Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A tale of two (floundering) malls.


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. Country Club Plaza remains a premier shopping destination to this day, making it the longest-lived planned shopping center in the world.

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 Harvey, Illinois, which closed in 1979 after only thirteen years in operation. It achieved notoriety after director John Landis rented the space to film a famous chase scene within the mall in The Blues Brothers, in 1980 after it had been closed a year. Like the shopping center I described in Plainfield a few weeks ago, economists attribute most mall failures to a shift in demographics in the trade area (usually to something less affluent than what was there at the time of the mall’s construction), or the development of a newer mall close by that lures all the business away from the older one. Dixie Square Mall’s demise is most likely attributed to the former of the two, because the Chicago suburb of Harvey suffered a massive outmigration of its middle class during the same years Dixie was in operation.

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 Indianapolis that by most standards are dying: Lafayette Square Mall on the near northwest side of town (also featured in Deadmalls.com) and Washington Square on the far east side. Both malls are still running, which indicate something about Indianapolis’ somewhat privileged mall culture: it is the headquarters of Simon Property Group, the single largest mall developer and operator and the largest Retail REIT in the world. Indianapolis has yet to experience a major mall closure. Compare this to Indianapolis’ twin city Columbus Ohio, which lost both the Northland Mall and the City Center Mall in the past few years. In addition, its Westland Mall is nearly dead, the Southland Shopping Center has been dismantled into a flea market, and the Eastland Mall is barely getting by with considerable vacancies. In Indianapolis, the only true casualty has been Eastgate, a 1950s neighborhood mall that began open-air and was quickly dwarfed by the larger regional centers. Simon is not single-handedly responsible for the prosperity of Indianapolis’ mall culture, but it certainly helps; the company has had a hand as a partner, sole developer, or manager of all the enclosed malls at one point or another. Columbus’s mall culture expanded rapidly in the late 90s and early 00s, effectively killing off the older malls (Northland, Westland, Eastland, etc) as the mall square footage was simply too great to support the population. Indianapolis has expanded its mall presence more conservatively, renovating when necessary, and aggressively seeking new anchor stores when one department store leaves or closes.

Nonetheless, Lafayette and Washington Square are clinging to life, and a quick visit to them both reveals how the retail mix has changed over time and what this reflects in the demographic shift of their respective trade areas. I have my own speculations as to the futures of these two malls, but I will first focus on Lafayette Square Mall:

This mall is the first major enclosed mall in the metro area; it opened in 1968 at the juncture of Lafayette Road and 38th Street, just west of the peculiar interchange with Interstate 65. (The only older mall is Glendale, which still survives, now as a cluster of box stores and small inline stores in an open air setting called Glendale Town Center.) It is the closest of the major malls to the city center and broadly served the west side for over two decades, with multiple expansions. Evidence of its decline began in 1995, when Circle Centre Mall opened downtown, stealing much of its client base with similar in-line stores and higher-end department stores (Nordstrom and the now-defunct Parisian). A renovation the next year helped breathe some life into the store, but only for a short time. The first anchor departed Lafayette Square in 2002, another left in 2004, and by 2005 the property managers (Simon Group, of course) we struggling to find newer discount tenants. Needless to say, the demographics had changed as well, as the Eagledale neighborhood nearby experienced white flight in response to growing crime both in the residential areas as well as at Lafayette Square. In addition, the outlying western suburb of Plainfield enjoyed rapid growth concomitant with the white flight of Eagledale; the growth was enough to spur the development of Metropolis in 2005, an outdoor shopping plaza, similar to a lifestyle center, but with on-street parking for cars alongside the broad pedestrian scaled sidewalks.

Simon Property Group sold the mall in December of 2007 to Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, a manager/developer that specializes in underperforming large-scale retail. Lafayette Square continued to hemorrhage department stores though, losing Sears at the beginning of 2009 and Macy’s a few months later. Thus, at this point the mall has no flagship department stores. Instead, it has an all-purpose ultra-discount called Shoppers World:

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 Indianapolis.

I went to Lafayette Square in mid-afternoon on a weekday—not usually a peak time for mall patronage, though busier than usual among teenagers because it was in the middle of summer. The mall was by no means bustling, but it was hardly dead either:

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 Lafayette’s food court are both a boon and a curse. While these individuals hardly embody the criminal element that often scared much of the white middle class from the mall and the surrounding region, they contribute to the sense of activity within a mall while doing little to supplement the revenue. The mall would scarcely want to kick them out for loitering, because no struggling mall can afford to sacrifice its reputation in order to exclude a population that is not overtly causing harm, but it would certainly be preferable to management if they would either purchase goods at the mall or take their congregation to a bona fide public space (such as a city park) rather than privately managed common area that is open to the general public. These individuals are sometimes part of the scene at economically healthy malls, but they are more prevalent at places like Lafayette Square with high vacancy precisely because they do not have to contend with crowds.

