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Mourning the Mall

Why enclosed shopping centers across America are being indefinitely shuttered

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I can still recall the aroma of Auntie Anne’s soft pretzels wafting through the stale air of the mall in Dayton, Ohio – my child-sized hand clutching my grandmother’s as we waded through the sea of truant teenagers and off-work moms, on our mission to one of the department store anchors.

The mall was a staple of my younger years. I’d go to Lazarus (bought-out by Macy’s in 2005) with my grandmother on her almost-weekly pilgrimages; and as a teen, I’d ride the number 17 bus from my suburban neighborhood with several friends in tow, to spend the afternoon wasting time at Hot Topic, GameStop and F.Y.E. But those days are gone, and not because I grew up.

A few months ago, my brother told me about a Cincinnati mall that was almost completely abandoned. Not being a Queen City native, I had never explored the outer-reaches of the city to an in-depth extent, so I was ready for an adventure – and it was an adventure, to say the least.

Forest Fair Mall opened in Fairfield, Ohio, in phases throughout 1988 and 1989. Erected in a predominantly blue-collar neighborhood, the mall boasted luxury retailers like Bonwit Teller, Sakowitz and B. Altman – hardly a suitable lineup for the area’s demographics. A few miles away, its rival (and eventual conqueror, depending on who you ask), Tri-County Mall, housed the mid-price-range retailers local residents truly desired, which didn’t bode well for the new complex.  

By 2002, less than 50 percent of the mall was occupied, despite efforts to revamp its offerings. That same year, the Mills Corp. (now owned by Simon Property Group and Farallon Capital Management), bought the mall, kicked out the remaining non-anchors, rebranded with lower-priced retailers and renamed it the Cincinnati Mills Mall. The discount shopping center again saw an influx of business that lasted through the late 2000s. After switching hands several more times, the Forest Fair Village, as it’s now called, remains a mostly vacant eyesore. (Its current owners promise to flip it into a mixed-use lifestyle center – there’s even been talk of an indoor ice skating rink and mountain bike range.)

If it already sounds bad, it gets worse: Currently, the 1.5 million-square-foot mall houses only 10 retailers and two anchors – Babies“R”Us and Kohl’s (Bass Pro Shops is set to leave in 2015). The final stragglers include Foot Locker, Arcade Legacy (a video game/arcade store) and The Screens movie theater, along with several mom-and-pop consignment stores.

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All its (functioning) lights are on, music is blasting and the entire complex is open to the public. Only a handful of mall walkers grace its halls, unknowingly protected by a single Segway-riding security guard. Arched skylights illuminate the space, and its curving architecture draws your eye from the structure’s expansive ceilings to its clean, carpeted and vinyl floors. I walked the entire mall – each corridor – and besides a couple spots where water damage had seeped into the ceiling near an old Showcase Cinemas, and dust on some of its larger props and decor, the mall isn’t in terrible shape.

So why are malls dying? It seems there are many reasons. An article from PBS.org points to the increase in online retail and the decrease in middleclass families’ incomes – a mall’s main demographic. Business Insider quoted Green Street Advisors, a real estate and REIT analytics firm in Newport Beach, Calif., as predicting the closure/non-retail rebranding of 15 percent of U.S. malls within the next 10 years.   

Besides the decrease in middleclass families’ incomes, money is moving from the suburbs back to the cities. Case in point: Retail used to exist primarily downtown. As growing families in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s moved from crowded cities to the idyllic life in the suburbs, retail followed suit. Now the trend has inverted.

My fellow millennials – specifically those who grew up in the ‘burbs, but really longed for the excitement of city-life – are making the trek back to the concrete jungles. It’s happening here in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where dilapidated buildings are being flipped into luxury apartments and bearded, plaid-wearing twenty-somethings roam the city blocks instead of strung-out drug dealers.

Just like politics, retail moves where the money is, and if it isn’t in the suburbs anymore, it can’t sustain itself there. According to CBS News, a new mall hasn’t been built in the U.S. since 2006 – just more proof that it’s no longer a viable shopping solution.

Some malls have combated their dying sales by knocking down walls and transforming into “outdoor lifestyle centers” that resemble small towns – some even house apartment complexes. Even so, these “mall cities” closely resemble the downtowns to which their losing formerly-suburban millennial customers – more proof that the reign of the climate-controlled compounds are coming to a painful end in America.

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And while Dubai prepares to open its 8 million-square-foot Mall of the World, I can’t help but wonder when the photographs of its vast interior will grace the webpages of deadmalls.com. It could be five years, it could be 20, but I’ll bet on it.

Carly Hagedon is the Associate Editor of VMSD magazine. She lives and works in Cincinnati and is a 2011 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, where she studied Journalism—Magazine Writing and American history. Prior to her foray into the retail industry, Carly worked as a freelancer and writer for several local publications and interned at Cincinnati Magazine.

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