Strip Malls as a Housing Solution

The American strip mall may be a dying breed of commercial development, but could the buildings serve a new use as sustainable housing?

May 22, 2022, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


“Urban designer Peter Calthorpe has a plan for the shuttered and financially troubled strip malls that dot the suburban landscape: Convert the malls into housing that would be part of green communities where people could be closer to their jobs and get out of their cars.” As Jacques Leslie writes for Yale Environment 360, Calthorpe, in an interview, points out that “The idea of subdivisions for all was based on nuclear families, but now they represent just 24 percent of households in America. So we’re ready on many, many levels for more urban living — urban in the best, not the worst, sense.”

According to Calthorpe, “We’ve overbuilt single-family homes, and we need more multi-family housing. It turns out, especially now, after COVID, that strip commercial land is completely underutilized.”

“There is a large range of housing types that are appropriate, varying by site size, market, and construction costs. At the low-density end are live/work townhomes with small offices or flex space at the ground floor. Most common are “podium apartments” which have a concrete first floor containing parking and shops lining the streets with multi-story apartments or condos above. In areas well-served by transit, mid-rise buildings with ground floor shops and below-grade parking are possible.”

Calthorpe says that “If the strip commercial land in just the Bay Area and Los Angeles County were 100 percent redeveloped, that could provide 2.6 million units”—more than the estimated 2.5 million units California needs to eliminate its housing shortage. 

Calthorpe acknowledges that housing production is “partly a zoning battle,” saying “local government is not a particularly advantageous place to argue for higher densities and infill. It needs state legislation enabling ‘as of right’ zoning [which overrides local obstacles such as design review boards].” Less restrictive zoning could pave the way for more innovative adaptive reuse, like the redevelopment of strip malls.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022 in Yale Environment 360

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