I would love to document more of the activities I saw in common area at Lafayette Square, but at about this point I was asked to leave by mall security. Clearly they don’t allow photograph taking at this mall (as is often the case), though they are far less likely to go after parents taking a picture of their child on the carousel then a strange man snapping photos all over the place while purchasing nothing. I’m far more of a concern than an elderly mall walker or poker player at the food court. I can respect this, and I was told that I may be allowed to photograph if I called management in advance and told them it was for a research paper. However, I was able to get most of the images I needed.

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. Lafayette Square had all of these. Long gone were the major clothiers such as Gap, Limited, Lane Bryant, or Old Navy; among the few major names that often survive a bit longer in struggling malls are Bath and Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, big shoe stores (Foot Locker, Finish Line), and for some reason Aeropostale seems to outlast the other trendy clothing brands. (Aeropostale was gone from Lafayette Square at this point, though it was still here during my last visit three years ago.) Kay Jewelers has survived here, though all the other major names have departed and local or lesser-known jewelry vendors have replaced them. The mall no longer has any sit-down restaurants, chain or independently managed. General Nutrition Center and Radio Shack are often the last soldiers standing in a truly dead mall; at Lafayette Square, the former remains in business while the latter appears to have closed. Aside from the relative preponderance of apparel targeting African Americans (usually classified as “urban wear”) or cell phone retailers, a few local stores catered to the large Indian and Pakistani population in the area:

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 Lafayette Square’s premises: another one is attached to the mall, with a predominant exterior entrance, housed in a particularly large in-line space that undoubtedly had a particularly large tenant specialty store in the past, perhaps even a Lazarus department store, as one person on Labelscar claims. Storefront churches such as this deserve a special mention: alas, they are almost always the telltale sign of plunging rental rates. Churches are not typically looking for expensive real estate; to see one in a mall’s department store space is evidence of how cheap it must be to rent at Lafayette Square. Property managers would also prefer anything else because churches generate little to no additional foot traffic; they are typically only busy on Sunday mornings when the rest of the mall is closed. Apparently one municipality in Virginia recently tried to ban them altogether from their Main Street in an attempt to encourage quality retail that would actually pay property tax and bring revenue to the city. However, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000 forbids a government from applying land use restrictions that disadvantage religious institutions. One blogger noted that such an effort may have prejudicial undertones: storefront churches tend to have predominantly minority congregations, or at least they target groups that may not have enough equity for new church construction and instead must rent.

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 Indianapolis city limits, Lafayette Square and the Eagledale neighborhood clearly came of age in a time of automobile dominance, specifically in the 1950s and 60s. The area’s decline from a mostly white, lower middle-class neighborhood to a largely minority area that is working class with pockets of poverty reflects areas all across the country that are similarly positioned in relation to their downtown. The deterioration of Lafayette Square precisely parallels the ascension of the booming suburb of Plainfield (mentioned earlier) and Avon, both further to the west outside of Indianapolis city limits. I have chronicled as much of this as possible with my own observations from over the years, though I still owe a great deal to Labelscar for the dates and precise details, as well as Deadmalls for empirical observations during its more prosperous years.

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 Indianapolis and neighboring Hancock county, at the intersections of Washington Street (Highway 40) and Mitthoefer Road, approximately five miles to the east of the now completely defunct Eastgate Mall. Perhaps chroniclers of struggling malls have failed to include it because its downfall has occurred much more recently, and the majority of attention in recent years was on the closure and subsequent redevelopment of the Eastgate Mall site. Washington Square bears fewer of the signs of a dying mall on paper: only one of its five anchors is vacant, it has still attracted some new tenants in recent years (including a new Kerasotes movie theatre in an outparcel), and it is still owned by Simon, the most successful mall property managers in the business. Many local bloggers seem to think the mall has successfully fended off death through Simon’s effective recruitment of anchors, after department stores like J.C. Penney, Lazarus, L.S. Ayres, and Montgomery Wards either moved, consolidated, or went out of business. However, a quick trip to the mall suggests that is most definitely is ailing.

