Would You Live In a Mall?: Turning Office and Commercial Space into Homes in the Post-Covid World

Living in the densely packed suburbs that surround New York City, we are a stone’s throw from a big highway with lots of malls and shopping centers. On the 14-mile strip of highways between my house and New York City’s George Washington Bridge, you can find everything from Home Depot to Macy’s to IKEA to Old Navy. There are malls that cater to rich people who like designer labels, and there are outlets that appeal to those on a budget. For decades, these major roads to New York City have been the home of massive cement structures built for consumption. 

But these malls and shopping centers, like the Egyptian pyramids, are lying dormant and shuttered. They were struggling before Covid, but went extinct when the masks went on. Now, as you drive down the highway, store after store is closed. 

Developers are trying to find new uses for these properties. In New York City, architects are trying to find ways to turn office buildings into commercial space. (Super interesting article in the New York Times about this.) Here too, the plan is to turn the old malls and shopping centers into residential properties. While these new housing units are much needed, especially for seniors and disabled people, there are some worries about whether the infrastructure can support increased density.

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21 thoughts on “Would You Live In a Mall?: Turning Office and Commercial Space into Homes in the Post-Covid World

  1. We have chatter about the office buildings into dwellings too. There’s a building in Tacoma that hs been transformed into high end residences: https://www.kuow.org/stories/could-transformable-buildings-help-revive-downtowns

    We also have moth-balled new building (visible from our house across the lake, where until a couple of weeks ago a crane was still at the top of the building). The mothballing has something to do with Amazon: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/amazons-bellevue-tower-pause-may-be-a-sign-were-entering-an-era-of-untransit/

    And, we have a mall redevelopment, Northgate mall which was a marginal, indoor mall even 20 years ago, since it was neither the big destination galleria style mall or the outdoor mall which have grown in popularity in the area. First, they built a light rail to the mall, then condos, rentals, assisted living, and then a public practice ice arena for the new pro hockey team. The department store anchors have all left and I think many of the retailers. The B&N remains as do some big box restaurants (Red Robin, . . . ). https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/amazons-bellevue-tower-pause-may-be-a-sign-were-entering-an-era-of-untransit/

    Our mall is space, though, not a construction worth saving, one level boxes with no architectural features in a big parking lot, not like the Glendale Galleria, which is my mall reference (though I know there are bigger, more more ones).


  2. Yeah, sure, depending on my stage of life. At least a mall redevelopment would have parking, elevators, and convenient highway access. The lack of windows would be a challenge, I suppose.

    I’ve been in downtown cities at rush hour in the last month or so, and they’re noticeably less busy than pre-pandemic. I’m not sure there’s as much of a need for housing in the middle of cities. Maybe small apartments for commuters who spend three days a week in the office.


    1. Right now, I don’t think that you can have living spaces without windows (except for dorms on campus funded by Charles Munger). Malls with interior courtyard spaces with skylights might qualify, though, and our mall is a low level development sections of which can reasonably be knocked down to build multistory apartment builds with parking, elevators, highway access and transit for workers (and potentially for young people who want to go downtown).

      I know a 70+ year old couple who are moving to a downtown condo building (but, it’s always been an apartment) looking for walkability, easier upkeep, separation from the street (they used to live on the water next to a public beach) and access to culture (opera, symphony, arts museums, theater, . . .).


      1. “Billionaire trying to prove people can live without sunlight” really triggers my dystopia alarm.


  3. There are big empty buildings owned by billionaires who don’t want to lose their billions. There are going to find some purpose for those huge cement boxes. Maybe it will be housing, maybe the massive schooling systems, maybe they will be the new cemeteries. Not sure.


    1. I’m more alarmed by Munger’s dorm rooms than s big open space like a mall. Around here, a couple of malls have sat empty for years though. The Macy’s by my house did better. It’s now a charter school and an engineering firm.


  4. We don’t have the empty mall issue here in NZ. We never had as many of them to start with – and Kiwis are still, by-and-large, shopping in person rather than online. Indeed, it’s our central business districts which are hollowing-out, rather than the suburban malls – which are doing just fine (they have parking!)

    Part of that is the … unreliability … of the delivery process. With a shortage of everyone for everything, miminum wage couriers are massively short of staff – and deliveries can take a heck of a lot longer than is ideal; or don’t turn up at all; or get delivered somewhere else (and you then have the stress of sorting that out).

    [Having said that, my teen is more into online shopping than I am; though he’s been burned a couple of times by poor quality – and is a bit more inclined to check things out in person, now]

    We do have large numbers of commercial office buildings which are empty, and have a history of converting these into apartments. This began for us following the 1987 sharemarket crash – and has been repeated with every financial downturn.
    It’s not, however, free from issues – and I’d think that many of them would be repeated for the large-box-store conversions.


