When you were a kid, did you ever dream up what you would do if you were locked in a mall overnight? I cannot think of anything that sounded more fun to the 1990s me.
Now, as an adult, I find myself dreaming about living in the mall. Seriously, I think it is time we start having a conversation about converting our box stores and shopping centers into inclusive places to stay, work, and play.
There is plenty of news coverage about the decay of America’s malls. It’s our fault, really, for turning to the internet when we need to make a purchase! Since I don’t see the trend of internet shopping declining any time soon, let’s talk about the future of our physical shopping centers in the age of the internet.
The idea of living in a mall reminds me of a particularly chilly visit to Montreal early last spring. It was freezing outside. The biting cold wind made walking the city miserable, but luckily, there are two Montreals: the city above ground and the city below. We opted to avoid the harsh temperatures by sticking to Montreal’s underground city. We walked city block by city block underground in what can best be described as a mall. We shopped the underground stores, appreciated the underground art, and ate at the underground food court. Imagine, if you stayed, worked, and played in a mall, you could stay inside on those particularly cold days and access all of the essentials of daily living without putting on a jacket!
This idea isn’t exactly innovative. Malls and shopping centers are being converted to indoor villages across the country. The most famous example is The Arcade Providence — the oldest mall in the U.S. — located in the heart of Providence, Rhode Island. The historic, three-story mall is not an apples-to-apples comparison with our New Hampshire malls. Located in the heart of an urban area, I presume the conversion of the second and third floors required little-to-no regulatory relief.
Not to worry, I made a detour to the shopping centers on the Natick-Framingham, MA line, which is a much closer copy of Woodbury Avenue in Newington, NH. The Flutie Pass project, a major redevelopment of a movie theater parking lot on the Framingham-Natick border, is described by area leaders as a “vital addition for Shopper’s World” a row of box stores adjacent to the project.
During the Leadership Seacoast Class of 2019’s Economic Development Day, I had the opportunity to ask Eric Chinburg, President and CEO of Chinburg Properties, whether he would be interested in applying the “Chinburg Effect” to the mall area. “The malls are the mills of the future” said Chinburg. He elaborated to add why some of the logistics of this type of development makes sense including that the malls already have plenty of parking and all of the site disturbance has already been done.
Knowing that the state’s housing supply is limited and that housing costs are an obstacle to keeping young people in the state, why not re-imagine our malls and shopping areas? We could even keep some of the old signage as a reminder of our evolution. Perhaps, “The Apartments at Toys R Us” for example, similar to Portsmouth’s Yoken’s Plaza.
So, what do you think? Would you live in a mall?