The city of South Portland wants to start a conversation about the future of the property surrounding the Maine Mall. Communities all over the state should be listening.

A concept plan for the 90-acre property envisions the mall building as the center of a village, with office, medical and educational spaces alongside housing, entertainment and recreational areas, all situated along a street grid through what is now a sprawling parking lot.

The plan also includes a hotel and convention center, an open-air market and a restored section of Long Creek through the new neighborhood.

Produced for the city by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, the concept plan hopes to get residents, city officials, developers and business owners thinking about the possibilities of one of Maine’s largest retail shopping areas, at a time when traditional retail stores are struggling and their future is in doubt.

A record number of stores have closed over the last few years, and the expansion of online shopping during the pandemic is expected to accelerate that trend. One real estate firm projects that as many as half of U.S. department stores in malls will be gone by 2021.

Some malls, including the Maine Mall, have responded by diversifying. By adding a bowling and amusement center in place of a former sporting goods store, the Maine Mall is looking to draw people for more than just shopping.

That’s the plan as well at Rock Row in Westbrook and The Downs in Scarborough, two similar developments now under construction that will eventually offer a mix of housing, entertainment, offices and retail, all centered on walkable, nature-tinged areas.

Rock Row, for instance, has plans for more than 700 residential units, 300,000 square feet of restaurant space, a 25,000-square-foot brew hall and a conference center, to go with the grocery store and outdoor concert venue already in place. The concept plan shows streetlight-lined walkways around a pond made from the filled-in quarry.

Other communities should take notice. The large retail-only spaces built over the last several decades are out of date. As brick-and-mortar retail stores close in the coming years, they are going to be left with empty spaces. With larger stores, those empty buildings have few other uses. The dead space will only drag those shopping areas down further – if nothing is done, many across the country will become empty monuments to the changing way we shop.

But as the plan for the Maine Mall shows, that’s no reason to despair. These shopping areas can be renewed as neighborhoods where people live, work and enjoy entertainment. They can be more than just huge, paved islands.

The South Portland plan didn’t come from the mall owners, and there is no developer waiting to take on the project. It is merely meant to get everyone with a stake in the property’s future thinking about the possibilities.

Every community with a large retail presence should be doing the same.

 


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