The enclosed shopping mall may be the one urban incarnation from the twentieth century that the cultural elite has maligned from its inception. Intellectuals and social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th often extolled the early streetcar suburbs as a respite from overcrowding, poor sanitation, and social decay they had witnessed in the cities—however, their praise subsided shortly after World War II, when suburban living became an aspiration for the majority of the middle class, and all of the accompanying commercial and retail amenities of the suburbs entered the mainstream. Auto-oriented shopping centers were still a curiosity at the time that J.C. Nichols developed Country Club Plaza in Kansas City in 1923, and its attention to venerable architectural forms of the past, as well as its discreet parking accommodations, have placed it in much higher esteem than the mall iterations that began cropping up all over the country in the 1950s.
The same can’t be said for many other malls across the country, which in recent years have been dropping like flies. Among the first and highest profile to perish was Dixie Square Mall in
At the present day, the mall seems to be faltering as a viable retail typology. While many malls from the 1960s enjoyed new lives after renovations in 80s and 90s, others continued to struggle. Many developers converted malls into open-air plazas by stripping the roofs and adding landscape or courtyards; incidentally, this is how most early post-war malls began, though the contemporary approach emphasizes aesthetics more and has typically been re-branded as the “lifestyle center”. Other malls weren’t so lucky: anchors left, vacancies topped 50%, and sometimes whole wings of the mall were shut down. By this point, a mall could usually be classified as “dead”, and these anemic retail centers often drew legions of new curiosity seekers, who have captured the birth, life, and death of various malls in popular websites such as Labelscar and Deadmalls.
This blog post in particular features two examples of malls in
This mall is the first major enclosed mall in the metro area; it opened in 1968 at the juncture of
Simon Property Group sold the mall in December of 2007 to Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, a manager/developer that specializes in underperforming large-scale retail.
It also has the national chain Burlington Coat Factory, nicknamed by some as “the grim reaper of the retail world”, because of its tendency to move into failing malls:
The last anchor is a kid-themed entertainment/arcade center known as Xscape, a bit like Chuck E. Cheese but with go-karts. Two departments store spaces remain vacant. The in-line stores that comprise the majority of the mall appear about 65% occupied, while the kiosks in the central walkways are still doing well: probably 80% were put to some kind of use.
Now for the part I enjoy most: seeing what kind of people use the mall, and how they adopt the space as a very comfortable means of congregation. This is where I defend malls against attacks that they are culturally deadening destroyers of downtowns: while this may to a small degree be true (I will argue more on this at a later post), these malls also become a public forum for the surrounding community, a place for spontaneous encounters, and one that facilitates casual congregation quite effectively. Teenage mallrats become stereotypical denizens of such places not just because they like to shop; even those with no disposable income go to the mall because it is the best place to randomly encounter other people. Even dying malls sometimes manage this effectively. And as uncomfortable as it may be, I cannot reasonably analyze a mall’s shift without mentioning race—in nearly all instances of a locality’s shift in demographics, race and ethnicity plays a critical role. The same can be said of these two malls in
I went to
Some parts, where the in-line stores were at the highest vacancy, were understandably the least crowded:
The food court, of which about half the restaurant spaces were empty, had become a desirable hangout apparently for late-middle aged and retired African American men, who were socializing and playing cards when I was there.
The racial demographics have changed significantly at the mall since its 1968 construction. My estimate of the ethnic composition on the few times I’ve visited in the past three years is that it is about 50% black or African American, 5% white, 35% Hispanic/Latino, and 10% Asian (strongly skewed to Southeast Asian). This picture reflects the participation level of many of the remaining whites visiting the mall:
An elderly gentleman walking, clearly for exercise, since there is no discernable destination in the shuttered department store behind him. This is where, in cities that have a largely suburban and auto-oriented built environment, malls have proven to be an effective substitute (at least from their peak years of 1960 to 1990) of the impromptu personalization of public space that William H. Whyte witnessed in Manhattan in his book (and popular accompanying documentary) The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980). The placement of furniture at the vertices of various passageways in malls, the broad seating areas alongside fountains with skylights, even faux-urban accentuations such as clock towers, cupolas, or awnings clearly mimic the desirable features of a city center. Malls, of course, have the added advantage of centralized management, climate control, and lockable points of entry. By many standards they were better sanctuaries for retail than downtowns; the fact that they could only emulate but not replicate the positive aspects of urban shopping no doubt contributed to their decline at a time when most large cities (Indianapolis included) are focusing on building downtown retail.
