“Hey guys, we’re in Columbia, South Carolina, uh…in a parking lot…”
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang stands in the middle of an expanse of concrete pavement that stretches on endlessly like a salt flat. In the distance behind him looms a massive, windowless building — a bunker seemingly made of cardboard. It’s the setting for a Twitter video he made for his American Mall Act, a policy proposal he’s announcing as part of his campaign. “Right now, 30% of malls are scheduled to close in the next four years, and if you’ve ever been to a ghost mall, it’s a very, very eerie thing,” he says as he waves his hand at the empty space behind him.
As a fashion writer, I’ve discussed malls ad nauseam — how, culturally, the 21st-century mall can play a unique role as a kind of town square. How, economically, their decline has impacted retail workers across the country. And how, socially, dying malls have become a symbol of millennial buying habits and the death of Gen-X ones, and how they’ve been blamed for everything from neighborhood blight to job loss. But, this is the first time I’d seen malls presented as a political campaign pillar.
Yang — best known for his universal basic income plan, which would provide every citizen with $1,000 a month — wants to inject $6 billion in the form of matching grants and property development initiatives to transform decrepit malls into thriving social hubs. Inspired by real-life stories like the Belmar Mall that transformed the struggling Lakewood, CO, into a desirable and growing city, and the Tri-County Mall in Oliver Springs, TN, where a Baptist church replaced a long-empty shopping center, he believes his plan will create jobs, curb crime, strengthen communities, and beautify spaces.
“For us, this is a way to flip the script from these closed-down malls with empty parking lots being a symbol of loss in our communities and turning them into a symbol of hope, prosperity, and what we can do in the future,” says Randy Jones, Yang’s press secretary and political director. “The benefit of a policy like this is small- and mid-sized communities out there that have seen the factories and coal mines close, and shortly after have seen the malls go with it. When we provide folks with $1,000 a month, they'll be emboldened to do the kind of work they want to do, not have to do. Then, these used mall spaces will be a great venue for them to strike out on their own.”
It’s an appealing idea that coincides with current cultural callbacks to the mallrat generation (see: Stranger Things’ third season, the return of '90s style, the proliferation of trendy food courts people actually want to visit). But it’s bigger than that. Yang promises his plan will bring back jobs and strengthen struggling economies. In a presidential primary in which Democratic candidates are debating the virtues of socialism versus capitalism, Yang has presented a third option that’s resonating with a community of entrepreneurial millennials who pride themselves on practicality: The government should recognize the ills of capitalism, but the solutions should lie in government-backed, business-oriented policies. “If you think about an average American mall that closes, how many jobs are we losing per mall?” says Jones. “Those are retail jobs that aren’t being replaced in the marketplace. It is a crisis.”
But assuming Yang’s plan for resurrecting malls works, can modern consumers, who are more likely to shop online than in person, actually support them?
According to some local politicians, it’s unlikely. “People’s buying habits have changed so much. Our community is not going to stores anymore,” says Brad Powers, director of community development in Englewood, CO. Englewood City Center, a multipurpose space born from the ashes of Cinderella City Mall, was once the largest mall west of the Mississippi, but fell on hard times two decades ago. “At its height, Cinderella City contributed 52% of the city's sales tax revenue every year. By 1994, it was down to 2.5%. The writing was on the wall,” says Powers. Later that decade, the city pooled its resources and purchased the mall in hopes of transforming it into the shopping center it once was. But so far it has struggled to achieve that, partly due to the lack of foot traffic.
“Redeveloping this place as a retail-dominant center is not in the cards. There’s no way we could market it to this community,” explains Powers. Right now, the Englewood City Center houses a variety of civic functions including a library and administrative offices, alongside hotels, apartments, and smaller retail, while the city looks for other ideas to revitalize the mall. They’re banking on a chain reaction: The creation of a light-rail transit stop which Powers says will generate a need for hotels. “That’s probably what we’ll see more than the big box-type stores.”
