Strip-malls to Housing: SWA Group Puts Forward A Possible Solution to the National Housing Crisis

Strip-malls to Housing: SWA Group Puts Forward A Possible Solution to the National Housing Crisis

Converting underutilized retail centers into mixed-use housing developments will require change in city land-use policies

Laguna Beach, CA  — Repurposing existing commercial properties to help provide much-needed housing in a compact, sustainable development framework, is a resourceful approach to addressing not only California’s prominent need to increase housing supply, but the need across the United States. Andrew Watkins, principal at SWA Group, a planning, urban design and landscape architecture firm, led a panel about this very topic at Urban Land Institute’s spring conference, highlighting the firm’s work with several Southern California municipalities on rezoning commercial areas into mixed-use areas to support housing.

A lack of housing supply across the US has contributed to skyrocketing housing costs in many urban regions in recent years, putting the price of buying a home out of reach for many people and leading to many renters falling behind on payments or getting evicted. This topic is timely because the amount of housing stock needed in the country is far more than the amount available, so any beneficial strategies for redeveloping commercial sites to include housing can be applied city by city.  “They often have the capacity, they have the infrastructure for housing, they just need zoning and entitlement, and public will,” said Watkins.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development’s 2022 statewide housing plan released last month found the state has a need for more than 2.5 million additional homes — just over 1 million of which should be for people with above-moderate incomes, and over 1 million for people with low or very low incomes. “It’s not just affordable homes that are needed, it’s across the whole spectrum,” said Watkins during the panel discussion. “There’s really an opportunity across the board to provide housing.”

It’s well known that California faces an ongoing housing crisis and, simultaneously, the pandemic accelerated the demise of traditional retail strip centers and big-box stores, making many traditional commercial developments lifeless, facing diminished revenues and potential closure. However, these challenges present an exciting opportunity to transform these properties: converting existing commercial centers into mixed-use developments with denser, more affordable residences as well as non-vehicular access to neighborhood services.

Retail space is overbuilt in the U.S. due to changing retail practices and the impact of online shopping. “I think this provides a great opportunity,” Watkins said. The solution, he said, is to replace sites that have large, underutilized retail space with developments that mix residential housing with stores, restaurants, hotels and/or office and commercial space. Doing so, Watkins said, could reinvigorate the commercial space that already exists.

Housing mixed with retail will provide foot traffic, which will drive sales. The broader mix of uses at the property will broaden that foot traffic and spread that activity throughout the week. It will also create a more walkable environment benefiting residents and the shopper, complete with parks, trails and other open space opportunities.

A selection of visuals can be found here.

About SWA Group

SWA is a world-renowned planning, urban design and landscape architecture firm celebrated for its creativity, responsiveness, and design excellence. Our work gives new life to urban environments at multiple scales – from public plazas to waterfronts to entire city districts – harnessing regional systems while enhancing the unique characteristics of each setting. SWA has studios in Dallas, Houston, Laguna Beach, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Sausalito and Shanghai.  For more information, please visit