    Fun factoid. I’ve just been measuring a whole bunch of teens for costumes for the next musical. I’m not expecting them to know their height or chest measurement – let alone the waist-to-ankle measurement. But! The number of them who didn’t know their shoe size (and, for girls, dress-size) was astounding! How can you shop online without it!

    When *I* was a teen, hanging out in malls with my friends ‘shopping’ for clothes or shoes (most of which we couldn’t afford to actually buy) – was what you *did* on the weekends. I knew not only my own sizes, but the sizes of my friends as well!


  5. Have to say that after the Covid lockdown scars, the question for me is not “Would you live in a mall?” but, rather, “Would you live in an apartment?”
    To which, the answer is ‘No’.
    Unless, of course, it’s a part-time residency. Living there Monday to Wednesday, and working/living from home (in the remote suburbs) Thursday to Sunday. [I actually know someone who does this]
    However, I don’t come from the class of persons who can afford two homes – so the question doesn’t arise.

    For the people who have no choice but to live in an apartment, the question is rather – is a mall-conversion apartment worse or better than an original-built one?


    1. I suppose people could share city apartments. M-W for one worker, W-F for the next, a third takes the weekend. If the apartments offered maid service, it could work well. Two or four people in the office 3 days a week, and a third party has weekend access to the city.

      Or companies could offer it as an amenity.

      It’s funny that science fiction dystopian novels from the 60s and 70s are a good guide to the 21st century.


    2. Millennials outnumber us and have their own preferences. They are cheerfully renting apartments downtown and in other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, mostly at rents that indicate they could buy a house in the suburbs pretty easily if that is what they wanted. Covid didn’t change this, as near as I can tell there was no effect because they ignored it.


      1. Same here in Denver. I talked to one guy I work with and he said he couldn’t see any reason to move to the suburbs unless he and his wife had kids. They do own their condo / apartment though so they are building equity.
        2 doors down from us are a semi retired couple who moved back into the city after their kids grew up.


      2. I’ll believe that, when I start seeing Millennials willingly living in apartments (or shared houses – which is the more common NZ alternative), when they have families and kids.

        Apartment and/or shared living is fine and dandy when you’re a solo or couple focused on living the good life. Not so hot when you have kids, and all of the other considerations that come with them.

        To start with, the horror stories I’m hearing about inner-city US schools – would make me move out, quick smart, if I had school-age children.

        And, the Millennials may have ignored Covid lockdowns, but the families with kids didn’t (because they weren’t allowed to). I have two friends who lived in apartments with small kids during lockdown. While they were fine(ish) with the living situation pre-Covid – it was an utter nightmare during Covid lockdowns. And they are both, now, the most anti-apartment people I know.


      3. The New York times Grosse article of the week was a quiet rant about how millennials, even with children, feel unsettled and still a start-up life (not settled into a mid growth company).

        We have a number of committed urbanists in Seattle (including ones who run a site called the Urbanist) some of whom write about their family life with young children and no cars (bikes with trailers, public transportation, uber & rental cars, lots of walking). But those urbanists still have little children, who do what you do. When your children are commuting to private schools, select basketball, hockey rinks, swimming pools, dance studios, theaters and their friends are scattered over the whole area, the life of young families changes again.

        We talk about urban living occasionally around here and for us the limit is the house space and stuff (and children still returning to the rest). One family has downsized, but to a smaller house, not an apartment/condo (because of the dogs).


      4. People change their living situation as they get older. That’s not a surprise. A few dozen new mid-rise apartment buildings and most older office buildings downtown converted into apartments is a huge change for the better to the fabric of the city and a huge financial boost.


    1. Yes, a conversion requires some initial value in the building. I just went to a lunch in a converted Catholic seminary (also now a hotel). I didn’t see the hotel rooms, but the building is pretty and has sitelines through the main floor hallways that are remarkable. But, seminaries were not designed to be comfy by modern standards (they still have to use space heaters if it gets too cold).

      I’ve also stayed in dorms in a former Benedictine monastery , abandoned in the 18th century on an island in the Venetian lagoon/waters, turned into an asylum and now a dorm. I’d call the accommodations spartan by modern standards, though also beautiful.


      1. It doesn’t compare with the Danieli (or even the Metropole), where we also stayed 🙂 But, it was a trip of unique adventures (and, at the time, the island was a conference center, so one couldn’t book a hotel room there). Italian scientists (at least some of them) have embraced the role of having to provide an Italian experience (at least to the Americans, English, and Germans — probably Australians, too)


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