The nation’s senior population is in desperate need of more affordable housing, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately plagued senior communities. With this need expected to increase alongside aging populations, some developers are looking to abandoned shopping mall sites for innovative opportunities.
Shopping malls nationwide struggled long before the restrictions of COVID-19, as anchor stores like Macy’s have teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. For more than a decade, demolished mall sites have been turned into everything from medical centers and sports team training facilities to Amazon warehouses, car dealerships and biotech lab spaces, while others have sat vacant.
"If you want to be located in close-in suburbs, this is where the land is" for developers, said June Williamson, chair and associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York.
Williamson pointed to one of the country's oldest malls — Seattle's Northgate Mall, originally built in 1950 — as an example of how this land can be repurposed for housing: The site has undergone construction for the development of a high-density residential building, hotel, planned transit center and National Hockey League center, among other facilities.
Meanwhile, the mall’s satellite parking lot was turned into senior housing dubbed Aljoya Thornton Place, said Williamson. That housing describes itself as an "urban village" for people who "love the energy of urban life but don't want to live downtown" — a big draw for healthy older residents when looking for a place to live.
An October 2020 survey by the National Association of Realtors found Americans older than 55 have an increased interest in homes near sidewalks, where residents could easily walk to grocery stores, restaurants and retail.
Some of those walkable senior communities "might have closer proximity to social services, continuing education, medical care and mass transit," said Williamson. "A generation ago, senior living centers were like campuses, with a long drive, in a remote bucolic area, set apart. [But] people want to live near their communities."
Yet in many cases, available housing for seniors falls into two categories: expensive continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) or relatively inexpensive housing built with federal tax credits, which caps the income of eligible residents — leaving senior communities to grapple with an overabundance of affordable and accessible housing demand, said Danielle Arigoni, director of AARP’s Livable Communities.
"In 2034, there will be more people over 65 than under 18 for the first time ever," said Arigoni. "Localities have not adequately stockpiled to meet that need. More than half of households have one or two people, but over 85% of housing stock is two or more bedrooms. So there’s already a real mismatch."
AARP surveys have found that three-fourths of people want to age in their home or their community, Arigoni said. Outside of Seattle, Smart Cities Dive has identified four cities with mall site redevelopments that aim to bridge the housing gap for seniors.
Folkestone in Wayzata, MN: Expensive with a long wait list
For some seniors, the best way to stay in a familiar community is to move to a senior living complex like Folkestone, part of the Promenade development in the Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata. The Promenade was constructed on the site of the old Bay Center Mall, built in 1967 and demolished in 2012. The senior housing portion was completed in 2015, with completion of the entire project following in 2018.
About 75% of Folkestone's residents come from within a 15-minute radius of the development, said Jon Fletcher, vice president of Presbyterian Homes & Services and Senior Housing Partners, in an email interview. That developer has 51 senior living complexes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, but Folkestone is its first on the site of a former shopping mall.
"This site was chosen for its superior housing location as a difficult-to-replicate urban infill property surrounded by a walkable neighborhood," Fletcher said. The developer faced minimal challenges in building on a shopping mall site other than those expected with an old building, such as asbestos. Its biggest problem was the mall's former construction on top of wetlands, which made new construction more complicated and expensive, said Fletcher.
The senior apartments have a refundable entrance deposit ranging from $95,000 to $328,000, with monthly rental from $2,200 to $6,800. Folkestone has a wait list over five years, so the need is clear. Fletcher would not reveal project costs, but the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported them at around $342 million.
The Village in Richmond, VA: Helped by a bond issue
In 1975, nonprofit Westminster Canterbury Richmond (WCR) opened a large CCRC — aptly named the Westminster Canterbury Richmond CCRC — near the Azalea Mall in Richmond, VA, which closed in 1996.
When the mall was demolished in 1999, plans for a mixed-use development on the 50-acre site did not succeed, leaving it vacant except for occasional transient markets or pop-up Amazon distribution centers, said Gayle Haglund, head of communications for WCR.
In 2018, WCR spent $7.9 million to purchase 10 of those acres for the expansion of its CCRC, via a planned senior housing complex, the Village. The complex will have three buildings with about 19 apartments in each, Haglund said. Those will be independent living units, but the residents will have access to the health care services of the CCRC.
The entire expansion — of which the Village is just one part — is expected to cost over $100 million and include a new spiritual center, dining venues, and a wellness and fitness center. Two years ago, WCR secured low-interest financing for the expansion through the Henrico County Economic Development Authority, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. County supervisors approved a $72.5 million bond issue, of which WCR said it would use $8.5 million for the new projects.
