Charter Schools - A Worthy Tenant for Empty Department Stores

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 me whether I thought these spaces would make good sites for charter schools and did I know of any precedent that was worth investigating. We both agreed that as bricks and mortar retailing was poised for a decline, that charter schools were an interesting project type that has all sorts of possibilities. 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. Charters 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 are 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

But Dr, Jones’ point is understandable. 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.

Written by Rick Abelson, Director
Online Land Planning, LLC


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  • 1/8/2009 4:05 PM Ellen wrote:
    Interesting article - charter schools are definately an alternative use for developers to consider.
    Reply to this
  • 1/8/2009 4:31 PM George King wrote:
    The air gap above these large box stores would be large enough to support an thermal energy system (CH&P) to power as well as heat and cool the modified space. This renewable power system could turn into curriculum that would enhance the schools educational component.
    Reply to this
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