Charter Schools: A Worthy Tenant for Empty Department Stores?

Ground Floor Blog
Urban Land Institute
January 13, 2009

This post was written for The Ground Floor by Rick Abelson, ULI Member, and director at Online Land Planning in Redondo Beach, California.

With the 2008–2009 demise and eventual transition of several anchor department stores in large regional shopping centers, it was interesting to have a conversation with Dr. Chris Jones, an administrator with the Wiseburn School District in Los Angeles County, California, who asked if these spaces would make good sites for charter schools. The idea makes a lot of sense because like Charter Schools are very business plan oriented--something that mall developers will appreciate.

Charter Schools
Charter Schools are basically a school of choice and are free from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Charter Schools tend to be small with a median enrollment is 250 students compared to 550 in traditional public schools and serve different communities with a wide variety of curriculum and instructional practices. Charters are granted for a particular period of time, usually for 3-5 years, which are renewed after the end of the term. These schools do not charge tuition, and are funded according to enrollment. They also do not receive capital funds for facilities so renovation opportunities make sense. Federal legislation provides grants to help charters with start-up costs. In this way, charters fit the retail tenant profile pretty well. They function like a business and are beholden to their granting entity under a performance contract that is similar to a business plan. Like any business, they are under constant pressure to perform well, both financially and academically under the terms of the charter contract.

Shopping Malls
Shopping malls are generally centrally located with good transit connections and often serve as the hub for social and cultural activity in most American cities. Sensing that malls and schools have common features, some architects have used the commercial aesthetics of shopping malls as inspiration for new secondary school designs to provide spaces for young people to be together, to talk, to play, to socialize and to exercise some independence.

Several years ago, the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design held a Dead Mall Competition that challenged designers to rethink underperforming shopping centers and reassess the role these structures play in civic life with the possibility of converting them into other uses to invigorate communities across America. Unfortunately, like many design competitions, the final results steered from the pragmatic and schools missed the cut with the judges.

Since 1998, The Simon Youth Foundation, started by the shopping center developer Simon Group of Companies, has taken a lead to provide a variety of alternative classroom spaces in their projects to help disadvantaged youth get the opportunity to learn in small groups, alternative settings, and hopefully graduate. Many of the programs are affiliated with local school districts and Simon provides scholarships to worthy students trying to make the grade.

Economic Stimulus and Accountability
There is not enough precedent yet since the predicament of the empty department store--the anchor--is hard for mall developers to fathom. It will take vision to adjust and change traditional retail models and reassess lease agreements, hours of operation, maintenance, adjacencies, and security. But the future will be better if it works. The new Administration promises a federal stimulus package to help create choice and to hold business, educators, and government accountable for their actions to insure a prosperous next generation and beyond. This might be one opportunity for mall developers to help a worthy tenant succeed.

Copyright Urban Land Institute 2009. Used with permission.

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