What Else Could Empty Retail Space Be Used For?

If you drive around the area of Chicago’s western suburbs I live in you’ll find lots of empty retail buildings. The last several years have not been kind to the in-person shopping experience and so malls are less crowded than they once were, strip malls are often have plentiful open storefronts and so on. All that real estate is often just sitting there, waiting hopefully for a resurgence that will likely never come.

The question then becomes: What to do with all that square footage?

Some mall management companies, according to this story, are converting unoccupied space into coworking environments. It’s not a bad idea, as coworking locations are a hot trend and is popular among remote workers, freelancers and others who aren’t part of a “standard” office environment. And those owners are hoping encouraging innovation will at best create new retail operations or at least a bunch of people who shop at the mall during their breaks.

It is not, though, the only option.

Over the last few years there have been several examples of how abandoned or failing malls have been revitalized and revamped for alternate usage. The second (or third) lives these spaces have been granted range from housing and offices to fitness and dining to government offices and parks.

One area I don’t see covered is something that’s a bit less commercially-minded. Specifically, what if we used these massive buildings and all the smaller spaces contained within to enhance the community in a way that wasn’t so commercial? What if we, in short, turned them into public art places?

Imagine if the mall were turned into a series of small display areas where local artists could show off their paintings, sculpture and other creations? There could be areas for musicians and other multimedia creations, including rehearsal rooms, limited studio space and so on. Some parts of the building could be for display or performance and others for creation.

The question of course is who would pay for such a thing. I’m going to get really outrageous and suggest that asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their taxes would allow for more than enough public funding to provide not only fair market rent on the real estate and buildings but also the kinds of materials and other resources that would be needed.

This kind of initiative would have a number of social benefits. Kids – as well as adults of all agest – would have a place to go and create something instead of doing whatever it is they’re doing now. It would be an alternative to tendencies to get in trouble, be supervised while parents are still at work, be a good reason for older adults to get out of the house and engage in social interaction and more.

Above all, these would offer someone the chance to indulge a passion they may not otherwise have the resources to explore. I may encourage someone who thought they might want to be an illustrator to really see if they have the chops and refine those skills. They could take that experience and use it to find work of some kind. Even if it’s not something that will lead to a job, maybe it’s just a passion they otherwise can’t engage in.

Yes, the funding issue is one that would have to be worked out. But I truly think there’s a solution there. There are 1,100 malls in the US and one quarter of them are expected to close in the next five years. Jeff Bezos alone could send $10,000,000 to each one and shave just 2% off his total worth, an effort that would seem much more philanthropic and valuable than private space travel. And given how he’s responsible on a couple fronts for the state of those malls, he may earn some karma points in return.

I really do believe there’s a more socially-minded way we can approach this problem. That’s not to say low-income housing isn’t a great idea – it is – but it’s not the only great idea. And too many of the projects that have been undertaken on that track aren’t focused on affordable units but on hipster dwellings with high rents.

So let’s use some of that available square footage to encourage those who might not otherwise be able to express themselves. A recent story showed the humanities were suffering in an educational environment that values practical technical knowledge and skills over everything else and if we’re not going to address that problem, we can do while while also addressing the issue of how we paved over natural environments so we could find socks faster and maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea so let’s put those buildings to good use, huh?

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.