Home » How I’d Turn An Abandoned Mall Into A Car Enthusiast’s Paradise

How I’d Turn An Abandoned Mall Into A Car Enthusiast’s Paradise

Dead Mall Ts
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In his 1985 book The Malling Of America, Bill Kowinski chronicled how the “Main Streets” of the United States had been replaced as shopping destinations by enclosed malls. If you’re old like me, you remember going from store to store with an Orange Julius in one hand and a Sbarro pizza slice in the other, both purchased from the food court on the way to the Nautica outlet. Today these American touchstones are steadily disappearing from the retail landscape.

Disappearing as operating businesses, that is; the structures themselves remain intact for many otherwise dead malls, desolate concrete edifices with giant, empty warehouse-sized former “anchor” stores that occasionally reanimate as Spirit Halloween stores or some other seasonal operation. In many cases, the cost to demolish a dead mall is more than anyone wants to pay, leaving the abandoned hulks as monuments to the era before the internet and Amazon.

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In the mid-nineties, new malls were still being constructed at a rate of around 140 new ones a year, yet it declined to the point that in 2007 there was not one new enclosed mall built anywhere in the US. The rapid decline was from a combination of the rise in online shopping and the prominence of localized “big box” stores (instead of the traditional department stores that bookended most malls like Sears and J.C. Penney). Honestly, economic decline in some areas had caused the closure of some malls much earlier. The infamous Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois opened in 1966 and closed in only twelve years in 1978 later due primarily to loss of business from rising crime rates in the Chicago suburb. After being used as the set for The Blues Brothers mall chase a year later, the damaged mall remained an eyesore for over three decades before the rotting remains were mercifully torn down. Here you can see the Bluesmobile (1974 Dodge Monaco with Police Package and 440 Magnum V8) tearing up the mall in 1979, followed by the mold-filled ruins in 2009 prior to demolition:

Blues Brothers 5 19
Screenshot

Today, malls are closing regardless of the affluence of the surroundings. Every town seems to have at least one, and we’re likely to see mall demolition now happening at the rate of the openings thirty years ago.

What else can we do with them? The other day Thomas Hundal suggested the Red Lobster car dealership idea I explored, and further conversation came up with solutions for these vacant shopping giants.

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Naturally, these involve cars.

They’re Lowering The Property Value! Ban Them!

The vast number of people see cars as a transportation appliance, but we Autopians see motorized vehicles as a source of fun and excitement, and we’re always looking for ways to connect with others of our tribe; this website you’re reading now was made for that exact reason. Still, reading about cars is not the same as playing with them.

Unsurprisingly, most neighborhoods are not crazy about people racing around them in cars, or even gathering en masse in parking lots. Other villages will issue you unfriendly citations (as in a legal ticket, not the GM X-Car) for working on them in your yard or driveway – ask David, he’ll tell you – or even in the parking lot of an auto parts store.

Even if you’re blessedly free from the aforementioned hassles, a peril of being a car person is suboptimal storage for more than one or two machines. Cars are generally weatherproof, but that doesn’t mean we want them sitting outside for most of the time. If you don’t have enough garage space, a place to store your fleet will likely be some miles away. Oh, and you can’t work on the car in the rented storage space, thank you.

Enter the dead mall.

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Malling Of The Automobile Enthusiast

Can you really turn a mall into a car paradise? There’s a lot of examples out there of indoor automotive fun that we could put together to build such a place.

In my part of the woods, you can buy a “garage mahal” to keep your toys; it’s a bit like a large storage facility that encourages you to hang out and work there instead of kicking you out at the sight of a wrench. You can deck it out any way you want with lifts, workshops, and hangout “caves” to your heart’s desire.

Bigdoor (1)
Source: BigDoor

Here’s another one. In Pennsylvania there’s a place that began life as a clothing outlet mall in 1985, eventually changing to a massive furniture retailer before finally closing its doors in 2011. After sitting abandoned for a time, it reopened in 2018 as an indoor “Classic Car Mall” filled with collectible rides for sale or on consignment.

Auto Mall Outside 5 19
Source: screenshots

It wasn’t a massive shopping mall, but the website claims the 336,000 square foot building (8 acres) has space for 1,400 vehicles. I’m not sure how the old “stores” are organized but I would think they could be divided by different car categories of car type.

