In 2018, like many other department stores, Macy’s in Burlington, Vermont, has closed. In 2021 it reopened as a school. Toxic chemicals had been found at Burlington High, and the empty Macy’s provided an airy stopgap until a new building could be ready in 2025. Students became accustomed to studying in a library created from the Department of China, where books sit on backlit shelves. , and lunch under a Michael Kors sign (a teacher stuck a “coffee” sign next to the designer’s name). They especially enjoy riding the expansive glass escalators, says manager Lauren McBride.
Across America, empty stores in malls, including “anchor” spaces once occupied by department stores like Macy’s, are being repurposed. As people spend more on restaurants and vacations and less on clothes, sales at these stores have declined. The pandemic, which has pushed shoppers online, has accelerated this decline. Macy’s in Burlington was one of approximately 100 closures announced by the chain of stores in 2016; more followed. JCPenney has closed 175 stores since 2020. Lord & Taylor has moved online only.
Green Street, an analytics firm, estimates that of more than 1,000 empty anchor boxes in America, about 80% are in “b” and “vs” shopping centers (with lower sales per square foot than “a“shopping centers). More shopping centers have been downgraded during the pandemic, says Vince Tibone, an analyst. Because some tenants have lease clauses that allow them to pay less rent if the anchors leave, and an empty storefront is off-putting, mall owners are eager for new tenants “even if they’re not the sexiest,” he says.
Those who now inhabit the former department stores range from offices to theaters. In March, the Springfield, Massachusetts City Council approved plans to grow cannabis on the second floor of a former Macy’s in the city’s Eastfield Mall (and sell it on the first). The Medical University of South Carolina set up clinics in the former JCPenney at the Citadel Mall in Charleston, which still has stores. Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architecture professor at Georgia Tech who maintains a database of remodeled malls, says 32 enclosed malls have been fully or partially remodeled for healthcare. (Most of the redeveloped malls, she says, are mixed-use.)
Healthcare companies can make good use of department stores and malls, as many hospitals have been built in places where there is little room to expand. The malls offer plenty of parking space (a perk appreciated by students and teachers at Burlington High). In suburban areas, malls are often well placed for aging populations who need more doctor’s appointments and fewer new shoes.