When Science Class Is in a Former Macy’s

In the early morning in November, with a chill still in the air, three lines of cars inch across the open, cracked parking lot at the Sumter Mall in Sumter, S.C.

It’s still hours before the doors open at Belk, a department store with roots in the Southeast and the mall’s last remaining anchor tenant. The mall, which is about 60 percent vacant, has a hodgepodge of other tenants. Call center workers are parking or being dropped off for their shifts. People are making their way into a nearby Planet Fitness.

But on the other side of the parking lot, scores of young children dash out of cars and through a mall entrance. They’re not playing hooky; they’re going to school in a former J.C. Penney store. And if all goes according to plan, they will keep going there for years as the school adds more grades and takes over more of the mall each year.

Developers across the country are putting new schools in struggling malls, a growing trend that serves several purposes: increasing educational opportunity, revitalizing communities and reimagining the thousands of vacant retail spaces that make once-vibrant shopping centers a blight.

“We’ve definitely seen all kinds of alternative uses of malls — to redevelop, repurpose and reimagine them,” said Thomas Dobrowski, vice chairman of the capital markets group at Newmark, a real estate services company.

Sumter Mall in Sumter has a hodgepodge of tenants, including a call center, a gym and Liberty STEAM.Credit…Nora Williams for The New York Times
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