Malls reinventing themselves as ‘lifestyle centers’

Mixing some housing, city amenities with shops, restaurants

WHEN NEWTON’S ATRIUM MALL croaked, I figured Spotify’s shopping playlists would soon enough feature a “Requiem for the Mall.” And a “Hymn for Amazon.” Surely, all the malls of my youth – Chestnut Hill and the Arsenal, too – were doomed!

But so far, there’s been no massacre of malls, no requiem needed. The Chestnut Hill Mall: Alive and well. And Watertown’s Arsenal? Extreme Makeover, Mall Edition.

And a very strange thing has happened: New shopping malls are sprouting across Greater Boston.

At the Arsenal Mall, the concept plans include hundreds of apartments, connections to the Charles River, offices, and street-level shops and restaurants. There will be a new supermarket and movie theater and hotel. A vital urban neighborhood, that’s the idea. With people coming and going at all times, for all purposes.

The Arsenal is part of a trend: Malls are throwing off their roofs, bringing their gleaming storefronts to street-level, adding some housing either upstairs or on the side – and renaming themselves “lifestyle centers.” The vacancy-plagued Woburn Mall will likely get remade with outdoor-market buildings and housing (perhaps 400 rentals). The Natick Mall not long ago added housing (215 condos). And the South Bay Town Center is next to and an extension of the South Bay Mall.

But “lifestyle” makeovers are not just for old malls. The entire mall concept is getting a makeover as new lifestyle malls are going up at a rapid pace. Defying fate in the age of Amazon, the parade of new malls in downtown-dress or outdoorsy costumes include:

  • Cohasset’s Old Colony Square
  • Dedham’s Legacy Place
  • Lynnfield’s MarketStreet
  • Maynard Crossing (under construction)
  • Somerville’s Assembly Row
  • Sudbury’s Meadow Walk
  • Wayland Town Center
  • Westwood’s University Station

For retail space, several of these malls are roughly comparable in size to Framingham’s Shoppers World (less than half of the size of the Natick Mall, Greater Boston’s biggest mall). The centers in Lynnfield and Maynard are more like the Chestnut Hill Mall in square footage of retail space. Wayland, Cohasset, and Sudbury are much smaller, the scale of modest strip malls.

Most of the lifestyle projects include hundreds of dwelling units, a modest amount for a neighborhood. Dedham’s Legacy Place does not include housing, but right next door are two large residential buildings with 600 units. Somerville’s Assembly Row has the most housing, soon to exceed a thousand units; it also has the most jobs. Cohasset’s small project has the fewest dwellings: 16 rentals. Wayland has 42 condos and 12 apartments.

There are other new mall developments that have no housing, like Burlington Wayside Commons, where I recently checked out LL Bean backpacks before buying one online. Some people consider Wayside Commons “lifestyle” because it is not enclosed; the stores wrap around a parking lot, a big new strip mall.

Some lifestyle centers resemble old-style village hubs or urban downtowns with grid streets, parallel parking, and buildings that front wide sidewalks and narrow roads as opposed to sprawling pavement. Others decidedly do not; Westwood’s University Station proves that shops, housing, and a train station do not a neighborhood make, although the commercial tax revenue is welcome and the housing (350 apartments) is needed. For looks, it’s another strip mall, huge and new.

As for old-time strip malls, you will pass a tired Wayland Village set behind over-ample parking on your way down the sidewalk-less Boston Post Road to the brand new Wayland Town Center. You turn off the suburban highway, and travel up a curving lane to a little Main Street that has stores on both sides, and parallel parking, a nod of superiority to strip malls. Past the Main Street, with its Elements Massage, SuperCuts, and GNC, the road bends around the buildings to the vast parking that any suburban mall needs to survive. As a glimmer of redemption for a polluted world: The new Mass Central Rail Trail will lead bikers to Wayland Town Center. It also has a town green, and nearby walking trails, and the Town will be building a community center on site.

Lynnfield MarketStreet. (Photo by Amy Dain)

None of the lifestyle centers include enough housing to make a self-sufficient market for their retail functions, and their walkable-catchments are typically not that densely settled, especially since many are situated by the edge of a highway, busy road, tracks, river, or nature reserve. All of the projects are designed as destinations, with large national and regional chain businesses and sufficient parking, to draw people from the region.

In contrast, Greater Boston’s historic village centers, filled with independent shops and restaurants, primarily draw locals and people passing through on the way to other destinations. Of course, historic downtowns are worthy destinations too! Why miss out on D’Amici’s Bakery in downtown Reading or New City Microcreamery in downtown Hudson?

Which reminds me of something I read in Hudson’s 1978 Downtown Plan: “With proper planning and civic energy cohesive downtowns in small cities and towns have been able to withstand the competition of suburban malls and have attracted specialty shops, services and offices, and in some instances a return of housing to the upper floors. This too can happen in Hudson.”

In the 1970s, the malls were winning, and Hudson’s downtown was losing. Now downtown Hudson is thriving, with some new housing on the upper floors. It is withstanding competition from the internet and the malls. The mall developers are studying the downtown playbooks, and the malls are thriving too. It helps when the economy hums. (Not to temp the fates by mentioning it.)

I recently visited Lynnfield’s MarketStreet mall. It was hopping, and MarketStreet includes the first Amazon bookstore in Massachusetts. Apparently, Amazon has not yet killed the mall, or the downtown.

Meet the Author

Amy Dain

Public policy research consultant, Dain Research, Newton
Cue for the Spotify playlist: “Video Killed the Radio Star”… just because it used to get played at the Arsenal of my youth.

Amy Dain runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research. She can be reached at dainresearch@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @amydain