The factors driving retail-to-housing transformation were set in motion years ago but have been accelerated by the pandemic. The demise of malls and shopping centers has also been amplified by the shift to online retailing in recent years.

The crisis in mainstream retailing has become an outsize challenge and opportunity for municipalities, real estate owners, managers and developers. More than 8,000 stores have closed so far in 2020, according to Coresight Research, after 9,500 shut down last year. Mall stalwarts like Bed Bath & Beyond, GNC, Pier One Imports, Men’s Wearhouse, and New York and Company are in various states of bankruptcy and reorganization. Department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor are on a long list of retailers going through shutdowns.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has researched the repurposing trend. Retail closings across the country have led to 400 proposals for retrofits, with some 315 projects completed or in progress. Notable examples include the Ridge House Apartments in Wheat Ridge, Colo.; the PathStone Skyview Park Apartments in Irondequoit, N.Y. (occupying an old Sears site); and Aljoya Thornton Place, on the former parking lot of the Northgate Mall in Seattle, which was one of the nation’s first regional shopping malls and is still in business.

Professor Dunham-Jones writes about Folkestone in “Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia,” her upcoming book with Prof. June Williamson of City University of New York. She noted that the complex, in addition to occupying a former retail site, took a more progressive turn in its design.

Seniors are increasingly demanding more activities and environmentally sensitive and walkable communities, rather than sequestered, gated or golf course developments that require driving everywhere, Professor Dunham-Jones found.

“Baby boomers don’t want to be isolated,” she added. “They want to be connected to the community.”

While it takes years to plan, finance and approve retail redevelopments, “communities are cognizant of the need for rebuilding initiatives for their vulnerable populations,” said Emily Roberts, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Services at Oklahoma State University.

She is a consultant on a plan for Crossroads Mall in Oklahoma City, a site that its owners have been struggling to redevelop. A rebranding in 2017 failed, and now the community is working to turn the 800,000-square-foot site into a facility modeled after a Dutch community that is customized for people with dementia.

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