Could the Collapse of Big Retail Help our Homelessness Crisis?

A national design firm has drafted plans to convert vast, empty box stores into multi-faceted housing for people living on our streets.

When a business closes in Westfield Mall and there isn’t one lined up to take its place, construction workers build a wall to disguise that it ever existed. Because of this, the mall has a lego-like structure; hallways change shape, and confused shoppers can’t quite figure out why a store they visited the previous month has seemingly disappeared. 

Depending on how you look at it, Westfield’s creative solution to covering up the retail crisis is a symbol of what’s happening nationwide. The presence of Amazon and its speedy delivery services, combined with an evolving style of shopping (think subscription services or artisan craft fairs) has challenged bix box giants, and in the past few years, some of the biggest names in retail have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Sears’ value in the stock market crashed from a whopping $30 billion in 2007 to only $69 million in October of this year, and over the summer Toys “R” Us announced plans to shut down (though a comeback may be on the horizon). 

San Francisco isn’t exempt; Macy’s is selling off some iconic downtown real estate, Nordstrom is shuttering its Stonestown Mall location, the aforementioned Westfield Mall sees businesses moving out and no one replacing them, and a $150 million-dollar multi-story retail space in central Market has yet to secure a single tenant, more than two years after work was completed. 

Economic impacts aside, these closures raise a very simple question: What do we do with their brick-and-mortar spaces, once inventory is liquidated and employees let go?

An aerial rendering of a redesigned mall, which would include a living space for people experiencing homelessness. (Courtesy KSTGY)

One architectural firm has an idea. Earlier this year, national design company KTGY proposed that we take the vast, empty spaces formerly occupied by stores, and turn them into multi-faceted residences for the hundreds of thousands of unhoused people living across the United States. Called Re-Habit, it would ideally feature a sleeping area, dining hall, recreation space, and service center —much like our Navigation Centers today. 

“With big box stores such as Macy’s, JC Penney and Sears closing in record numbers, repurposing such vacant spaces becomes increasingly necessary,” says KTGY Senior Designer Marissa Kasdan. “At the same time, the housing affordability crisis and other factors are driving up demand to house and service homeless individuals. Re-Habit offers one adaptive-reuse solution for multiple problems.”

A sample layout of a mall converted into a Re-Habit living space. (Courtesy: KTGY)

But what differs from Navigation Centers is the permanence of such facilities, and the integration between any neighboring, surviving retail stores and the residents of Re-Habit. Job training programs are combined into the space, with residents able to secure employment and neighboring stores. Once services are accessed and people have jobs, they can then transition out of the space into permanent housing. 

“For most big-box owners, this would not be their first choice for reuse,” says Kasdan. “But on the flip side, many have asked us about transforming properties into food halls for example. Re-Habit expands the reuse possibilities and allows everyone to consider communities’ larger needs.”

(Courtesy KTGY)

While KGTY doesn’t currently have any clients willing to take this on, it’s food for thought. Navigation Centers are still few and far between in San Francisco and only exist in certain neighborhoods. While they do offer many services on site, there isn’t an integrated job acquisition program, and many residents are unable to fully get back on their feet before they’re kicked out after two or three months. Plus, securing Navigation Center sites takes some serious political wrangling; the newest one is on land owned by CalTrans, squished between an overpass and a highway onramp. In the meantime, prime real estate in downtown San Francisco or on the ground floor of luxury condos remains empty, while landlords search desperately for retail businesses to fill them.

(Courtesy KTGY)

KTGY’s design isn’t perfect; as Navigation Centers have taught us, dog-friendly facilities and spaces to store belongings help endear people to accepting help from the very government that may be responsible for their homelessness. But the core concept — of large retail landlords repurposing spaces to better serve the communities around them — is intriguing. In an ideal world, with a little political pressure and some Planning Department flexibility, we could see fewer empty storefronts and people living on the streets of San Francisco. 

Related Stories