Zombie Malls and what to do with them

The campaign to rescue the UK High Street has many champions such as Mary Portas and Sadiq Khan and is being fought with varying degrees of success around the country.  Another consequence of the revolution in shopping patterns that has largely been ignored however is the decline of the 20th century shopping centre. Once seen by local councils as essential to securing the long term sustainability of their town centres, these largely unloved structures were the key distribution nodes for retail within communities in an age when the only alternative was a Littlewoods catalogue. Invariably they were dominant in scale, impermeable to the surrounding network of streets and alleys. With hundreds of car parking spaces on the roof or in adjacent multi storey structure and surrounded by multi lane highways prioritising access by vehicles rather than pedestrians, these buildings were despised by architects and the intellectual class. They were considered beneath the dignity of most in the profession and as a consequence, developed as icons of sub design. Temples to Mammon, magnets to mediocrity, the profession left the task of designing these unloved monsters to a small field of practices who formed a close, cosy relationship with their developer clients. One consequence of this intellectual inbreeding was that the buildings developed close family resemblances to each other and displayed a similar disregard for the towns and cities into which they were parachuted. Urban grain was obliterated, loved landmarks erased, whole streets were ‘disappeared’ and town centres depopulated as the cuckoo was accommodated in the nest. And it was a selfish beast too, planned such that they turned their back on the existing town centres, internalised the consumer experience in a covered, air conditioned mall and offer no reason or encouragement to explore the town beyond the glazed lobbies.
Most of the the shopping centres were built by developers and then sold on to pension funds, for whom they were an integral part of long term planning providing ‘guaranteed’ returns for the next 25, 50, 100 years . These guarantees were based on long term leases with reputable high street names backed by strong covenants and it was assumed that they would provide steady year on year growth to help cover the long term commitments of their owners. And for years they did – the majority of district and sub regional shopping centres were built between 1970 and the mid-nineties and most of them provided good returns to their investors during that period. By the end of the nineties however there was a marked change in approach. Developers began to concentrate on fewer larger regional shopping centres such as the Meadowhall in Sheffield, the Trafford Centre in Manchester and Bluewater in Kent. Bigger forces were driving the trend towards fewer bigger malls. One was a common understanding that bigger is better and that by building larger malls the developers would provide new larger space formats for their traditional tenants and attract exotic international brands that had traditionally eschewed malls in favour of authentic High Streets in national and regional capitals. The other force, related to the first but not fully understood at the time was the impact the internet would have upon shopping patterns and the paradigm shift in the function of retail space as a result. Now, after 20 years of exponential on-line growth in retail sales the purpose of physical space is no longer sales per square foot. Space is now required to showcase a brand or product, to do what the internet cannot do – to provide a physical experience in real time, real space. The shop unit is there to support on-line business and make some sales as well. The consequence is that the brands require fewer, larger units located in regionally dominant locations for customers who want the occasional brand experience to support their on line relationship , rather than the monthly trip to the mall of 20 years ago. Regional smaller locations are no longer attractive, no longer required as distribution centres.

All of which is creating a major headache for the current owners of the smaller shopping centres, and, more significantly, the town centres in which they sit. Although they are large and bland and contributed in no small part to the decline of many traditional shopping streets when they were built, in their decline they are leaving town centres deserted, devastated and hollowed out. The zombie mall is typified by rows of vacant units, particularly at upper levels, units occupied by budget or low quality tenants, interiors that have not been updated since 1984, perhaps waiting for a revival in 80’s American hotel lobby style when they might be rediscovered and loved by the post-hipster generation. Meanwhile empty escalators eerily clunk away hoping someone will take a ride. Forlorn security personnel eye visitors with suspicion as there is clearly no reason why anyone should be there as there is nothing to do.

Some of these malls can be turned around. Market Place Bolton had not reached zombie status when our client, Moorgarth bought it from the Administrator but it was suffering from 40% vacancies and a general decline in trade as local residents changed their shopping habits away from the town centre in favour of a 25-45 minute drive to the Trafford Centre. Three factors allowed for the transformation of Market Place, from a declining general shopping mall into a community town centre destination. One was the capacity to accommodate a town centre cinema within the structure of the rooftop car park without the requirement for major structural reinforcement. The second reason was the presence of the 19th century vaults below the converted Market Hall, which were opened up to provide and authentic magical environment for restaurants, cafes and a play area. The third reason is a successful partnership between a visionary developer and a local authority that fully supported that vision.