This is why the elderly mallwalkers and card players in
I would love to document more of the activities I saw in common area at
On my way out I covertly snapped a few more shots of in-line stores, because I had to get the retail mix. As is the case in most of the malls documented on Labelscar or Deadmalls, the downgrade of retail usually reflects a departure of national chains and the arrival of local enterprise, social services, or chains that target a minority group.
The outparcels—detached buildings within the perimeter of the mall property—were particularly desolate, with a vacancy rate well over 50%. Among the outparcels is a former movie theater that is now being used as a church:
This isn’t the only church within
The conclusions one can easily draw from visiting both the inside and periphery of Lafayette Square Mall is that it is the archetypal inner ring mall in a postwar suburban setting. Though part of
Washington Square Mall is built almost entirely on my own observations; it has not yet been profiled in any of the websites on dying malls, though several people have mentioned it. It lies close to the eastern boundary of
I visited the
As of this posting,
The mall’s food court is relatively full, and the mall still has a few sit-down restaurants not associated with the food court, including the
As mentioned earlier, the anchor space is predominantly full. Burlington Coat Factory (seen above) tends to feast on struggling malls and is usually not seen as a bellwether for prolonged retail prosperity. Macy’s departure left the one major vacancy, but Sears remains. The other two anchors are major brands with solidly middle-class reputations: Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods. However, these anchors tend to thrive on their own and depend less on proximity to a mall; they fail to harmonize with the specialty retail of in-line stores in the same way a department store would. Thus, people often go simply to Dick’s or Target (or even Burlington Coat Factory) without venturing into the common area. The result is that the hallways of
The remaining retail in the area is, like
Property managers are unlikely to crave these more service-based tenants because they generate a fragment of the foot-traffic that goods-based retail does. Meanwhile, some vendors just sold a variety of knickknacks with no discernible theme—or, in this case, not even an identifiable name to the store:
And it’s not usually a good sign if a police reserve takes over as an in-line tenant:
As I conclude this post, I feel less comfortable with the analysis because so much is based on hearsay and a few shallow visits to something which I am trying to chronicle. If I had been a regular patron of either of these malls growing up, I’m sure this would have been a more compelling comparison. Nonetheless, despite having access to very few of the numbers (showing mall traffic, average leasing rates, or revenue per square foot) I am going to take my observations of the malls (as well as the neighborhoods that surround them) and draw several conclusions:
1) Both malls are at almost identical levels of fiscal health. While
2) The prognosis for both malls is inauspicious. My suspicion is that, if they survive the current economic downturn, both malls will remain at the current level of occupancy for the next few years, largely because the anchor tenants will remain comparatively stable. Mall management at each—Ashkenazy and Simon—have found the right mix for their target demographics. In-line tenants will fare far worse in
3) Long-term prospects for the
I do not think either mall is at a point where closure appears inevitable: the current economy is undoubtedly putting them under even greater strain, but they may emerge as generally successful discount malls if their respective management remains committed to routine maintenance, strict security, and vigorous tenant recruitment, regardless of whether or not the tenants are national chains. The Iverson Mall outside of
In a nation with the highest retail square footage per capita in the world (further referenced in my dead strip mall blog), the overbuilding of shopping centers becomes much more obvious when the surrounding neighborhood loses much of its spending capacity through a change in residents. Many of the strip malls around