Could suburban strip malls be the solution to Massachusetts’ housing shortage?

Strip malls are typically suburban eyesores, with minimalist architecture, increasing vacancies, and oversized parking lots. But some think these strip malls could have plenty of hidden potential, too, as solutions to the state’s housing shortage.

“I’m an ardent advocate for the transformation or retrofitting of the unsustainable and non-resilient, sprawling, inefficient and increasingly obsolete suburbanized landscapes of Northern America,” said June Williamson, an architecture professor at the City University of New York.

Williamson recently wrote a book on the subject, and presented her findings at a Metropolitan Area Planning Council meeting.

She argued that retrofitting these sites into modern complexes with less parking and more housing and green space could reduce car dependence and increase walkability, improve public health, make neighborhoods safer and increase housing stock.

Williamson added that outdated office parks could also embark on a similar endeavor to attract a younger workforce “by pursuing urbanism itself as an amenity,” she said.

In Massachusetts, MAPC’s newly released analysis found that if just 10% of the state’s smaller suburban strip malls were redeveloped into mixed-use projects, that could create 124,000 homes and generate $479 million in extra tax revenue for host communities.

In total, the group’s analysis, hosted on a newly launched website, found over 3,000 potential sites that sit on almost 14 square miles, with the average city or town within the metro Boston area hosting 71 acres of land dedicated to strip malls. Almost 900 of the potential sites are also located near MBTA transit.

The group used the old Woburn Mall as an example. By 2017, over two-thirds of the storefronts in the site were empty, thanks largely to changing consumer preferences toward e-commerce.

Since then, the site has been redeveloped into Woburn Village, a 200,000 square-foot multi-building area with several smaller parking lots instead of one large lot and building. Many of the anchor stores that were already there, including Market Basket and T.J. Maxx, stayed, as did smaller locally owned stores like the local lock-and-key shop, while new upscale dining and shopping options moved in.

The site is also home to a 350-unit apartment complex, including 25% affordable units, as well as a large communal park.

“For town officials that are thinking about this, it does give you a housing choice in your town that you may not have otherwise if you’re predominantly single-family detached housing,” said David Gillespie, vice president of development at Avalon, who worked on the project. “This gives a place people could move that has an elevator, that has services, that’s walkable, where they want to stay in your town.”

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