrastructure is in place [in malls] to create walking paths and intimate areas. This kind of reuse is happening across the country,” she said.
The work Roberts and her students did at OSU focused on removing large sections of roof from the mall, creating exterior courtyards and walkways connecting the central structure to purpose-built buildings adjacent to the structure.
Those courtyards and walkways connect the myriad components of the proposed redevelopment, but serve as identifiable wayfinding tools, Anderzhon told SHN.
“The main wayfinding [component] is being outside and can be accomplished in different ways. It’s landmarks that take the shape of familiar items — landscaping, hardscaping — and paying attention to the people you’re designing for,” he said.
Malls also have the electrical and HVAC capacity to power multiple buildings, as well as keep them temperature controlled. Their sites have ease of access to public-facing roads, and the grounds at the malls’ edges can be redeveloped to include walls and gates to prevent wandering.
Living quarters for the different care acuity levels, as well as staff, will be built adjacent to the mall on available land, Roberts told SHN. Independent living units will be smaller, standardized footprints, while residents requiring assisted living and memory care would live in smaller group houses.
Roberts and Anderzhon are confident this can be a successful model. The next step is convincing developers and providers. Those that Roberts has spoken with seem interested in the concept, but a business plan will need to be drafted to determine costs and feasibility.
The preferred option would be to enter a public-private partnership for programming, Roberts told SHN. This would reduce the risk on the part of developers and bring public funds such as tax breaks and incentives to a capital stack for redevelopment.
In the meantime, Roberts and her team have received grants from the American Society of Interior Designers and the NextFifty Initiative to build on their initial research, identify issues that may impede redevelopment and barriers to entry.
“We’re getting to the point where people can see what we’re talking about so that we can have those [further] discussions,” she said.