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Are Strip Malls Key to Solving Greater Boston’s Housing Woes?

Click to view interactive map

Could the humble strip mall hold the keys to unlocking a thriving economic future for the suburbs of Greater Boston?

New research released this week by MAPC tackled this very question, with eye-opening results.

Ubiquitous and evocative of a bygone era, suburban strip malls today are often outdated, plagued by vacancies, and filled with unmet potential. In a new report, Rethinking the Retail Strip,” MAPC analyzed more than 3,000 strip malls and similar shopping centers across Greater Boston, then set out to understand the potential impacts of redeveloping them into walkable,mixed-use neighborhoods. Could they help close gaps in access to affordable housing, transportation, and more?

MAPC launched the report and data a webinar on Tuesday, Jan. 11. The event included an overview of the research, a case study on the Woburn Village development presented by David Gillespie, and guest remarks by June Williamson, suburban retrofitting expert and author of “Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges.”

MAPC’s analysis shows that the Greater Boston region has thousands of acres of strip malls and similar commercial properties: more than 13.7 square miles. (That's larger than the land area of Woburn.) Many of these are underutilized, underperforming, or obsolete. These sites—especially those that sit unused—offer the space and infrastructure to build the mixed-use and multifamily housing that the region needs.

The report found that if just 10% were redeveloped into mixed-use projects, 124,000 homes could be created, increasing building values to the tune of $479 million in extra tax revenue for host communities. What’s more, if new developments are built using the state’s 40R smart growth zoning bylaw, municipalities could be eligible for payments totaling $1.2 billion upon rezoning, an average of $3.2 million per site.

And because nearly 30 percent of sites studied were within a half mile of transit, rezoning them could also help communities meet strict new state regulations requiring multifamily zoning within the MBTA region.

In order to help focus attention on sites with the greatest potential, MAPC evaluated all three thousand sites to identify the ones that appear most promising based on the information we have available. We looked at current building value, rents, developable area, and proximity to important assets such as shops and services, transit, wastewater infrastructure, and schools.

The highest scores were assigned to sites with low building value and low rents;those close to transit or existing centers; and those with the largest amount of redevelopment potential.

The table below shows the results of the suitability analysis, highlighting the most suitable sites in each municipality—those that scored in the top 10 percent in the city or town—based on location, site conditions, and development potential.

Click to view interactive data table

Mixed-use redevelopment can provide a type of housing and living environment already in short supply in many suburbs and likely to get shorter. But, despite challenges, there are many actions that cities and towns can take to facilitate retrofits of shopping plazas, including:

  • Reviewing MAPC's retail strip inventory and conducting public engagement about potential development solutions
  • Conducting planning efforts around redeveloping retail sites
  • Adopting zoning to enable retail retrofits
  • Adopting policies to promote smaller local businesses rather than chains
  • Enacting transportation demand management strategies
  • Investing in infrastructure to support development.

More work at the community level – to find, plan for, and permit transformative redevelopment – is necessary to achieve the vision outlined here. If done well, once-shabby retail strips may become both a powerful symbol of the suburbs’ past, and the key to their bright future. Learn more at rethinking-the-retail-strip.mapc.org.

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