Economists' Outlook

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Using Vacant Malls as Coronavirus Health Care Emergency Armories

The number of coronavirus cases and deaths continues to accelerate dramatically in the United States. As of 4 pm on March 23, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported 33,404 confirmed and presumptive cases and 400 deaths covering 50 states, Washington, DC., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Illinois, New York, California, and Washington are the states that have had the most impact of the outbreak of respiratory illness caused by the novel (new) coronavirus thus far. According to March 23, 2020 CDC data, Illinois has 1,049 cases reported, New York represents the epicenter of the virus at 15,168, California has 1,709 and lastly, Washington State has 1,996 cases. Approximately 41,000 cases have been reported across all 50 states and Washington, DC., which is increasing day-by-day. The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to grow not only in the United States, but new cases arise on a daily basis in other countries as well.

Containing and treating patients requires hospital beds, ventilators, medical supplies, masks, and other medical supplies that are beyond current capacity and available space. For example, New York Governor Cuomo said New York needs 50,000 extra hospital beds. California Governor Newsom has asked for a naval hospital with 1,000 beds.

Vacant retail malls are suited to provide this demand for a larger space in an urbanized area to serve as a temporary hospital or health care armory. Shopping centers, both fully vacant and partially vacant, have close proximity to people, and their large footage can handle large cases as mobile hospital units, emergency mask production, storage of basic goods, etc.

Row of laboratory microscopes

Photo by Ousa Chea on Unsplash

In 2019, 9,350 stores shut their doors, with another 1,883 store closures in 2020, according to Coresight Research, a data analytics company that tracks store closings.  E-commerce sales have made inroads into the sales of brick-and-mortars, with 80% of Americans now shopping online. Retail industry analysts anticipate the closure of a third of US malls or adaptive reuse within the next five years. As anchor stores vacate their spaces in malls, how to fill these large empty spaces yields the root of the issue. Typically, as anchor stores vacate and/or if there is a replacement not of the same caliber or the space remains vacant for too long, other mall tenants vacate as well, thus leaving a declining mall in their absence. These vacant malls can, in the meantime, be used as health care armories.

Empty shopping mall

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Vacant retail space has been repurposed in many ways. Some shopping malls and centers are able to fill in the void with retailers wanting to expand their footprint while others pursue repurposing of the space. Other shopping centers and malls that struggle to find new tenants are purchased by industrial developers or transition into mixed-use spaces. These projects have many mixed-uses such as medical use, food distribution, hotels, fitness centers, education, entertainment, etc.

Illinois, New York, California, and Washington have been successful in transforming their empty mall spaces. Here are a few examples of the transformation of empty mall space or adaptive reuse:

  1. In the heart of downtown and close proximity to any desirable, Chicago’s 547,200 square foot retail-office space North Pier Mall closed in 2013. The North Pier space was converted to a 285-unit, 547,200 square feet Lofts at River East apartments.
  2. At 20 miles north of Manhattan and 13 miles west of White Plains, New York, the Nanuet Mall at over 900,000 square feet had great accessibility to transit, universities, shops, healthcare and more. The mall was closed in 2012 and in 2013 the 758,000 square foot mixed-use development, Shops at Nanuet arose.
  3. Having a prime Silicon Beach location, West Los Angeles’ 739,822 square foot retail space, three-story urban shopping mall, Westside Pavilion closed in 2019. It is currently undergoing a mall-to-office conversion that will yield a 584,000 creative office campus that will house Google and is scheduled to be completed in 2022.
  4. A suburb of Tacoma, the Lakewood, Washington, Lakewood Mall, a retail-oriented 682,922 square foot enclosed mall which was a replacement for the Villa Plaza Shopping Center was demolished in 2001 but its’ adjacent 515,000 square foot strip retail remained. Opening in 2002 was Lakewood Towne Center, an open-air, mixed-use development that created four distinct components, including a 71,000 square foot civic center that is anchored by the three-story Lakewood City Hall, a 490,000 square foot power center, 50,000 square foot entertainment center, and a 311,600 square foot neighborhood retail center.

While Illinois, New York, California, and Washington have had success in repurposing vacant mall space, those states, like others, currently have shopping malls that have been abandoned that could be utilized right now as health care armories:

  1. Situated in an ideal location in the original San Bernardino downtown area in San Bernardino, California, a vacant 1,357,200 square foot shopping mall with close proximity to highways and transit stations remains vacant since 2017. Currently, the city of San Bernardino is considering accepting mall redevelopment proposals, but in the meantime, the space could be repurposed until further notice.
  2. A 1,250,000 square foot enclosed shopping mall remains vacant in Florissant, Missouri, a city within Greater St. Louis, Jamestown Mall. The Jamestown Mall has been vacant since 2014 and its owners, the St. Louis County Port Authority are on their second attempt of issuing a request for proposals after the first and only proposal was accepted but ultimately not executed.

Vacant retail malls provide the physical infrastructure needed to win this battle against the coronavirus outbreak and future epidemics and pandemics. These vacant malls can be temporarily utilized as health care emergency armories, and even permanently become health care hospices, medical facilities, science centers, or health facilities to serve the needs of aging baby boomers. Bill Gates has also argued to have a pandemic preparedness system that can include armories to provide a secure area, space for germ/war type simulations and R&D in areas of vaccine and diagnostics, among many more ideas. He argues that advancements in science and technology, biology, satellite maps, data analytics, and the ubiquitous use of cell phones to receive and retrieve information from the public has made it easier to have a preparedness system to deal with health epidemics such as the Ebola or coronavirus. Vacant retail malls can provide the infrastructure for this health preparedness system.

Row of hospital beds and curtains

Photo by Adhy Savala on Unsplash