Productive Industries & Farms: Malls as Maker Spaces

A picture of a mall with vacant retail spaces. The text 'The Development of Productive Industries & Farms' is overlaid. This references one of the tenents in NAR's Code of Ethics preamble.

People around the country are working to revitalize malls. What moves do you see in your community?

This piece and thoughts around it were inspired by my hometown of Muscatine, Iowa. It’s a town of 20,000 that’s relied on manufacturing labor for decades. It also has a mall that was a fixture of my formative years and was my town square. It’s where you went to see and be seen. Movies, music and books, a connection to the outside world. My internet before the internet. The problem today, however, is malls like the one I grew up with are experiencing hard times. As an example, Muscatine Mall, had 30+ stores in its heyday. Today, that’s been reduced exponentially. I asked my dad to document it and below are photos from a Saturday a couple weeks back.

Main hallway of a mall. A majority of the stores are vacant

The main hallway for the mall. We used to do many laps around this space on Friday and Saturday nights, waiting for movies to start or friends to arrive. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A vacant glass storefront in a mall.

You’ll see some natural light in these pictures and that’s one of the attractive features of this space. It provided a connection to the outside world in this built space. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A row of vacant stores in a hallway of a mall.

These stores were national chains and brands. Some of the stores in the mall today are local merchants. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

Glass-walled store that is empty.

This was the first video store in town. I remember going here to rent films. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A former flagship store at a mall that is vacant

This was an anchor store for the mall since its opening. It closed several years back. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

Honestly, it is tough to see a place I used to frequent look so underutilized. Understand, I’m not critiquing the owners of the mall. They are interested in seeing this space succeed. It’s not their faults. Retail is taking a hit and small markets like Muscatine are suffering. The New York Times recently had a feature on a man who’s documenting the demise of malls. So what to do with the space?

A recent article of On Common Ground from our Smart Growth group at NAR points out various efforts around the US to repurpose malls. It’s a great piece. From community colleges to transitional housing, there are some really innovative efforts taking shape. But I’ve had an idea that I am certain someone is attempting and I just haven’t heard about it. What if malls became maker spaces?

What is a Maker Space?

By now, you may know that CRT is building our own environmental quality sensor for members to use as closing gifts. We were able to get this project started at our offices in Chicago. We have a 3D printer, equipment for soldering and building sensor boards. But then, we started to hit the limits of our equipment and space. Rather than asking our Budget Committee for hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment we may only use a few times, we decided to look for a space we could work on this type of thing in. We were lucky to find a space called mHUB.

mHUB is 63,000 square feet, and over two million dollars worth of light manufacturing equipment. It’s a non-profit that was launched out of public and private partnerships with the City of Chicago through an organization called World Business Chicago and an awesome 8,000 square foot maker space called Catalyze Chicago. They joined forces with a number of businesses and created an amazing space.

In mHUB, we have access to a Woodworking Shop, a Metals shop, a 3D print lab, electronics lab, laser cutting machines and several other types of equipment. Things as simple as hammers, screwdrivers and wrenches. Not only that, we have access to the mindshare of mHUB members. Engineers, industrial designers, software developers, and hobbyists with an amazing idea. It’s a village of great innovation.

We pay a monthly membership and it allows us to access any of that equipment. It also gives us access to others working on projects that could overlap with our work or who could help inform what we’re doing and learn from them. We can prototype rapidly without incurring the traditional costs of manufacturing. mHUB consists of groups, like NAR, people who are trying out a new idea with no previous manufacturing experience, industrial engineers, artists and large companies, like GE.

Now imagine if cities like my hometown Muscatine, could use this to revitalize its industry and help workers who may be out of work, or people with an idea without a lot of capital, find a new way to make a living. It makes sense to me when I think about towns like Muscatine because of the workers’ skill sets.

Malls as Maker Spaces

In taking our experiences at mHUB, I see hope for the malls like the one in Muscatine. They can become communities of industry and innovation. Here are some potential uses for the space:

  • The former shoe store becoming a woodworking shop
  • The bookstore a 3D print lab
  • The music store a tool library
  • The cinemaplex of 4 theaters a space to hold presentations and meetups
  • Job training could happen in the larger anchor stores and could be sponsored by the local companies
  • The food court becomes a place to restaurants in the city to have pop ups or a cheap kiosk to sell lunch to the workers at the space
  • Another storefront could become a server room and a local ‘cloud’ created for participants in the space
  • Yet another space becomes a place to grow food

It could become a place to attract new business, a place to let the local business and manufacturing companies sponsor, and let the makers sell their wares.

My statement above about growing food is not a crazy one. Recently, a company called Plenty received a $200 million dollar investment from Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, and other investors. Plenty creates systems for growing food indoors. Imagine if the food court became the place to grow food. Fresh food could be harvested and sold in an indoor farmers market.

So rather than going to the mall to buy manufactured goods, they become places to manufacture.

Revitalizing spaces in Muscatine is not a new idea, or for other communities for that matter. I’m very aware of the impact malls had on downtowns. In fact, in Muscatine, our downtown was decimated by the mall. But today, there are efforts to revitalize. One building in particular now has a great coffee shop and other specialty shops and is a destination for community members. Muscatine is not unique for this. Groups like Recast City are helping local governments think about how to do this type of thing.

The Challenges of this Idea (To Be Continued)

This is a long piece, so I’ll end with the presentation of the premise and say that I see challenges. I’m also looking for your ideas around what the challenges would be. Here is what I see as some immediate challenges:

  • Cost
  • Community buy-in
  • Business buy-in
  • Building Infrastructure
  • Zoning
  • Space utilization
    • Does it all need to be filled at once?
    • Does it all need to be a maker space?
  • Covering ongoing costs
  • Who owns it?

So, what do you think? Does it sound feasible? Definitely submit ideas and thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!