DANVERS — Shortly after Northeast Arc opened its newest facility for people with disabilities, a passerby stopped in with a question. By any chance were they selling the foosball table?
A few members of the Arc community were annoyed by the inquiry. The not-for-profit Northeast Arc is a venerable institution, one of the country’s largest and oldest chapters of the Arc, a nationwide network of service providers that offer lifelong opportunities for the intellectually and developmentally disabled and their families. It’s not a bargain store.
But the question was not entirely out of line. The Arc’s new facility is, after all, located in a mall.
The Center for Linking Lives brings many of the Arc’s programs — from skills training and career advising to department planning for its residential and health services — under one roof. That roof, at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, covers 26,000 square feet of redesigned storefront space once occupied by a Kids for Less children’s clothing store and a furniture importer.
For the Northeast Arc, there are many benefits to the new location, says president and CEO Jo Ann Simons. The mall has public transportation and plenty of parking. The move allows the organization to reduce its carbon footprint, consolidating five of its former facilities around the region. Most importantly, it gives the Arc community a priceless opportunity to integrate more fully into the community at large.
The Center for Linking Lives may be the first social service organization of its kind to move into an indoor mall, Simons says. And she has a feeling it won’t be the last.
“We think this is highly replicable,” she says.
It’s no secret that business at shopping malls, once the hub of consumer spending in the United States, has been steadily eroding in the era of e-commerce and big-box retailing. According to Coresight Research, as many as 25 percent of all shopping malls in the United States could close within three to five years. The coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse.
In response, mall developers have been learning to adapt. Increasingly, shopping malls are becoming mixed-use centers, welcoming nontraditional tenants ranging from fitness clubs and mega-supermarkets to drop-in daycare centers and satellite college campuses. One of the largest tenant spaces in the Liberty Tree Mall, formerly leased by a sporting goods retailer, now hosts Sky Zone, a popular indoor trampoline park.
“Retailers are going to have to reimagine the whole customer journey,” says Shuba Srinivasan, who is the Adele and Norman Barron Professor of Management and Professor of Marketing at Boston University’s business school. Increasingly, she says, consumers don’t go to the mall to browse.
“Rethinking these spaces creatively is the way to go.”
The public’s dwindling reliance on traditional “anchor” department stores is behind much of the transition. At the Square One Mall in Saugus, the former Sears store closed earlier this year. Customers who use the mall entrance nearest the storefront now walk past a vast empty space visible behind floor-to-ceiling glass. The first floor of the vacated parcel will reportedly be filled by Apex Entertainment, a recreation developer offering bowling lanes, bumper cars, and other attractions.
Recent trends have leaned toward open-air shopping centers such as MarketStreet Lynnfield, which features a popular skating rink and hosts outdoor yoga classes, or the ongoing development at Arsenal Yards, the mixed-use destination on the site of the former Arsenal Mall in Watertown.
“Get ready, because ANYTHING is coming soon,” attest several signs placed around the rambling Arsenal Yards property. The complex promises a variety of pop-up exhibitions, from temporary retailers to gallery-style art events.
Such diversification of the traditional mall model has evolved out of economic necessity, says Srinivasan.
“In some sense, it provides some protection of the revenue. If one business is not doing particularly well, it takes into account multiple sources of revenue.”
The walls inside the sleek, bright renovation at the Center for Linking Lives feature curated artwork by members of the Arc community. There are common-area desks for shared office space, a communal kitchen where instructors can teach classes in cooking and food preparation, and an innovation lab designed to stimulate big-picture thinking among the Arc’s high-functioning autistic population.
The center does have a retail outlet, where shoppers can purchase gifts such as unique artwork and bags of Popcorn for the People, a gourmet brand based in New Jersey produced by employees on the autism spectrum.
The lab, says Tim Brown, the Arc’s director of innovation and strategy, will hopefully produce creative solutions to social problems – “not the Northeast Arc’s problems, but the community’s problems,” he says, such as how to alleviate loneliness and isolation, a persistent public dilemma clearly exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Malls are important hubs for community gathering, and the Center for Linking Lives is an exciting opportunity to bring individuals with disabilities into these spaces,” Mike Connell, who manages the Liberty Tree Mall, said in a statement. “We’re thrilled to partner with Northeast Arc to help promote an inclusive environment, and we’re hopeful that the success of this project at the Liberty Tree Mall can be replicated at properties across the country.”
Jo Ann Simons established the Northeast Arc’s family support system in the 1980s, and she returned to the program in her current leadership role as CEO five years ago. In the interim, she served as a Special Olympics board member and as chairman of a residential community for people with disabilities on Cape Cod, among other roles.
There’s a personal commitment behind her life work: Simons has an adult son with Down syndrome.
“The world I wanted didn’t exist for him,” she says.
The overarching goal of all the Arc’s programs is to help individuals with cognitive disabilities reach their full potential as contributing members of society.
“We live in this universe together,” Simons says. “We need to be in harmony.”
Just before Simons met with a reporter, she bumped into Barbara Remon, one of the original founders of the Northeast Arc back in the 1950s. Remon had not yet visited the new center. She was in the mall on an errand, so she stopped by.
The Arc started all those years ago in a church basement, Remon said.
“Boy, have we come a long way.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.