Could suburban malls be the solution to Massachusetts’ housing shortage?


Strip malls are typically suburbs with minimalist architecture, increasing vacancies and oversized parking lots. But some believe that these malls may also have plenty of hidden potential as solutions to the state’s housing shortage.

“I am an ardent advocate for the transformation or retrofitting of the unsustainable and non-resilient, vast, inefficient and increasingly obsolete suburban landscapes of North America,” said June Williamson, an architecture professor at City University of New York.

Williamson recently wrote a book on the subject and presented his findings at a meeting of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

She argued that converting these sites to modern complexes with fewer parking spaces and more homes and green spaces could reduce car dependency and increase pedestrian access, improve public health, make neighborhoods safer and increase housing stock.

Williamson added that outdated office parks could also embark on a similar effort to attract a younger workforce “by pursuing urbanism itself as a convenience,” she said.

In Massachusetts, the MAPC’s recently released analysis found that if only 10% of the state’s smaller suburban centers were converted to mixed-use projects, it could create 124,000 homes and generate $ 479 million in additional tax revenue for host communities.

In total, the group’s analysis, hosted on a recently launched website, found over 3,000 potential sites located on nearly 14 square kilometers, with the average city or town in the Boston metro area housing 71 acres of land dedicated to shopping malls. Nearly 900 of the potential sites are also located near MBTA transit.

The group used the old Woburn Mall as an example. In 2017, over two-thirds of the store facades on the site were empty, mainly thanks to changing consumer preferences towards e-commerce.

Since then, the site has been converted into Woburn Village, a 200,000-square-foot, multi-building area with several smaller parking lots instead of a large plot and building. Many of the anchor stores that were already there, including Market Basket and TJ Maxx, became, like smaller locally owned stores like the local lock-and-key store, while new upscale dining and shopping opportunities moved in.

The site is also home to an apartment complex with 350 units, including 25% affordable units, as well as a large communal park.

“For city officials who are thinking about this, it gives you a housing choice in your city that you might not have otherwise if you are predominantly detached houses,” said David Gillespie, vice president of development at Avalon, who worked on the project. “This provides a place where people can move, who have an elevator, who have services that are walkable, where they want to live in your city.”

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