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A street in Boston. There are cars parked on the street and cars traveling in the middle of the street. Both sides of the street are lined with retail shops. At the end of the street is a historic red building with an ornate white roof. Shutterstock

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The evolution of Boston’s retail space

The way we use storefronts and malls is changing. Here’s how.

While waiting around for your latest Amazon delivery, you’ve probably realized that retail has forever changed—and that it’s shifting the use of local storefront space.

In 2017, industry experts predicted that about 25 percent of shopping malls would close by 2022. Two years later, that stat still seems pretty possible. A slew of stores have shuttered some or all of their locations: Sears, Nine West, Charlotte Russe, Brookstone, Things Remembered, Karen Millen, and J.C. Penney are but a few. Oh, and Payless ShoesSource has left its physical stores in the dust (because they sell on Amazon now).

Since consumers can easily compare prices, check reviews, find rare products, and click for quick delivery from the comfort of their own smartphones, retail must either evolve or die. And evolve is just what some malls have done. The Somerville Assembly Square Mall was rechristened Assembly Row and redesigned to give it a downtown Main Street feel. Chestnut Hill’s beloved Atrium Mall died but was reborn as the Lifetime fitness center. Oh, Watertown’s Arsenal Mall? You must mean Arsenal Yards, which is becoming a mixed-use destination for live-work-play-eat-whatever-you-want. And the CambridgeSide Galleria has dropped its last name. You can call it just CambridgeSide now because it officially rebranded, attracted global-cool-kid store Superdry to open there, and spent a cool $30 million to revamp itself. Offering tactile experiences and events like movies and concerts has also been part of the plan to coax people through the door.

While malls seem to be figuring it out, what about all those darkened storefronts you’ve noticed in neighborhoods like Downtown Crossing or Back Bay? Well, it’s time for them to get creative. (Or get heated, if they’re so inclined.) Here are a few ways in which our commercial space is experimenting and reinventing itself (because what’s in store is not necessarily going to be a store):


Game rooms. We’re not really talking about the arcades you grew up with or indulged in at Versus. We’re referring to interactive activities that aren’t easy to partake of at home, like escape rooms and virtual reality games.

Reality Zombie, a mixed reality shoot-’em-up game, appeared at CambridgeSide. Why? Virtual reality is suited for a larger space where you can move freely; the smaller-square-footage living that predominates around here isn’t naturally amenable to this kind of at-home play.

Trapology, Escape the Room, and Room Escapers have all taken up space in Downtown Crossing. And there’s Boxaroo on Court Street. It’s a natural next step to see virtual reality games and escape rooms take over larger spaces formerly occupied by big-box retailers.

Social media meccas. These places provide a plethora of candy-coated photo opportunities for your Instagram/Snapchat/TikTok/maybe-even-Facebook account. New York has hosted pop-ups like Museum of Ice Cream and permanent installations like the Color Factory, and recently Boston has gotten a taste, too. This past April through June, the always-on-tour Happy Place temporarily took over the old Marshalls space on Boylston Street in Back Bay. While there are certainly some highbrow cynics that downplay the concept as a narcissistic symptom of society’s imminent downfall, it’s worth appreciating this reuse of otherwise empty space, because here there’s room for everyone.

And if you just don’t dig the Happy Place, don’t worry: It’s already gone (even after extending the length of its original stay by a month). But it’s safe to say that more places like it are on the way. And they’ll be bigger and better (or worse, depending on your opinion).

Museum space. Been to the Prudential Mall lately? If so, perhaps you’ve noticed a space near Nespresso and MAC Cosmetics with ballet shoes, prosthetics, and an animated video in the window. And like many passersby, you’ve either 1. assumed it was a shoe store, 2. thought it was a prosthetics store, or 3. had no idea what it was.

Well, it’s called Well B. And it’s apparently a way in which Blue Cross Blue Shield can connect directly with consumers ... kind of like its sponsorship of Blue Bikes. A longer look at Well B’s window reveals a video that cycles through phrases like “A Powerful Source for Change,” “Collaboration,” “Clarity,” “Positivity,” “Drive Change,” “Diversity of Thought,” “Creativity,” “Curiosity,” and “Passion into Action.” Inside is a wall dedicated to prosthetics, which ties into the Boston Strong movement. On another wall, you’re asked to write your “story” about health care to help BCBS develop ideas on how to improve it.

Blue Cross Blue Shield partnered with the Design Museum to produce Well B, but according to an associate in the space, the health insurance provider is parting ways with the museum after this exhibit to work independently. If you’re planning to visit, be forewarned: Hours are iffy—the space was closed on Friday and Saturday afternoons in early August.

Revamping retail into exhibit space that allows people to learn, wonder, and wander is a strong contender for other retail spaces.

Pop-ups. Temporary takeovers of unrented space by artists, entrepreneurs, and online-only brands are more commonplace and cost-effective than ever. Here are just a couple of examples.

Black Market is a pop-up market in Dudley Square. It’s “driven by the mission to revitalize Boston’s Black Creative Economy,” and to “help eradicate Boston’s $247,500 wealth gap,” according to its website and Facebook page. Yelp indicates that they’re open on Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Exit Galleries is temporarily occupying 467 Washington Street space, which formerly housed Liberty Travel. It’s aiming to elevate the creative community in Boston. According to its website, it will be open on weekends through September 2019.

Coworking space. You know WeWork is coming in hot for Boston, and Workbar is moving into 10-24 School Street this September. CIC is a familiar contender that comes complete with maker spaces. But there’s another player: Staples. In November, the office supply company is making room for a collaborative workspace dubbed Staples Studio in Boston and Cambridge. Ditching its partnership with Workbar, it’s offering entrepreneur-friendly amenities, from TSA PreCheck to free black-and-white printing, that are supposed to help new ventures thrive.

Food halls. Since people are more particular and health-conscious than ever, retail spaces are finding a new purpose by responding to foodie culture. Eataly replaced the standard food court in Back Bay’s Prudential Mall. In Fenway, the Time Out Market aims to curate the best of Boston’s food and drink. And High Street Place will give the Financial District two dozen dining options in over 18,000 square feet of space. They’re now targeting fall 2019 to open.

Weed. The growing list of operating dispensaries is getting ever closer to you: The first adult-use, MBTA-accessible pot shop opened in March. Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeals issued a conditional use permit for construction of a marijuana store on Friend Street near the T.D. Garden. A proposal for the development of a recreational marijuana shop at Mary Ann’s, the former college dive bar in Cleveland Circle, is on its way, unless Boston College’s opposition wins.


If anything is certain, it’s that this evolution isn’t over. Retail will keep investing in change, and hope that consumers will buy into it. In the meantime, where’s that Amazon delivery?

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