Developers looking to reposition traditional shopping center assets have to make thousands of small and large decisions that impact the success of repositioned mixed use retail environment. While our musings below are by no means exhaustive (a more robust list of considerations would take a whole book!) we thought we would share a few lessons learned from downtown that should be considered when redeveloping older mall assets into mixed-use properties.

Retail, Retail. Everywhere?

In planning circles, the mantra that ground floor retail enlivens streets is practically de rigueur. But the reality is much more complicated. Requiring ground floor retail on every street when there is insufficient demand is a recipe for disaster. Vacant ground floor spaces distract and diminish the pedestrian experience. But what do you do when not every ground floor space can support retail? Special care should be taken to ensure that non-commercial ground floor space contributes to a comfortable environment for both those walking along the street as well as those who may be living or working on the ground floor. Architects and planners should incorporate things like landscaped barriers, raised first floors, and welcoming facades and entrances that provide some degree of privacy without creating a barrier. And spaces can be made to be flexible, allowing commercial to come along later once the market is more mature.

Even in urban environmentals, such as this back alley in downtown Memphis, TN, ground floor residential can work. In this instance, a small planter provides a visual buffer to a ground floor window. Photo: Larisa Ortiz.


When retail is constructed, it should be concentrated, co-located, accessible and visible to people who arrive by a variety of means (personal automobile, shared ride services, bicycle, foot, and yes, e-scooters). This means making sure that there is adequate signage for visitors looking for parking lots and that lots are shared rather than associated with any single use. It also means making sure that walking is comfortable and that cyclists have places to lock up their bikes and have been given safe cycling routes to and from retail areas.

Hospitality Management.

Many of the these mixed-use centers will have a heavy component of food & beverage purveyors. Add to that mix residents looking for a good night’s sleep and you have significant potential for conflicts between uses and users. What happens when bars and restaurants close? Or music is played too loud? How a mall owner manages public safety in a 24-hour environment differs markedly from malls. The need to coordinate closely with local law enforcement, to track incidents, and to get restaurant and bar operates to work together and cooperate are all part of what it takes to manage these mixed use environments. The Responsible Hospitality Institute has been working in downtown environments for over thirty years now and has developed a good set of tools for those managing mixed use urban environments.

Parking? Not So Much, Really!

You don’t need as much parking as you think you do. In successful downtown environments, the parking ratio can be as low as 1 or 2 spaces or less for every 1,000 sf of retail. Compare that to a mall environment with parking ratios of 4, 5 or more to 1,000 sf of retail, and you quickly come to see that many malls are overparked. Antiquated zoning often applies to these new mixed-use centers so it pays to consider whether variances will be necessary to ensure you don’t over park your project. Even in transit rich NYC, C4-1 Zones (which are commercial areas located outside of central business districts that include specialty and department stores, theaters and other commercial and office – essentially local malls) require 10 spots per 1,000 sf of retail for food stores. Yes, you heard that right.

Mixing uses allows for shared parking and a captive audience of residents who have already parked their cars (if they own cars at all). The Bronx Terminal Market, an urban big box shopping center located in the Bronx, NY was built with a parking ratio of 2.6/1,000 in 2009. Less than ten years later, an environmental assessment conducted for a project immediately across the street found that the lot was 50% utilized even during peak periods. At an estimated $35k per space, 1,300 unnecessary parking spots costs the developer approximately $45.5 million dollars. And now with Uber, Lyft and improved transit access to many retail shopping centers, there is a newfound ability to shrink parking lots and turn that space into something more productive (as long as parking requirements are modified!).

Even what some might consider “low” parking ratios – the case case of East River Plaza in East Harlem, NY, a 2.37/1,000 sf ratio resulted in a significantly oversupply of parking.