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After shoppers' habits have changed, malls try to figure out what comes next

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We've changed the way we shop in America dramatically. You can see some of the latest changes in what's left of American shopping malls. One industry group says at least a quarter of the malls in the United States will close in the next few years. Deena Prichep reports from a mall in Portland, Ore., that is trying to figure out what comes next.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: The Marshalls at Lloyd Center was a classic anchor store - 32,000 square feet, two stories. Full disclosure - it's where I bought my sheets. But now there are no racks of discount jeans. There are kids...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Just - can you pick out the strap?

PRICHEP: ...Shooting arrows, sewing their own clothes...

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE SEWING)

PRICHEP: ...Making movies. Tony Deis is the founder of Trackers Earth, an organization which used to be known as an outdoor camp. Now they're also at the mall.

TONY DEIS: We had somebody tell us to check out the Lloyd Center. And at first, I was like, wait a minute. What?

PRICHEP: Then he realized it made a lot of sense for kids and their parents.

DEIS: They want good parking, and this is the place to do it. But as time goes by, sometimes during the summer we're going to have warmer weather events, and we might even have days where the AQI due to forest fires isn't great.

PRICHEP: And the ghost of an old department store makes a lot of sense for that. The Lloyd Center, like malls across the country, has lost major tenants. But alongside the empty storefronts, there's a new independent comic store, the occasional roller derby pop-up and a theater performance in what used to be a Victoria's Secret. Turns out the rotunda where the bras were displayed has surprisingly good acoustics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANE KONDRAT: (As Winnie) What a joy, in any case, to know you are there, as usual, and perhaps awake.

PRICHEP: Diane Kondrat is playing Winnie in this Samuel Beckett play. She spends the entire performance in front of what used to be the fitting rooms. This sort of reimagining of the mall is happening across America because America has a lot of malls.

ELLEN DUNHAM-JONES: I think almost any expert you talk to is going to say we overbuilt the malls.

PRICHEP: Ellen Dunham-Jones directs the Urban Design Program at Georgia Tech. She says America has twice as much mall space per capita as any other country in the world.

DUNHAM-JONES: We're at a point now where more than a third of the 1,500 properties are no longer functioning as malls.

PRICHEP: Some have just been bulldozed, but some have been filled with things you can't get online.

DUNHAM-JONES: So we start to see more gyms, more grocery stores. But in general, really, the No. 1 reuse of malls has been to just convert them to office space.

PRICHEP: Health care and education compete for the No. 2 spot. But Dunham-Jones says you also see housing and paintball.

DUNHAM-JONES: There's a mall in Massachusetts that their former Macy's is going to have cultivation of marijuana on the second floor and retail sales on the first floor.

PRICHEP: Buying weed or seeing an existential play where you used to do back-to-school shopping can be an enjoyably disorienting experience. But can that bring in the money to maintain these giant buildings and giant parking lots? At Portland's Lloyd Center, Kristan Kennedy showed up on a Friday afternoon to see a performance piece at the mall's skating rink.

KRISTAN KENNEDY: You can see that there's a infinity symbol carved into the ice. That's part of the bigger thing in this particular mall where artists have been taking over some spaces.

PRICHEP: Kennedy is the artistic director at Portland's Institute for Contemporary Art. She appreciates how the mall is taking the bones of what's left behind and playing around, building something new.

KENNEDY: And, yeah, that feels like America, like failure and invention simultaneously.

PRICHEP: Maybe, like many malls, this one can't be saved, or maybe it'll remain a haven for creativity or office space or something we can't even yet imagine.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deena Prichep