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Shopping for space, health systems make over malls

Blake Farmer, Nashville Public Radio, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

The hulking Hickory Hollow Mall — a full 1.1 million square feet of retail space in southeastern Nashville — was once the largest shopping center in Tennessee. But like many malls, it’s been in a downward death spiral for more than a decade.

Now the mammoth complex surrounded by acres of parking is on track to join the ranks of malls making a transition into a booming economic sector: medicine. Vanderbilt University Medical Center has had such success reviving a different mall that its health system, Vanderbilt Health, plans to add medical clinics at the former Hickory Hollow Mall, rebranded a decade ago as the Global Mall at the Crossings.

“The possibilities for service offerings in a facility of this scale are endless,” Dr. Jeff Balser, the medical center’s CEO, announced in March. What big-city health systems need most is something shopping malls have plenty of: space and parking. They offer convenience for patients and practitioners, as well as costing less than expanding an existing hospital campus.

Nationwide, 32 enclosed malls house health care services in at least part of their footprint, according to a database kept by Ellen Dunham-Jones, a Georgia Tech urban design professor. One of the first was Jackson Medical Mall in Mississippi, founded by Dr. Aaron Shirley in 1996. Nearly a third of those medical transformations have been announced since the start of the covid-19 pandemic.

The more recent additions include the Capital Hill Mall in Helena, Montana, where Benefis Health System is building a 60,000-square-foot primary care and specialty clinic on part of the 13-acre site that was razed in 2019. In Alexandria, Virginia, Inova Health System is part of a billion-dollar mixed-use development on the Landmark Mall site, which includes plans for a full-service hospital and trauma center.

The lockdowns brought by covid — both required and voluntary — pushed many bricks-and-mortar retailers already on the brink out of business. But medicine’s reuse of retail space is more than pandemic opportunism, according to a November article in the Harvard Business Review. The three authors suggest the rise of telemedicine and continued push toward outpatient procedures will make malls increasingly attractive locations for health care.

 

The proposition makes sense for commercial real estate investors, too, especially as mall owners struggle. A few went bankrupt during the pandemic. Every mall owner is now looking for mixed-use opportunities, said Ginger Davis of Trademark Properties in Charleston, South Carolina.

In 2017, her company started redeveloping the Citadel Mall, whose anchor tenant is now the Medical University of South Carolina. The clinics and surgery centers are housed in the old J.C. Penney department store.

“Right now they’re doing surgery where people used to buy sheets and towels,” Davis said.

In many cases, the transition to medicine is intended to complement what remains of the retail. At Citadel Mall, a spouse with a partner having outpatient surgery must stay on-site. But browsing Target, Davis said, still counts as on-site.

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