The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Dying Malls — A Sign of the Suburban Apocalpyse

The vacant Randall Park Mall in North Randall, OH, outside Cleveland.  The mall is slated for demolition.  Source:
I often write about the social and cultural dynamics of cities, but I’ve been a planner long enough and in enough places to discuss the economic and impending physical changes occurring in our suburbs, too.  

Over the last month or so I’ve seen a flurry of articles documenting the slow demise of one of America’s suburban experiment foundations — the shopping mall.  In November, it was announced that Lincoln Mall, in Matteson, IL, would be closed after the holiday season by court order, due to poor maintenance and excessive vacancies.  An article in December, right in the midst of the holiday shopping season, said that Northland Center mall in Southfield, MI, just outside of Detroit, was facing possible foreclosure, following the same deferred maintenance and vacancy pattern as Lincoln Mall.  Just two weeks later, Macy’s announced that it would close its underperforming 500,000 square foot store at Northland, leaving the mall with zero retail tenants.  The Northland Target is scheduled for closure on February 1, and JC Penney and Sears left several years ago.  An article in yesterday’s Muncie (IN) Star Press highlighted problems with malls there and in other central Indiana cities, but seemed slightly in denial of the pressures they face.  After all, a new shopping center, Muncie Marketplace, opened this fall virtually next door to the older Muncie Mall, indicating the drawing potential of the city’s first regional mall.

Uh huh.

The collapse of the Northland Center mall is particularly personal to me, since I grew up about 3 miles away from it in Detroit, just to the southeast.  Northland opened in 1954 as one of the nation’s first and largest traditional suburban malls.  It started as an open-air mall that was enclosed in the 1970’s in an attempt to confront growing competition from shopping centers in outlying areas.  I remember the mall as one bustling with activity.  It was unique among malls in that it had a main anchor (Hudson’s, which became Macy’s) at the mall’s center instead of at the edges, and smaller retailers surrounded it facing landscaped plazas.  Here are a couple 1950’s vintage photos of Northland, which looks very much like it did through my teen years in the late ’70s/early ’80s:


And if you think the first picture above makes the mall look like a conventional airport terminal layout, you would be right.

Northland and the city of Southfield tried to get things right early on, at least in the suburban experiment sense.  Located at the far southeast corner of Southfield, the broader Northland area drew shoppers and entertainment seekers from Oak Park and other suburbs to the east, and from much of west and northwest Detroit immediately to the south.  The mall anchored a much broader area (outlined in orange below) that included office buildings, hotels, apartments and condos, a hospital, restaurants, movie theaters and the like:

The mall and the entire area probably reached its peak in the early ’80s and has been in decline ever since.  The city of Southfield may bear as much blame as anyone for the fall of Northland.  The Southfield Town Center, just two miles northwest of Northland and constructed in the mid ’70s, cannibalized Northland as it began to pull the office, hotel and entertainment uses away as soon as it was developed.  Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi (built in 1977) and Great Lakes Crossing (built in 1998) pulled retailers and shoppers away.  Northland tried to compete as an “urban contemporary” mall that catered to minority shoppers, but that simply forestalled its demise.  A visitor today to the area outlined above would find a decaying area with an array of vacant commercial structures, crumbling infrastructure and marginal retailers — and yet an area that, quite honestly, belies the relative strength of the middle income residential areas that surrounds it.

This is one of many existential crises for suburbia, and one that is far more visible to shoppers, commuters and elected officials than, say, the accelerating decline of residential areas or commercial corridors.  There is mounting evidence from industry insiders that this is a growing phenomenon, with particular impact on middle-market centers:

With income inequality continuing to widen, high-end malls are thriving, even as stolid retail chains like Sears, Kmart and J. C. Penney falter, taking the middle- and working-class malls they anchored with them.

“It is very much a haves and have-nots situation,” said D. J. Busch, a senior analyst at Green Street. Affluent Americans “will keep going to Short Hills Mall in New Jersey or other properties aimed at the top 5 or 10 percent of consumers. But there’s been very little income growth in the belly of the economy.”

So what to do with these spaces?  Scrap them.   Let them die so they can live again.  Begin the process of retrofitting the suburban mall landscape into the development fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods.

This will be tough for many suburban leaders to hear.  Many cities have become so dependent on sales tax revenue from malls that they simply cannot envision a future without it.  They become absolutely invested in finding ways to stabilize their cash cow.  But it’s a fool’s errand.

Fortunately for suburbs, many cities whose downtowns are currently witnessing a resurgence learned lessons the hard way as the burbs were forging ahead with the wind at their backs.  The strongest downtowns employed lessons during dark times that are paying dividends today.  Here’s a quick list of retrofitting items:

Understand your market area and the niche your mall area can fill.  The cannibalization of the retail market means that some former regional malls may never regain that status.  Shopping patterns and habits change.  But clear-eyed and sober analysis can identify what your strengths are and you can build on them.

Eliminate the sea of parking and reintroduce the street network.  A truism many people forget: scarcity increases the demand for something; abundance reduces it.  Dead and dying malls that have an abundance of parking lots only reinforce the image of their collapse.  Suburbs must reconnect mall areas with surrounding neighborhoods.

Pursue mixed-use development, NOT simply a mix of uses within a development.  Many mall areas are in suburbs that have a housing stock that is 80-90% single family homes, with little opportunity to diversify.  Mall areas represent an opportunity to introduce new housing types into your community, and develop a built in market for smaller-scale commercial uses.  Also, it’s critical that different uses occupy the same space and are not separated within the same development; that defeats the purpose.

Become pedestrian and transit friendly.  Areas that have a pleasant streetwall that minimizes setbacks and allows pedestrians to enjoy the environment will do better than those that don’t.  And if your community is not transit friendly now, learn how.

