Forbes recently wrote an article about the increase of e-commerce in the COVID-19 era. I don’t think anyone was particularly shocked that shopping online increased dramatically when stay-at-home orders were issued. For many retail businesses, this was their only option to maintain revenue streams. Furthermore, e-commerce had been steadily increasing for years and brick-and-mortar retail shops and malls have been closing around the country.
Although I’m a civil engineer and not an economist, it is clear that the many enclosed mall buildings that now largely sit empty are in need of a new purpose to contribute to our local economies and communities. Starting in the 1950s, indoor malls were thought to be a climate-controlled substitute for downtown shopping that could be built in less costly suburban areas. These buildings featured indoor walkways along storefronts with a variety of small specialty shops and large department stores, dining, services, and events, but required people to travel by car to get to the massive parking lots surrounding them. As traditional malls declined, largely due to e-commerce and urban renewal, communities lost both tax revenues and jobs. However, across the country, malls are being transformed into medical centers, educational facilities, places of worship, offices, and housing in an attempt to create a more sustainable and diverse economy.
My 25-year career has been largely focused on the adaptive reuse of old buildings and properties, but I never had the opportunity to transform a suburban mall until last year. The former Swansea Mall in Swansea, Massachusetts, which was built in 1975, is being redeveloped into residential, retail, storage, office, restaurant, fitness, and entertainment spaces, with outdoor sidewalks and storefronts not unlike the downtowns that malls had replaced at one time. Our team is providing planning, design, permitting, land surveying, and landscape architecture services for this important property that had gone from an economic engine to a blighted symbol of its demise. And this is what I love about my job the most – to be a part of progress and sustainable renewal. Most people only experience the benefits of change, but we are able to be a part of creating change. It is often easier to simply demolish old buildings that have seemingly outlived their purpose, and to build something new in its place. But that erases history and creates waste. Not every building can or should be saved, but many, like this one, can create value to the owners, the community, and the environment.
Civil engineering, at its core, is about adapting to the needs of society and providing the systems and infrastructure for communities, people, and the natural world. We are in a time of adaptation. Streets are being closed to make room for outdoor seating at restaurants to allow for social distancing. This could change the way we think of roads – as more than just places for cars, but as extensions of public spaces where walking and biking are more prevalent, safer, and more enjoyable. Will social distancing change the design of our parks and community centers? Will we create or retain equitable and affordable housing close to jobs and transportation as land costs rise?
E-commerce is still a relatively small, but significant, part of our economy, with no sign of slowing down. Somewhat ironically, these businesses will likely require more physical space to adapt to growing demand. They will need more data centers, more distribution centers, and corporate space. And employees.
Adaptive reuse of previously developed land is an economical and environmentally preferred option to traditional development. It can create “places” in our communities, address the need for housing, and reinvigorate local economies. It generates less construction materials and saves embodied energy. It also preserves community assets and creates a lasting record of societal change. Adaptive reuse is civil engineering at its best.
About the Author
Shawn Martin, PE manages Fuss & O’Neill’s Providence office and leads civil engineering development projects in Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts. His diverse project experience in land development includes surveying, land planning, environmental site assessments, stormwater management, water distribution, and wastewater collection and treatment systems. He is expert at the application of low-impact development strategies for a broad range of project types, including Brownfields sites with complex environmental conditions.