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Could California’s Shopping Centers Be a Housing Fix?

A trio of bills propose plugging the state’s huge housing gap with commercial-to-residential conversions of strip malls. New research suggests it could work.

A vacant shopping center in El Centro, California. 

A vacant shopping center in El Centro, California. 

Photographer: Photo by: Mickey Strider/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

El Camino Real is a 600-mile historic thoroughfare that once linked Spanish missions in California, running from San Francisco to San Diego. Between Daly City and San Jose, the road is a nearly 45-mile corridor of suburban offices, fast-food outlets, auto parts stores, and other businesses slicing through Silicon Valley, tying together some of the nation’s priciest residential neighborhoods. Like so many other shopping-center laden strips of pavement that ribbon California, this segment is, for the most part, devoid of homes. 

Joe DiStefano sees boulevards like El Camino Real as more than just spots for takeout or an oil change. He sees a “perfect storm of opportunity.” Cofounder and CEO of UrbanFootprint, a software company that builds urban planning tools, DiStefano has done numerous studies on the housing potential hiding in California’s commercial strips. According to UrbanFootprint’s analysis of El Camino Real, this lone corridor could theoretically accommodate more than 300,000 new units if the road was upzoned to allow residential development and its parking lots and big-box stores became low-rise apartment complexes.