Auto Mall 5 19
Source: screenshots

On the other side of the pond, a few of our Autopian staff members have visited Motorworld hotels. If you’re a gearhead, these places are an assault on the senses, but a good assault.

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Located in several cities across Germany, Motorworlds are typically built in old warehouses or abandoned industrial facilities. There are event spaces and display areas, but the most dramatic feature at the Munich location is the multi-story “glass box” garages that car owners can rent for storage and let others ogle their ride; you can even list your car for sale here.

Auto World 5 19
Source: Motorworld

Here’s another abandoned-real-estate-to-car-recreation conversion. Near my house, there’s a building that’s been turned into an indoor go-carting racing center called K1 Speed.  What used to be warehouse space now covered in two tracks for electric carts; the space in front that used to be offices is a two-story bar and restaurant overlooking the tracks.

K1 Speed Outside 5 25
Google maps

If you think you can’t have a fast and exciting race in a space this size, I urge you to visit one of their 93 locations across the country. My wife’s company rented out the space for a party with unlimited racing, and my neck and whole body hurt for days afterward.

K1 Speed 5 19
Source: K1 Speed

Which of these ideas should be used for repurposing a dying mall? How about all of them! Malls were all about variety, and if we replaced the old Hot Topics and Chess Kings with a mix of these automotive ventures it could finally be the car mecca we’ve all been waiting for.

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A New Kind Of Mall Rat: Us

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical “dead mall” to convert to what we might call a US branch of that German Motorworld franchise. Almost any mall could be made to work, but I’ll start with a single-story example featuring three former “anchor” stores at each end. Maybe one might even be an old Sears location:

Former Sears Department Store At Salem Mall, Trotwood, Ohio
Original image: Nicholas Eckhart/Wikimedia Commons

Those “anchor” stores are usually massive spaces, and something like a former Montgomery Ward’s or Macy’s would be great for indoor karting. Our own Thomas even said liability-be-damned and suggested moving in an acre or two or real dirt and having an indoor electric motocross course as well. Man, I’d love to have a bar or restaurant overlooking this mayhem, just like K1 Speed does. Hell, we could even put in some RC tracks.

Motorworld Floorplan 5 31

Another one of the big former stores on the end would be ideal for the glass garages employed by MotorWorld to store and display cars. This wouldn’t have a restaurant but you could sure as hell have a space in the center for catered events or even weddings.

What about the long corridors connecting the large “anchors” that used to house the smaller retailers like Spencer’s Gifts and Finish Line shoes? A few spaces will have car memorabilia or die-cast car stores, and an auto parts retailer like AutoZone could take up residence in a few adjoining ones.

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The wide hallways have enough space to allow cars for sale to be parked. Rent a space or sell your car on consignment, taking advantage of the indoor traffic that might be coming in off the street to grab a coffee or a quick bite at a restaurant in one of the halls. This is like a Disneyland for gearheads; you’ll get stuck walking around in awe and need food and drink at some point. Naturally, the go-cart and motocross track would have bars and restaurants, but there would be additional places to eat in the old mall area itself. Maybe part of the old “food court” could be repurposed, even if Cinnabon won’t return.

Mall Interior 5 31

The vast majority of these empty stores would be sold or rented out as “garage mahals”. In this single-floor layout, each approximately 25 by 60 foot space would have a garage door on back to give owners access to the outside; each one would have a bathroom and plumbing to allow for mini kitchens or bars. Owners could add workshop space, “man cave” loft areas, and the glass former “shop windows” to the hallway would let you show off your rides to people walking by (and let them watch you cuss as you attempt repairs, if you don’t close the blinds). Most of these spaces are big enough for at least three cars so you could share the space (and the rent) with your car owner friends (or rent a double space). Trick it out any way you want, even with a sign outside in the corridor.

A few of the former store “garage spaces ” I’d want to reserve for hourly or daily rental to let those without a personal garage work on their car indoors.

Vette Cave 5 31
Source: screenshot

Thomas even suggested that startup companies or new Asian car makers that need dealerships might set up shop in the old storefronts one of these auto malls instead of trying to construct their own buildings. Hell, if they’re EVs they could freaking drive in the mall. New Vinfasts are in early this year!!