The apartments are still under construction but expected to be available in the next two or three years, said Haglund. The new units already have 200 priority depositors, which means they have made a refundable deposit and will have priority for admission. The exact rental cost has not yet been determined. In the CCRC, residents pay a "sizable" entry fee – refundable over four years – plus a monthly fee that remains the same regardless of care needed, she said. The CCRC has a wait list of more than 1,000 people.
Wheat Ridge, CO Town Center: Affordable housing tax credits
The Wheat Ridge Town Center senior apartments were built in 2012 in a Denver suburb on the site of a former strip mall from the 1960s. When the mall fell on hard times in the 1990s, officials unsuccessfully attempted to use the space for mom and pop antique stores before leaving the site to eventually sit stagnant, said Tyler Downs, principal and founder of senior housing developer Wazee Partners.
By 2011, the Wheat Ridge urban renewal authority, Renewal Wheat Ridge, bought the eight-acre site with the idea of converting it to housing-based mixed use, Downs said. Wazee wanted to use the site to develop an affordable "active adult" community for healthy adults over 62, in addition to traditional multifamily rental housing.
"Wheat Ridge agreed with us that it’s important to provide a spectrum of housing options for all ages and incomes," said Downs. "That will continue to be the defining challenge for that age group, especially for the lower- to middle-income group."
Downs said the purchase was supported by federal affordable housing tax credits, allocated by the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. "That allowed us to provide capital in exchange for us keeping rents low for 40 years," he said. "We get money in the form a tax credit equity [and] residents get to live in a brand new building."
The city was instrumental in approving zoning changes from retail to high-density, low-income housing, said Downs. It also provided funding for the infrastructure – new streets, curbs, sidewalks and newly developed roads. Meanwhile, Renewal Wheat Ridge hired consulting company Weston Solutions to do environmental abatement for asbestos and leaks from a former gas station and service shop.
"We could not financially afford it if [the city] hadn’t paid for the infrastructure," said Downs. The entire project cost around $12 million, of which the city paid $2 million.
The senior housing has a wait list of more than 1,300 for 138 apartments, Downs said, with a turnover rate of around five years.
Skyview Park Apartments in Irondequoit, NY: Partnering with a local healthcare provider
In 1990, the Irondequoit Mall opened in the Rochester suburb. It thrived for about a decade but gradually fell on hard times and closed in 2009, with the exception of Macy’s and Sears which hung on until 2014 and 2016, respectively.
Now, part of the mall is being renovated as Skyview on the Ridge by developer PathStone. The former Sears building will be renovated into affordable senior housing with 78 apartments, while an adjacent new building will house another 80 apartments.
"We had to do some creative work to repurpose [the Sears building]," said Amy Casciani, senior vice president of real estate development at PathStone. The redevelopment raised the building's roof to create the apartments, and built accessible courtyards that provided natural light and ventilation for each unit. PathStone also had to section off part of the property for utilities, as it didn’t want the same water line as the mall.
The apartments, expected to open in late 2021, will be accessible to each other and to the surrounding development via skywalk – a helpful consideration for seniors in upstate New York in the winter, said Casciani. To further support the health of residents, PathStone is also partnering with Rochester Regional Health to provide screening and referrals to health care and social services.
The units are available for residents making under 60% of the area median income, which means $31,800 for one-bedroom units and $36,360 for two-bedroom. Maximum rent will be $710 for a one-bedroom and $1,023 for a two-bedroom, Casciani said.
PathStone is using the same affordable housing tax credits as Wazee in Colorado. The developer has a $22.4 million line of credit from Citizens Bank and $17.6 million from New York state in federal tax credits, channeled through the state, and loans for development.
"Normally, we buy the land and the building," said Casciani. "With this one, because it was part of the mall, we bought the store and had to lease the ground underneath. We had to convince the state and the long-term permanent lender so they’re comfortable. It isn’t typical."
Despite an array of challenges, developers seem happy with the results of developing senior housing on old shopping mall sites.
"My advice to other developers would be to strongly consider infill redevelopment opportunities as a way to revitalize underutilized properties in typically strong locations," said Fletcher, who worked on Folkestone in Wayzata. "Certainly take into consideration why a particular retail building is available for redevelopment. Is it because it was not the best use? Or is it because it was in a poor location where any active use might not be successful?"
This story has been updated to more accurately reflect planning details in the Richmond, VA and Wayzata, MN communities.