One alternative solution we are currently researching is the repurposing of such structures into genuine mixed use town centre developments with a mix of residential, cultural, social and commercial uses – the historic mix of town centres. Arguments in favour of such an approach are many:
Approximately 35% of the costs and the embedded energy of a building lie in the structure and substructure. In addition, the institutional design loadings which these structures were built to were conservative by current standards – live loadings for retail were typically 7.5 kn/sqm with an additional 2.5 kn/sqm for car parking over.  By comparison, residential live loadings are 1.5 kn/sqm and typical workplace, 2.5 kn/sqm. So a typical two storey shopping centre with two storeys of car parking over has a design capacity live load of 18 kn/sqm, the equivalent of 12 storeys of residential or 7 storeys of workplace.
So before demolition consideration should be given to retention and reusing structure. Viability of the cut and carve required to open up the deep floor space of retail to allow daylight and sunlight necessary for residential or workplace is a consideration but many of such shopping centres are steel framed with precast flooring systems that can be relatively easily opened up.

Phasing and Programme
Demolition of such large structures takes time and costs money. Together with design, Planning Permission, procurement and construction, replacing will take the site out of the market for a period of three to five years.  A phased approach to repurposing can allow for local businesses and retailers to be retained on site and relocated together on site to improve viability thorough better exposure and adjacency. Phasing will also allow for the local market in social and private residential to adapt and inform the provision of town centre mixed use in an evolutionary manner. It will reduce the negative impact of a single large construction site on the commercial activity and community of a town centre and ensure that the site is active in some part throughout, bringing new elements on to the market two to three years earlier than complete redevelopment.

Affordable and Lifetime Homes
Town centre living is appropriate for modern lifestyles. First time buyers and young can be accommodated in affordable market housing close to transport hubs, shops and cultural facilities and workplace. Student housing can be appropriately located in the town centres close to the universities and colleges.
At the other end of the lifetime scale, the HAPPI report of 2009 and 2016 identifies town centres as an ideal location for 55+ year olds with the potential to provide a stimulating environment with pedestrian connectivity to shops, cultural facilities, public transport, healthcare and community. From a social point of view integrating different generations into the town centre can help create a rich, diverse and balanced community.

New Mixed Use Town Centre Communities
The model we have developed is based upon a typical town or city centre shopping centre with basement servicing beneath two floors of retail with two or three floors or car parking over the top.
Ground floor uses facing busy streets should be retained as commercial or community uses such as national and independent retail, cafes, restaurants and other leisure, workplace, health centres etc. Only where the ground floor opens on to public open space should it be considered suitable for residential uses.
What were internal malls and atria can be opened up to become streets and squares forming new permeable connections within the town centre map.
On first floor the structure is opened up to the sky to allow for dual aspect uses around a central circulation spine. The additional height of retail means this level is suitable for workspace or loft style living spaces with the potential for decks and mezzanines within an enhance volume that new build residential would not provide.
Car parking decks above are converted into residential flats and duplexes with balconies and terraces accessed from circulation galleries supported off the retained structure.  The structure will have capacity for additional floors to create genuine high density low rise mixed use  that was so successful  in many of the local authority residential schemes of the 60’s and 70s such as the successfully restored Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury
The central circulation spine provides for community space with courts, decks, walkways and linked to the ground through reusing the original lift and stair cores.
Upper levels can also suitable for conversion into hotels with the floor to floor heights of the car parks of 3.0m and planning grid of 7.2-7.5 m suitable for a room module
Basement service yards are converted into residents and/or city centre car parking with an additional deck placed within the double height volume allowed for large trucks. Resident’s car parking can be connected through reusing the delivery cores design to deliver goods to the shops.
Utilities provided for the shopping centre will be adequate for the new uses without the requirement for new substations or sewers

The vision is of redundant and neglected structure that so often turned its back on the surrounding town centre,  transformed into a living, vibrant and diverse community, opened up to the surrounding town that will help regenerate the town centre in an organic, evolutionary and sustainable way.
There are so many reasons why repurposing of redundant shopping centres should be considered before demolition and redevelopment that it is surprising that it has not happened already.

Tags: Architecture, Wren, regeneration, repurposing, urban regeneration

Back to all posts