Most shopping malls across the country parade such a similar line-up of stores that you barely need to go inside to know what you’ll find there. Hallmark? Victoria’s Secret? Bath & Body Works? Check, check and check.
But what about a children’s museum? A community college campus? A rock climbing wall? An indoor BMX park? An apartment complex? With 8 in 10 Americans doing most of their shopping online, mall developers are busily re-creating malls as innovative new play/work/live/shop spaces—and the trend is growing in the New River Valley.
Consider Christiansburg’s New River Valley Mall an early adopter, since it installed a satellite campus of the New River Valley Community College near the food court around 2010. In the past two years, the mall, which opened in 1988, has annexed even more space to non-retail purposes, including the Dish Network call center and Planet Fitness gym that fills former clothing and shoe stores with ellipticals, stationary bikes, rowing machines and treadmills.
Most dramatic is Wonder Universe, the retooled Blacksburg Children’s Museum, which is opening soon in 15,000 square feet of mall space that used to encompass a Charlotte Russe and the food court. Inside, kids can create and race toy cars, treat stuffed animals at a vet’s office, and build with massive foam blocks, among other activities that cater to kids 0 to 12. “We looked at a bunch of other places and decided this was the location,” explains Kristin Kirk, Wonder Universe board president. “It is central to the New River Valley which allows us to expand our reach in all directions.”
Similar changes have been afoot elsewhere. At the University Mall in Blacksburg, a steady stream of residents head to the Weight Club, a beloved local gym, and the Math Emporium, Virginia Tech’s study and testing center for math students. In Roanoke’s Tanglewood Mall, Carilion will install a $30 million pediatric services center in the 150,000 square feet abandoned by J.C. Penney in June of 2017. Ideas for the empty Sears space at Valley View Mall include mixed-use housing or an entertainment center that attracts Millennials eager to spend money on experiences instead of objects — the “experience economy,” as it’s known.
Those new uses perfectly fit the vision that Sharon Scott, executive director of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, sees for a revitalized shopping mall. “Malls used to be the community center,” she says. “It was somewhere that a family could go together. If you think about malls, it wasn’t always about the shopping, it was about who you could run into.”
Social and cultural changes have shifted expectations, and Americans are so busy they don’t have time to “wander the mall”; they want to grab what they need and go. But with creative non-retail uses pushing retail spaces to the periphery, “once again malls are becoming a community center,” Scott says. “For me that’s just exciting and invigorating.”
Back in the 1970s and 80s, all the cool kids hung out at the mall. (Exhibit A: this summer’s Netflix blockbuster Stranger Things 3, which showed that even being attacked by mind-flaying monsters is more fun at the mall.) But the dimly lit, enclosed spaces lost a lot of their appeal in the 2000s, when, ironically, customers began moving back toward a “town center” model of shopping in open-air communities with outdoor restaurants. As Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic: “Americans loved malls, then they loved to hate them.”
Nationwide, developers are thinking way outside the (big) box to repurpose the huge swaths of real estate left over when anchor stores heave ho. In Providence, R. I., the country’s oldest shopping mall has been transformed into a mix of micro-apartments (most 300 square feet or less) and small businesses, like a hair salon and a coffee shop. Millcreek Mall in Salt Lake City includes a rock-climbing gym. An indoor BMX track took up residence in a former movie theater at North Towne Mall in Rockford, Ill.
Malls are not what you think anymore. Converting them into offices, classrooms and community gathering places may be the best way to save them.
Text by Melody Warnick
Photos by Tom Wallace
Melody Warnick is a Blacksburg-based freelance writer and author of “This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are.” Find her online at melodywarnick.com.