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The giant parking lot surrounding most malls isn’t really needed, but fencing off a certain section (and offering 24-hour security) would allow for outdoor car, boat, or motorhome storage. Autocrosses? Outdoor go-cart racing? Acres of paved surface just waiting to be used. We can only hope that the building or parking lot has an old Sears or Montgomery Ward’s auto center still there with the lifts in place.

Which Car Tribe Will Control The Food Court?

You like the idea, right? How can you not? The question is if the idea is viable financially. Places like K1 Speed and Motorworld appear to be profitable enough to stay in business, but there’s a big catch: how much is the land worth? I’d love to see the nearly-dead Northbrook Court Mall (where Robert Downey Jr. pours a drink on the nerds in Weird Science) near me become such a place, but the homes adjacent to the mall are selling for nearly seven figures. I know that developers are already revving up the bulldozers, and this is freaking Illinois. California? Forget it.

My rough guesstimate is that this MotorWorld mall conversion would work in outlying suburban locations or towns close to a major metropolis; those single-level outlet malls come to mind. Classic Auto Mall, for example, is around 30 miles from suburban Philly, and a little further from Harrisburg, which is just about perfect. Would you be willing to drive half an hour to a place where you can hang out with your “car people” friends, work on your ride in air-conditioned or heated comfort, grab a burger, buy some auto parts (or borrow tools from the guys next door), check out other classic cars for sale, and maybe even enjoy a real race or two?

That was rhetorical question. Yeah, I’m preaching to the choir here, aren’t I?

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SoCoFoMoCo
SoCoFoMoCo
16 days ago

A fucking AutoZone though? Let’s ride with a triple-size, independently-owned Napa Auto Parts or something along those lines with people who actually know their heads from their asses behind the counter. The extra space can be used for speed parts, a Dorman chest the size of a football field, a wheel, tire, and alignment shop and other cool shit.

Or at least a Summit Racing store. Anything but AutoReilleys. I’d rather eat a tire then go to one of those shit auto parts stores ever again.

Last edited 16 days ago by SoCoFoMoCo
Jeffrey Antman
Jeffrey Antman
18 days ago

What a great idea. You could make a small fortune with one of these. Only problem is you’d need a large fortune to build it, staff it, and bring in customers. The American Dream.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
22 days ago

This is such a great idea and would be awesome…I love the “Roll”bar and Grille

Manuel Verissimo
Manuel Verissimo
22 days ago

I kind of experienced this. I rented a small workshop for my Datsun. One neighbor was selling used cars, and the other had a classic 911 and a VW bus. I had plenty of car minded folk to speak to!

There was a great burger joint 30 feet away, a parts store across the street and a bar next to it. It was awesome, but I like having my wrenching space near me better. Driving there was cutting into the wrenching time too much.

Ben
Ben
23 days ago

My local mall has apparently become an indoor walking track for the city. You would not believe the angst when they moved opening time back an hour and people couldn’t take their laps of the mall before work anymore.

Musicman27
Musicman27
23 days ago

Maybe one day if the Autopian gets big enough. This could become an HQ.

GumpertApolloGuy
GumpertApolloGuy
23 days ago

In St. Louis there was a mall called Crestwood Mall, it was torn down and the land was an eyesore for over 20 years. Finally a local grocery store built there as well as a luxury apartments. Another mall that I used to walk all the time as a teen is South County mall, that’s a cool place and I’d love to see it turned into a giant go kart track rather than torn down

Toecutter
Toecutter
23 days ago

There’s a number of abandoned malls around here.

My favorite abandoned mall, the Jamestown Mall, is now full of black mold inside.

The ones that aren’t abandoned are certainly dying. For the last 15 years, most people haven’t had the spare money to shop at them, and the lucky minority of the population who did have the money, gave it to Amazon instead, especially after all of the gang shootings that occurred in some of these malls(Union Station being infamous).

Last edited 23 days ago by Toecutter
Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
23 days ago

The reason why a lot of malls have died or are dying is because in a lot of cases, they’re in the middle of nowhere. Getting to them without a car is impractical.

And fuel/car ownership isn’t as cheap as it was.

The solution to saving malls is partially convert them to residential and office space so people can be within walking distance of where they work, shop and live.

So for this plan to work, there needs to be a ‘gearhead condo’ as part of the plan.