Utilize open space, civic space and institutional uses creatively to establish a sense of place.  One of the clearest and surest ways to bring back a sense of place to a former mall area might be through the creation of a park or plaza, or through the creative introduction of schools, churches and civic offices.  This will be especially necessary as communities realize that there simply isn’t a market for the 2 million square feet of mall retail anymore, and that something far short of that might be much more feasible.

Going back to Northland, I believe that area has strengths that can lead it to revitalization — but not in its present mall configuration.  There are reasonable residential densities that surround the area.  There is modest income in the area.  There are still office and other uses in the area, starting with the hospital, that can be an anchor for future development.  But city leaders must let go of the mall mentality there to make revitalization real.

Suburbs that are able to negotiate this transformation will inch closer to future viability and sustainability.  Those that don’t?  Well, let’s just say many may be destined to wander the wilderness for some time.  I hope they figure it out.

3 Responses to “Dying Malls — A Sign of the Suburban Apocalpyse”

  1. Linnaeus

    I grew up just a few miles from Oakland Mall; my father still lives in that house and I stay there with him when I go to visit. Based on my admittedly unsystematic observations, the mall seems to be doing okay – it hasn't lost any of its anchor stores, but one of them has changed a few times (Hudson's>Marshall Field's>Macy's). But it doesn't draw the crowds it used to. I remember 20-30 years ago when the parking lots would fill nearly completely during the holiday shopping season. Now there's way more parking than the mall needs. I'm sure that the expansion of Somerset a few miles away and Great Lakes Crossing drew shoppers away from Oakland, and I think internet shopping has had a sizeable impact as well. It will be interesting to see if the community has any vision for what to do with that area, especially if the mall starts to go the way of Northland. To be honest, I'm skeptical.


  2. Anonymous

    Population loss and economic decline is certainly a factor contributing to dying malls, but I think the primary cause is overbuilding commercial real estate. The first two malls in the Pittsburgh area were Northway Mall (1962) and Eastland Mal (1963). Eastland Mall became the quintessential \”dying mall\” after Monroeville Mall (1969) and Century III Mall (1979) opened, which siphoned away business. Then came the collapse of the economy in the Pittsburgh area during the 1980s, which annihilated the Monongahela River Valley towns that the mall served. By the 1990s, all that was left of Eastland Mall was the DMV and an indoor flea market. The mall was razed 10 years ago. Interestingly enough, Century III Mall is now moribund itself, due to its location in Pittsburgh's aging southern suburbs near the Mon Valley, which has never recovered from the economic collapse in the 1980s. Century III Mall has been mortally wounded by the opening of The Waterfront (2000), which serves not only the Mon Valley but also the relatively well-off East End neighborhoods in the city of Pittsburgh, and the more upscale focus of South Hills Village (1965) in the last 20 years to better serve the wealthy southern suburbs down U.S. 19. As for Northway Mall, its decline has been a bit more graceful, though that probably has something to do with its proximity to wealthy suburbs. Nonetheless, Ross Park Mall (1986) made Northway Mall redundant, and it's since been reduced to a \”power center\” known as The Shoppes at Northway.Interestingly enough, all the malls in Allegheny County except Century III are doing fairly well, and I attribute that to a relative lack of \”leapfrog\” development in the last 20 years. Ross Park Mall has been remodeled and moved much more upscale with the addition of Nordstrom. South Hills Village is flourishing as well, despite its small size. In fact, The Galleria at Mt. Lebanon is enjoying the spillover with several upscale tenants of its own that couldn't find space in South Hills Village. Another advantage for South Hills Village that I hope other Pittsburgh-area malls eventually have is light rail access. And though Monroeville Mall has developed a more negative reputation in recent years due to brawls and crash mobs by unruly teenagers, it's still nearly full and doing pretty good business. Part of this is because Monroeville remains the only cluster of commercial development in Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs. In fact, the entire William Penn Highway corridor remains bustling, without many commercial vacancies. And despite the population loss in the Pittsburgh area over the last few decades, there was still room for growth because some areas were underserved. The Mall at Robinson (2001) serves Pittsburgh's western suburbs, and has complemented Robinson Town Centre very well. It's also far enough away from Ross Park Mall and South Hills Village that it barely siphoned off any business from either of them. In fact, one advantage it has is that it's only a 20- to 30-minute drive from the Weirton/Steubenville area in the panhandle of West Virginia and east-central Ohio.The fact that Allegheny County has five thriving malls despite four decades of population loss illustrates that the problem might not be the population loss so much as it is foolish economic development strategies. Redundant commercial development in the Pittsburgh area ended in the 1980s with the lone exception of The Waterfront, and even that wasn't exactly \”leapfrog\” development, but rather, a move back closer to the city. Show me a list of dead or dying malls, and I'll show you a list of malls that were either leapfrogged by redundant commercial development, or built in small towns without enough population nearby to support a mall.


  3. Pete Saunders

    You are spot on. Leapfrogged development tends to be the cause of death for many dying malls, all in the name of economic development. But the fact also is that cities and developers must recognize that the mall template is not a constant, and that it requires adaptation.In Northland's case, as I say above, the beginning of the end was when the Southfield Town Center was built in the mid-'70s. It pulled away the office, hotel and entertainment pieces of the Northland development first. Then shortly after malls like Somerset, Twelve Oaks, Oakland, Great Lakes Crossing all pushed in to pull shoppers first and retailers second.There's also a racial component happening at nearly the same time. Southfield became the black middle class suburban destination in the '70s and it resegregated rather quickly. The new residents had similar income levels as the old ones and still do, but historically retailers have done a poor job catering to middle and upper-middle income blacks.



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