Novel Uses For Abandoned Infrastructure

9.17.13 | If there is a silver lining to the Great Recession—and I hate to even use that phrase since there has been nothing good about the Great Recession—it has been the accelerating trend away from sprawl.

Across the country, rising gasoline prices means commuting is swallowing even more of people’s household income. This is decimating exurbs and their attendant strip-malls and indoor shopping centers. So, too, has the growing preference of Millennials to live in cities and urbanized suburbs that offer traditional neighborhood design, transit, and diversity.

Assuming these trends continue, there is and will be a lot of still-serviceable commercial and residential property lying about. James Howard Kunstler has speculated early and often that such “zombie subdivisions” will become either slums or a repository for spare parts. In some places, however, even “big box” buildings are being reclaimed for other uses, including a public library in McAllen, Texas.

Malls in particular are ripe for adaptive reuse since they offer large tracts of land that can either be retrofitted into more traditional, (possibly) transit-connected neighborhoods or—especially if they’re already in an urban setting—urban mixed-use buildings. Conversion of Providence, Rhode Island’s 185-year-old indoor mall into micro-retail and apartments, is a recent example.

Some proponents of these revitalization efforts have suggested that older Americans—many of whom are looking to leave their large suburban homes as they age—may not only benefit from moving to such areas, but may also add the vitality necessary to make these new neighborhoods vibrant and the retail and services successful. But in the case of the  Providence mall, in offering studios and small one-bedrooms around 300 square feet, the developer is also appealing to singles of all ages living alone.

Indeed, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson write in their introduction to “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs”:

The first tactical move we promote in the retrofitting arsenal is to “reuse the box.” Not only does adaptive reuse make sense in the framework of green building design, but it is also a winning approach in economically stretched times, either as a stop-gap measure to keep spaces leased or as a way to diversify activities in maturing suburban communities that were already oversupplied with commercial development.


Older adults have been well served by the growing number of big-box and mall re-inhabitations that increase access to healthcare and medical services. A former grocery store in Savannah, Georgia, was re-inhabited by a women’s medical center, even making use of the high voltage from the freezer section to power MRI machines. Numerous fitness and wellness centers have opened in other former retail buildings. Smaller “minute –clinics” are popping up in shopping centers around the country, while the entire second floor of the Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville, Tennessee, has been re-inhabited by the University of Vanderbilt’s [sic] Medical Center.

Another accelerating trend in adaptive reuse is the razing of abandoned houses; while it’s not uncommon for a municipality to tear down an abandoned building here and there, the foreclosure crisis has encouraged such destruction (or, perhaps, adaptive unconstruction?) on a large scale. Cleveland, for example, won permission from the federal government last month to divert $60 million in funding aimed at helping homeowners avoid foreclosure to tear down about 5,000 abandoned houses. (BRR’s own Edward “Ned” Hill’s response to that can be seen here.) Michigan won similar permission in June to use $100 million to raze blighted houses in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Pontiac, and Saginaw.

Many of the buildings targeted for adaptive reuse lost their mojo years ago. Their renewal is often welcomed, particularly if it creates livable communities for new residents. However, sometimes the reuse comes with a tinge of bittersweetness, like the reuse of public school buildings, where thousands of personal histories succumb to progress. The city of Chicago, which shut down dozens of schools in the last year, will face the challenge of replacing those community anchors with something equally binding.  Photographer Bill Healy captures the sense of loss in his photo essay.

Photo / Clinton Steeds

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