Toecutter
Toecutter
23 days ago

Most Americans have also been living paycheck to paycheck for the last 15+ years, and haven’t had the spare cash to buy anything frivolous at a mall.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
23 days ago
Reply to  Toecutter

“Most Americans have also been living paycheck to paycheck for the last 15+ years”

Maybe one reason they’re living “paycheque to paycheque” because they’re driving expensive loaded fuel guzzling full size trucks instead of more sensible vehicles like the Honda Fit.

Another reason they might be in that dire financial state is because they bought a McMansion in a suburb that makes them slaves to their vehicles… and thus they have the hidden cost of having to drive everywhere as well as having to drive their kids everywhere as well as having to have a vehicle for every adult in the family.

My point is that for a ‘mall’ to work these days, it has to be more than a mall. It has to be a community where people can live, work AND shop… as well as being close to stuff like schools, libraries, community centers, etc. And the shopping options have to include stuff like grocery stores. And sidewalks, bike lanes and public transit also has to be part of the plan so that people without cars can get around.

A lot of these dying malls have none of that… which is why they are dying.

Last edited 23 days ago by Manwich Sandwich
Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
23 days ago

Brilliant!!! I love repurposing ideas for old malls.

You Audi Know
You Audi Know
23 days ago

No love for Dezerland/Orlando Auto museum!? A former mall/outlet center turned into quirky car collections, and arcade games and go karts! https://orlandoautomuseum.com/#themed-rooms

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
23 days ago

Start a Go Fund Me. I’m kicking in $50.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
23 days ago

The main building where I used to work has been turned into: A place for car repairs & restoration, storage for cars, showroom for selling those some of those cars, and a roller skating rink!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
23 days ago

“They’re Lowering The Property Value! Ban Them!”

Shit like this makes me want to fight to turn these malls into homeless shelters.

Toecutter
Toecutter
23 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Damn straight. But not just homeless shelters, even if that might be the centerpiece of the whole shebang.

In addition to being a homeless shelter, the refurbished mall needs to be complete with the following:

-methadone clinic
-discount legal services
-pawn shop
-bar
-gun store
-payday loan
-laundromat
-liquor store
-adult novelty store
-bail bonds
-Dollar Store
-strip club
-marijuana dispensary
-casino
-Satanic Temple

Maybe even turn some of the places into Section 8 housing while you’re at it.

Fuck Karens. Wherever this complex exists, it will make the property values in their pretty little normie-conformie suburbs surrounding it CRATER. It would be amazing.

Last edited 23 days ago by Toecutter
MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
23 days ago

RC drifting with a small 1/10 scale cityscape and a Touge mountain run would be great. Rent the cars for 15 minute intervals. Perhaps a drone flying course and store. It could really work for stores that benefit from in-person test drive items. Indoor E-bike mini moto GP? Man so many ideas. Gotta bring in lots of rent to keep it open though.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
23 days ago

As long as there is a Lantern Rouge in the food court I’m all for it. Who am I kidding, I’m already all for it.

V8 Fairmont Longroof
V8 Fairmont Longroof
23 days ago

A new Auto Mall was proposed here – complete with race track! Great idea, that sadly died… https://www.drive.com.au/news/brisbane-airport-auto-mall-race-track-axed/

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
23 days ago

The Moreno Valley Mall at the former site of the Riverside International Raceway is not technically dead but the Sears anchor has closed and most of the stores are shuttered. I would go there to work on my car (apartment dweller), see cool cars, race go karts, buy car parts, etc. If there’s space a giant empty parking lot could be used as a pick and pull salvage yard.

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
23 days ago

When Fiat returned to the US with the 500 series, their local dealer point here (Indianapolis) was in a mall, across from the Talbot’s clothing store. It was only a sales/delivery point and the service location was at another building of the dealer’s plethora of brands. Tesla was also in that mall building with a showroom at one point. Sometime in the last decade Fiat moved to a more typical location so not sure how successful that approach was.

Lew Schiller
Lew Schiller
23 days ago

I once drove an 850 Mini from Galveston to Denver taking secondary roads all the way. Texas is loaded with small towns – cotton towns – that are for lack of any other word, dead. Lots of cool vacant buildings, maybe even a courthouse square.
My idea was to basically buy one and turn it into a car cruise / road trip destination.
Clubs and such could come from all over the country to the town where they’d be immersed in car guy heaven. All the way from the motels and drive inns/restaurants to a drag strip, maybe a small road course, parts dealers, speed shops, a cruise strip, anything you could think of that’s appropriate.

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