Repurposing Malls and Big Box Retail in Cleveland

There has not been a new, enclosed mall to open in the United States, the land of malls and honey, since 2006. This might not seem to be too significant, but given our country’s obsession with shopping, the comfort of remaining in a climate-controlled environment for as long as humanly possible, eating at mediocre chain restaurants, and our fetishization of a suburban-style utopia that just wont go away; trust me, it’s a very big deal.

Indoor shopping malls, for the purposes of retail, are dying and it is a good thing. It is good because it is creating the opportunities to re-think what these massive properties can mean for a neighborhood, and how, through their abandonment, help point toward what is truly important and valuable to a community.

Malls, over the last 50 years, have gone from the community center in some cities to a relic of the way people once wanted to shop. While malls have faced problems in the past, the Internet is now pulling even more sales away from them. And as retailers crawl out of the worst recession since the advent of malls, many are realizing they are overbuilt and are closing locations at a fast clip. – The New York Times

I want to highlight two specific examples of innovation and forward thinking that has lead to the re-purposing of two malls. One, a 66,000 square feet Big Lots (no pun intended) was one of those ‘relics of the way people once shopped’ and its closing was a precursor to the impending recession that had yet to come. The other a two-story, 138,000 square foot shopping mall, The Galleria at Erieview, which the New York Times describes as, “like many malls across the country, is suffering. Closed on weekends because there are so few visitors, it is down to eight retail stores, eight food-court vendors and a couple of businesses like the local bar association.” While both malls are in the city of Cleveland they are symbolic of a larger movement that many cash-strapped cities such as Buffalo, Columbus, and Detroit to name a few, are pursuing.

I want to start with the Big Lots property. Located just east of downtown Cleveland in the historic Collinwood neighborhood, south of Euclid Beach State Park and north of the 32-acre Humphrey Park, this desolate strip of Lakeshore Boulevard.

Former Big Lots, turned Collinwood Recreation Center, far left.

As you can see, lots of concrete, few cars, and what Cleveland City Councilman, Michael Polensek saw as a tremendous opportunity. He successfully converted the 66,000 square food Big Lots into what is now the Collinwood Recreation Center, a LEED Gold Building that looks like this (but kindly omitting the eye-sores that are the two other big-box stores developments):

What used to sell poorly made whole-sale goods is now the center of a community that is getting people active, beautifying a neighborhood, improving the environment, diverting storm water run-off, and changing lives.

The $11 million facility will be home to Cleveland’s first indoor water park, complete with a monster slide and full swimming pool.

A regulation-sized basketball court, three-lane walking/jogging track, kitchen facilities, senior center, aerobics, and fitness rooms are also a part of the new facility.

In addition, there is a community room, computer center and offices for city employees.

Outside features include a separate parking lot for seniors, a pool patio and landscaping throughout the eco-friendly parking lot all connected by bike paths to the 32-acre Humphrey’s Sports Complex and Euclid Beach State Park.

The center was designed by Cleveland-based City Architecture and is a green-energy complex outfitted with solar panels and LEED certified. The complex links directly to Euclid Beach State Park with a new intersection on Lakeshore Boulevard, enabling anyone to walk or bike from Villaview Avenue all the way to Cleveland’s lakefront. – Cleveland News Channel 5

This recreation center’s reach goes far beyond the city of Collinwood. A Plain Dealer article detailed how, in a somewhat surprising turn-of-events, the recreation center began to be inundated by suburban members. Collinwood, a predominantly African-American neighborhood with a median household income hovering around $28,000 a year isn’t exactly what you would expect to be drawing hordes of suburbanites to the near east-side of Cleveland. Councilman Michael Polensek pointed out that, while ‘Cleveland grants free admission to its recreation facilities, regardless of where someone lives…Cleveland residents have to pay admission to use suburban recreation facilities.

It seems, that by re-purposing the very symbol of the, now dying, suburban dream, embodied by big-box stores, one neighborhood has reversed the tides and managed to bring people back into the city – rather than drive them away as is so often claimed by suburbanites.

Where Collinwood Recreation Center might be a prototype for how to properly and effectively convert a big-box store into a well-designed eco-friendly hub of a neighborhood, the Galleria at Erieview has been an incubator for outside-the-box alternatives.

For years, the Galleria has scrabbled to stay alive by leasing space to non-retail tenants and booking weddings and events. As owners of empty shopping centers have turned to churches, offices and business incubators to fill space, the greenhouse-like Galleria has garnered attention for growing herbs in its central atrium for local restaurants.  – Cleveland Plain Dealer

What once was scrambling to make sense of its place in the city’s downtown business district, at East 9th and St. Clair, has recently been on the receiving end of some much-needed breaks. The Cleveland area YMCA recently committed to occupy 40,000 square feet, or 30% of the building, featuring a fitness facility complete with a three lane lap-pool.

As if the YMCA and its near 4,000 members weren’t enough of an infusion to the Galleria, the successful locally owned and operated restaurant chain, the Winking Lizard, will open ‘Lizardville‘ its 13th outpost, in what is now a vacant art gallery. This 5,000 square foot restaurant and bar will feature some 600 varieties of beer and a wide array of wines with 90%-95% of them coming from Ohio its neighboring states as well as an outdoor patio. And just like that a mall goes from a New York Times piece for all the wrong reasons, to a New York Times story for all the right reasons; smart, local development, that refused to let a space lay to rot.

What these two examples demonstrate is the power and potential of thinking outside-the-box. By being innovative and re-thinking our conceptions of what malls or big-box stores are, or ought to be, we free ourselves, as well as our shared spaces, from the confines of materialism. In doing so, we redirect, however intentional or unintentional, our values. These projects, and others like them, reaffirm that we can fruitfully bring together diverse populations through a shared commitment to the health and well-being of a community.

–By Daniel Brown, Co-Founder of Midwest Sustainable Cities Symposium

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Filed under Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate

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