As the region’s suburbs work to tackle their housing, environmental, economic and racial justice challenges, one of the keys to success may be hiding in plain sight: the humble strip mall.  

These retail shopping centers are ubiquitous in Metro Boston. While these properties may have been vital in the past and may still support some economic activity, many are struggling and underutilized today. Many could be redeveloped to help form thriving, mixed-use neighborhoods.  

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) has recently completed research to understand the potential that these sites might hold, and the results were eye-opening.  

Through this process, we identified more than 3,000 strip malls and similar shopping centers in our region. These sites cover 13.7 square miles, an area larger than the entire city of Woburn. From these sites, we developed a set of assumptions to understand the potential impacts of redevelopment, and then prioritized the most highly suitable sites for new uses.  

We found that if just the top 10 percent of sites were redeveloped consistent with our assumptions, it could result in 124,000 homes for the region as part of mixed-use development, helping to meet a substantial share of regional housing demand. The estimated increase in building value alone would generate an additional $479 million in tax revenue for the host communities.  

If built using the state’s 40R Smart Growth Zoning bylaw, the host municipalities would be eligible for payments totaling $1.2 billion upon rezoning – an average of $3.2 million per site – and $373 million when the sites are redeveloped. Twenty-nine percent of the sites we identified are within a half mile of transit, meaning their rezoning could help host communities meet the obligations of the state’s new MBTA multifamily zoning mandate. If all such developments used 40R or required a comparable level of affordability, it could produce over 25,000 deed-restricted units across the region.  

Unlocking this potential isn’t easy; there are numerous barriers, but happily there are also policy solutions. To learn more about this research, policy solutions and the potential for retrofitting suburban strip malls into a dynamic future, join our informational webinar on Tuesday, Jan. 11 at 2:30 p.m. on Zoom. Register ahead at, and we hope to see you there. 

— Christopher Kuschel, principal planner, MAPC

Strip Malls: Housing’s New Frontier

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 1 min