The proliferation of half-vacant shopping centers and abandoned malls on the fringes of cities has become such a pervasive problem that we have a new word for it: greyfields. Chances are you have a few in your community: acres of paved parking with weeds creeping through the cracks and a dilapidated big-box structure standing in the middle. They’re the increasingly hard-to-ignore manifestation of what’s often described as the retail meltdown. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail sector lost approximately 30,000 jobs in March alone, with thousands of store closings projected through 2017. At this pace, store closings in 2017 are likely to surpass the Great Recession year of 2008.
The retail meltdown has claimed both mom-and-pop shops and once-mighty retail titans; Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Sears are all in the process of closing hundreds of locations. As these big anchor stores lose their grip, so go the smaller ones. Without big names to bring in customers, mall and shopping center owners are finding their business model slipping away.
The key distinction here is between online retail and brick and mortar retail. E-commerce is booming, with a startling 50 percent of American households having an Amazon Prime membership. It’s the stores you have to drive to that are in trouble, reflected in rising retail vacancy rates in many metro areas.
Some may find pleasure in the aesthetics of dead-and-dying malls, but they pose big challenges for the communities around them: Besides functioning as ugly, life-sucking border vacuums, defunct shopping centers represent lost tax dollars for cash-strapped municipalities. Here are three ways that cities could fend off the retail meltdowns in their midst:
Ease land-use restrictions
In many cases, the greatest barrier to the redevelopment of these greyfields is self-imposed: The zoning simply won’t allow much beyond conventional big box retail. A quick survey of your typical zoning ordinance explains why. In many cases, you will find that arterial roads—those most likely to host greyfields—are zoned exclusively for suburban-style big box and strip-mall developments. These districts often require an ocean of parking and massive setbacks from the road while prohibiting common non-retail uses, including residential, light industrial, and occasionally even office space.
The perverse result is that developers can’t turn these greyfields into the denser mixed-use developments that residents…