I visited the Washington Square again on a summer weekday in the mid-afternoon, and it was noticeably less crowded than Lafayette Square. The inline vacancy seemed higher as well—most likely around 60% vacant. This view near the southern entrance shows the central spine of the mall in the far background, where most of the remaining major chains are concentrated.

As of this posting, Washington Square has a Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works, Radio Shack, Claire’s Boutique, Vitamin World, Hallmark Store, Kay/Zales Jewelers, and several mainstream shoe stores. And yes, it still has Aeropostale, clustered around most of the other aforementioned national brands:

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 Indianapolis based institution, MCL Cafeteria, which has long been popular with seniors. The senior community, in fact, was quite visible at various sites throughout the mall, lounging in groups or reading in solitude:

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 Washington Square often seem far more deserted than an 80% anchor store occupancy rate would suggest.

The remaining retail in the area is, like Lafayette Square, mostly local but also highly idiosyncratic. When rental rates are low, an anything-goes attitude among the property management allows for some surprising tenants:

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:

Like Lafayette Square, Washington Square has acquired the reputation of being unsafe. A neighboring apartment complex apparently entered into a Section 8 agreement with the local housing authority a few years ago, and many major chains (Gap, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton’s) left shortly thereafter. Like the area around Lafayette Square, the demographics have changed here over the years: the mall’s racial make-up appeared about 45% black/African American, 30% white, 20% Hispanic/Latino, and 5% Asian. Over half of the white visitors at the mall were senior citizens, which tends to be undesirable for vendors because they are often very conservative with their money; many of them, of course, are mallwalkers or simply use the mall as a livelier place to read. Retail vacancies in the surrounding area outside Washington Square are lower than Lafayette, but not by much: nearly 40% of the surrounding outparcels and strip mall space appeared vacant. However, I was never approached by security while taking pictures here, though I still was very apprehensive and thus was conservative with my photography.

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 Washington Square has a larger and more robust array of anchor tenants, it does not seem to be offering much to help activate the common space for in-line tenants. The common space at Lafayette Square appears much livelier, more appealing to children and families (thanks largely to the Xscape game room), and fewer vacancies, even if the tenants often target the low end of the market. Wikipedia claims that Simon renovated Washington Square in 1999, but the appearance—vaulted ceilings at intersections, terrazzo flooring, and faded signage—suggests the renovation was modest at best. Lafayette Square’s 1996 renovation is visibly dated and even cheaper looking, but it seemed like a more significant overhaul and allowed more natural sunlight. Both malls are on life support and are unlikely to attract any major new investment any time soon; any other major changes in the future will likely involve demolition of all or part of the structures.

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 Washington Square, where pedestrian traffic is particularly low. Aeropostale will be the next to go, then one of the national jewelers, and quirky mom-and-pop tenants or community services will replace them at a slower pace than the big names are vacating; not promising for the mall. Target, Burlington and Dick’s will survive unless the interior of the mall closes completely. Sears is the only anchor that seems likely to depart at this point. At Lafayette, in-line tenants are faring better, though any new vendors are likely to remain local businesses with a strong focus on the multi-national ethnic mix of the area. Ashkenazy claims to know what it’s doing for Lafayette Square: when I first heard of an arcade/go-kart center opening there I was apprehensive because it would tend to attract roving bands of teenagers, which are the exact group that scare away paying customers. Xscape at Lafayette Square, however, appears to draw mostly children under 10, so it may not pose such a problem. Simon has drawn a lot of negative attention among people on Indianapolis’ east side for seemingly abandoning Washington Square Mall; however, the economics and demographics around it are such a mixed bag that it is only due to Simon’s formidable efforts in alliance with the City that they were able to cajole Target and Dick’s to the mall. If Washington Square declines past the point of no return, however, and the interior reaches an 80% vacancy, Simon will probably divest itself of the property; the company is not in the habit or resuscitating dead malls.

