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Municipalities Help to Breathe New Life into Vacant or Underutilized Shopping Mall Sites

August 8, 2023

In recent months, several media outlets have reported on potential redevelopment concepts and initiatives for the Colonial Park Mall site in Lower Paxton Township and the Harrisburg Mall site in Swatara Township, both located in Dauphin County, PA.

As mentioned before in this blog, large, older enclosed shopping malls that include vast expanses of underutilized parking spaces have been declining for the past several decades.  In fact, several hundred of these shopping malls have permanently closed, while several hundred more continue to struggle to stay viable and relevant.  Some of the factors contributing to these declines and closures include: (i) inconvenient, inefficient, and outdated format and layout; (ii) costs of maintaining or retrofitting large, unique single-purpose buildings nearing or exceeding their functional life expectancies; (iii) rise of online retailing and e-commerce; (iv) social and economic impacts of COVID-19; (v) vacant tenant spaces; and (vi) lack of foot-traffic.

Municipalities with vacant or underutilized shopping malls experience impacts such as a stagnating/declining tax base and operating revenue shortfalls, leading to a reduction in municipal services, loss of businesses and residents, limited property reinvestment, and increasing tax rates.  Additionally, some of these municipalities must also deal with the lack of undeveloped land, aging and inadequately maintained infrastructure, traffic congestion and stormwater runoff issues while complying with federal/state mandates.

While there are several types of barriers to redeveloping vacant or underutilized shopping mall sites, some of which are outside a municipality’s control, Dauphin County and the Townships of Lower Paxton and Swatara have taken proactive approaches to alleviating certain governmental barriers.  First, these government entities’ planning initiatives not only acknowledge the existence and importance of shopping malls and the ongoing trends facing shopping malls, but more importantly suggest zoning strategies for encouraging infill, adaptive reuse and/or redevelopment of vacant or underutilized shopping mall sites.

Next, in 2020 and 2021, the Lower Paxton Township Board of Supervisors amended its zoning ordinance by:  (i) creating a new Towne Centre District; and (ii) rezoning the Colonial Park Mall site from a general commercial district to the Towne Centre District.  The purpose of the Towne Centre District is to facilitate walkable, livable, and attractive mixed-use development centers of a sustainable density to create a sense of place by blending residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, and/or entertainment uses where those uses are physically and functionally integrated.  The Towne Centre District includes a master plan approval process as well as use regulations or design standards for: (i) buildings; (ii) parking; (iii) pedestrian amenities; (iv) open space; (v) lighting; (vi) outdoor dining; (vii) streetscaping; and (viii) traffic calming.

More recently, the Swatara Township Board of Commissioners rezoned the Harrisburg Mall site from a general commercial district to a light-manufacturing district in order to establish a new Class A multi-use business park.  Initial concept plans depict razing much of the site, retaining the Bass Pro Shops and Applebee’s buildings and constructing several retail/restaurant pads, inline retail buildings, an office building and multi-use business buildings with modern designs and amenities.  The multi-use business buildings are intended to accommodate a wide variety of tenants, including not only commercial businesses such as offices, daycares and schools, but also storage and light manufacturing.

Although Lower Paxton and Swatara have taken different zoning approaches to support redevelopment of shopping mall sites (i.e., creating a new zoning district with new requirements and standards vs. extending an existing zoning district boundary), both municipalities, along with Dauphin County, should be commended for their proactive planning and implementation initiatives.  We encourage more municipalities to collaborate with landowners and developers in crafting creative and effective planning and zoning solutions.

Please contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group with questions regarding this post or for assistance with any land use issues.


Christopher J. Knarr AICP

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