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Urbanist Principles Are Coming to Suburban Utah

In Practice
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Urbanist Principles Are Coming to Suburban Utah

Image of Aerial rendering of Cottonwood Mall
Aerial rendering of Cottonwood Mall in Holladay, Utah.
Credit: Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co
Communities throughout the country now face an unusual economic development challenge — many shopping malls built 30–50 years ago are in varying states of decline. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, from a total of 1,100 enclosed regional malls in the nation, a third are in decline and another third are in financial distress. Increasing competition from dense, urban areas and changing demographics in the suburbs (further compounded by explosive growth in online shopping) have raised vacancy rates and reduced patronage at once-robust malls. Some shopping center owners often undertake cosmetic repairs in the hopes of again attracting large anchor tenants. However, others are partnering with their cities to retrofit aging malls into walkable, mixed-use communities that offer a healthier lifestyle. Across the country, there are currently 40 such mall transformations underway — Cottonwood Mall in Holladay, Utah is one of them.

Cottonwood Mall

Located in the eastern Salt Lake Valley close to two mountain ranges and less than 10 miles from Salt Lake City, Holladay is a bucolic setting that’s home to nearly 26,500 people. Built in 1962, Cottonwood Mall was the first indoor shopping mall in the inter-mountain region. For years, the mall was an attraction that drew people from as far away as Boise, Idaho. By the early 2000s, however, competition from other malls and a lack of easy access to major highways contributed to the mall’s decline. By 2004, the vacancy rate had reached 25 percent, and by 2006, only 40 percent of the stores remained occupied.

Recognizing a “lemons into lemonade” opportunity, a Chicago-based firm that had acquired Cottonwood as part of a larger deal, initiated a redevelopment effort with the city of Holladay. After several years of careful preparation, the city and the owner announced plans for a $500 million project to redevelop the 54-acre Cottonwood Mall site into a dense, walkable, mixed-use property. The plan calls for 575,000 square feet of retail space, 195,000 square feet of office space, and more than 600 housing units, 100 of which would be affordable for those earning 80 percent or less of the area median income. The design includes generous amounts of open space and is aimed at achieving LEED certification.

Image of Aerial rendering of Cottonwood Mall Town Center
Aerial rendering of Cottonwood Mall Town Center.
Credit: Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co
The affordable housing proposed for the development is an important component of the project. The Cottonwood Mall is located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the area, making it difficult for low-income families to live close to where they work. According to the city’s most recent affordable housing plan, the current housing stock does not meet the needs of the community’s low-income residents; nearly 600 families in the city struggle with housing affordability issues. The Cottonwood Mall retrofit project is expected to address community demands at a time when affordable housing development in the region has otherwise been extremely slow.

“Developers see retrofitting as a way to capture value in places that were seen as failing,” said Ben Schulman of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), several of whose members were part of the design team. The organization has been researching the problem of declining malls (or greyfields, as they have come to call them) for about 10 years. During that time, CNU has published three major studies on the subject, including a guide for developers and communities that want to retrofit malls. CNU estimates that nearly one in five malls across the country are greyfields.


“This project will be significant. It will be a unique example of urban infill development in the inter-mountain region,” said Holladay City Council member Jim Palmer. Aside from an anchor store, the site has been entirely demolished, and plans are currently being finalized to transform this site from a shopping mall that has seen better days into a dynamic town center. The Cottonwood Mall venture will not only yield housing, economic, and environmental benefits, but also will add more than 2,500 jobs to the community and millions of dollars for local public schools.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.