3) Long-term prospects for the Lafayette Square area are better than Washington Square. Here’s where I admit I’m cheating a bit; I’m basing this conclusion largely on my knowledge of the overall fiscal health of these two parts of town. However, it does tie sharply to what is transpiring at both malls. The west side has experienced some white flight, but that population has simply moved outside the city limits to Plainfield. The west side is consistently being replenished through new immigrant arrivals; it may be the single highest concentration of foreign-born population in the metro area. Despite the high vacancy, resulting strip malls reveal the strong ethnic mix: halal meet markets, musica Latina, Desi video stores, Somali tea houses, a mega international grocer in a former K-Mart, and restaurants from Vietnam, Cuba, Peru, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South India, and so forth. Thus, the demographic shift and high retail vacancy around Lafayette has more to do with the area absorbing the shock of rapid racial and ethnic change. The opening of Metropolis in Plainfield couldn’t have helped, but Lafayette has had more than a competing mall to contend with. The nature of business in the near west and northwest side of Indianapolis has changed, but the level of commerce and overall numbers of people living there have not declined greatly. The same cannot be said about the east side, where Washington Square is located. A fashionable part of town through the seventies and early 1980s, the east side was hit hard by major factory closures that employed a sizable portion of the population. Warren Township, the jurisdiction in which Washington Square is located, is the only township beside Center Township (downtown Indianapolis) that lost population from 1980 to 1990. In general, the east side of Indianapolis is the only side where the suburbs are not growing rapidly. The white middle class of Warren Township didn’t just leave for the suburbs; many left the region altogether. Those that remain are often aging in their homes, and it is unlikely that a family of the same socioeconomic level will replace them. The sudden closure of Western Electric in 1984 sent a shock wave to many neighborhoods north of Washington Square Mall; entire neighborhoods from 25th Street north to 46th Street found their families out of work, with no buyers of a similar income level when they were forced to put homes for sale. Those neighborhoods, filled with homes built in the 1960s, are struggling with a much lower-income population than in the past. The east side has also already witnessed Eastgate Mall close its doors a few years ago, and immigrants are not replenishing the area at nearly the capacity as on the west side. Thus, Lafayette Square, for all its challenges, seems better equipped demographically to handle changes than the east side and Washington Square.

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 Washington DC almost exclusively consists of local businesses and discounters, targeting a working class minority population, and the occupancy rate when I visited last summer was over 90%. For both Lafayette and Washington Square, trying to return them to their golden days is a counterproductive pipe dream: malls will never have the same allure that they did, and the new population clearly has demands for different goods and services.

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 Lafayette Square and Washington Square should clearly go; they are superfluous and the land could be put to better use as a grassy lawn without all the impervious concrete, until an enterprising developer has a new idea for the land. The management of the two malls themselves, I believe, should work to keep them alive as something that represents a node for the community: the mallwalkers might not add a value that accountants recognize, but the open space of these malls clearly operates as a psychosocial center that gives them an embedded value. This ineffable “centeredness” to your average suburban mall is manifest through the nostalgic anecdotes on Deadmalls.com, and it eludes most developers who find it far easier to build something new on the greenfields in the exurbs. Finding the right link between 1) the idiosyncratic, multiethnic local retailers; 2) the improvised use of quasi-public space; and 3) the exogenous conditions that can make shopping a pleasant experience for both recreational and utilitarian shoppers will best determine the future appearance and operations for both of these down-but-not-out malls.

3 comments:

jesus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt E. said...

Eric-- whew, long post! Good analysis, as always. Interesting to note that in the Phila. area, several malls are hurting, but are countering the downward trends by turning outward.

I think the decline is due to a few things, all very simple:

1) Malls are aging.
Americans like new things. We see it with housing. Retail is really no different.

2) The Rise of "Category Killers" (chain stores).
The built environment is driven by what the most popular retail companies decide. The most popular retail companies are category killers, not traditional department stores. They decide to locate in strip malls and lifestyle centers, not malls-- so that's what happens.


3) Overabundance of retail space.
There's just way too much retail space out there. Just like housing in the south and west. The market is correcting itself, but the new retail is proving most popular (see #1).

I know this is oversimplification. But I think #2 is especially important. Think about it. Malls started declining in the 1990s, at the same time that stand-alone power centers started emerging near the malls and at highway interchanges. Coincidence? I don't think so. The recession is simply escalating the trend.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for your post, Matt--definitely right on target. I didn't think about category killers--the Petsmarts, the Office Depots, the Best Buys. It would be interesting to see whether they have posed bigger competition to in-line mall stores (i.e., smaller outlets such as KB Toys going out of business) or department stores, which have obviously seen their share of mergers and bankruptcies. Granted, even some category killers such as Linens 'n Things or Circuit City failed to remain solvent in recent months.

As for aging retail and its excesses, check out my posting on a dead strip mall in an otherwise thriving area at http://dirtamericana.blogspot.com/2009/07/why-is-retail-so-fickle.html that explores this in greater detail.