Powers’ scenario is specific to his district, but many sick malls in the United States do not have the luxury of being close to a large urban area. Often, cities’ populations are too small to support a retail environment (a huge disincentive to private developers like the one Lakewood found), and many local governments are too cash-strapped to even take advantage of Yang’s matching grants.
“Honestly, you’re sometimes better off shutting the mall off completely, and selling off the land to a private developer,” says Neil Saunders, the managing director of GlobalData Retail, pointing out that attempting to revitalize massive tracts of dead spaces without the consumer potential to meet it is a fool’s errand. “Governments trying to force the space into doing something [it can’t support] is unnatural.”
Saunders argues that the same tax incentives and grants that can jump-start productive revitalization efforts can also hurt cash-poor communities. By reallocating development projects [from elsewhere], these policies can generate a lot less tax revenue for communities who need it most. “There are wide social implications of having a very dead and negative space in the community. But these are very localized issues. This is not a desperate national issue,” Saunders says.
Others are simply not convinced that the federal government knows what’s best for their communities. “I appreciate the attention given to the issue because a lot of communities are struggling with what to do. I just don’t know if [a federal policy] is the actual way to approach it,” says Adam Paul, the mayor of Lakewood, home to Belmar Mall, one of the most impressive mall-revitalizing efforts in the country — and notable because of how little money it cost taxpayers. “Local control is really important. I would hesitate for the federal government to be involved in this type of redevelopment, because it almost becomes political… When the government goes top-down, it gives me pause. It feels like an artificial prop. It has to be bottom-up. There has to be true buy-in.”
Paul would know something about that. When local citizens grouped together 10 years ago to buy the land that the decaying Villa Italia Mall occupied, Lakewood officials provided the private developer with business incentives like a public improvement fee and tax increment financing (which has faced recent criticism as a controversial policy that can obscure unseen costs to the public). Today, Belmar is a social hub for its citizens who now live, play, organize, and work in a safe, spacious, and beautiful new district. It’s also a tax generator for the area. In Lakewood, it was the people and local officials — not the federal government — who brought the mall back to life.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. In Oliver Springs, TN — a former coal-mining town of 3,000 that’s in need of an economic jumpstart — local leaders tried to reinvigorate the mall in any way possible. The mall has taken on some tax-generating tenants in the past, including a nuclear laboratory and a sports-conditioning center. But the majority of current tenants are nonprofits, including a Baptist church and a museum that honors local Black leader and educator, Mayme Carmichael.
“We have maybe 25,000, 30,000 square feet of space now [where] we would prefer to have someone who would pay taxes or maybe a non-tax exempt organization. The church would even prefer that, as long as it’s not like a liquor store or an adult bookstore,” says Oliver Springs Mayor Omer Cox. In many ways, Oliver Springs is exactly the kind of community Yang’s plan is for. But Cox isn’t convinced it would work. “The problem with grants is that you end up paying a lot of that back,” he says. “If we get a grant from the government, it wouldn't be a free grant. So, if you needed a half million dollars, you're going to have to pay $250K, and you get $250. We’re too small for that.”
For the record, while Englewood and Lakewood are liberal cities and Oliver Springs skews conservative, local economic policies have more to do with their communities’ specific needs than national partisan politics.
Whether or not a federal mall policy would work will likely remain an open question (Yang is polling around 2%, and malls haven’t been a key issue for campaigns outside of Yang’s). But Yang is onto something: Once an emblem of American capitalistic might and middle-class idealism, dying malls have instead become a metaphor for decline. Empty malls are depressing not just because of the stores that have shut down within them, but also because of the absence of anything equally exciting and productive that might replace them.
As a former mallrat and current mall optimist, I have seen that modern malls with modern functions can act as a Third Place where — ironic as it may seem — economic and social differences can be minimized, and people are able to form and strengthen their local civil societies. Once a place of consumer opportunity, today, malls present a different type of opportunity. Culturally, economically, socially, and politically, Yang is right to see that potential.