Few things defined the United States in the 1980s and 1990s quite like the shopping mall. And 21st-century pop culture has caught onto the trend, with shows like Stranger Things capturing all the nostalgia and neon aerobics-wear of late twentieth-century suburban shopping. Malls were a material celebration of monetary abundance, gaudy fashion and pre-Internet social interaction—a phenomenon we still find fascinating.
But the world in which malls were built has since shifted dramatically, and the typical American mall has yet to fully adapt to the modern realities of its market. The middle class is struggling, and young people—once the lifeblood of malls—now struggle with student loans, high rent and low-paying jobs; many simply do not have the same economic freedom their parents did at their age.
Last year, Business Insider reported that more than 8,600 malls closed in 2019. Real estate and investment bankers have predicted that between twenty and fifty percent of malls in the United States will close in the next one to two years. While “A malls” that cater to the ultra rich continue to thrive, B and C malls—often frequented by middle-income Americans—are largely shutting down, struggling to stay open in areas with high unemployment, declining populations and low wages.
Online sales may have risen steadily for the last decade, but they still only account for 11.5% of all retail sales made in the United States. Instead, Alissa O’Neill, architect for The Collaborative in Toledo, said in an interview that both ecommerce and retail giants like Walmart are giving the American mall increasing competition. Malls also often lose business when their anchor stores close or when their movie theaters and entertainment centers do not draw in a sufficiently profitable crowd.
Malls may also struggle with maintenance costs. Most malls close due to internal damage, and the most costly damages a mall can incur are problems with the roof. O’Neill said that most malls’ roofs are only meant to last for 20 to 30 years and are often made of cheap materials that do not hold up well to UV exposure, wind or debris. When replacing a large scale roof, even less expensive materials can present a significant cost.
But more than anything else, the biggest problem with malls is that there are too many of them, and the world in which they were built is gone. Because of this, faltering malls are not just the failure of a single business venture; they can signal failings in the community as well.
“We built more malls than we needed and now we’ve got these stresses,” O’Neill said. “By the time the mall goes out of business in your community, you’ve probably already seen the tenant mix inside the mall get worse and worse. You’re not usually that surprised when it closes, but it represents what you already feel in your community, that disinvestment.”
So what happens to these expansive buildings once they’re emptied out? Many times, nothing. The Midwest in particular has become a hub of “dead malls,” attracting urban explorers, photographers and amateur documentarians seeking to capture the haunting decay of what was once a symbol of American leisure and success. In other words, the idea of the mall has survived its physical existence, maintaining an ongoing interest and personal connection many people have to their local shopping centers.
Tracing the retail’s migration out of struggling Midwestern cities can be seen clearly in the history of the mid-size, mid-tier Middle American city of Toledo, Ohio, where efforts for downtown shopping put up an impressive but short-lived fight against suburbia, ultimately ending in shuttered shops in downtown and the suburbs alike. But perhaps even more interesting—if not entirely unique—is how Toledo’s used (or not used) the abandoned spaces.
Urban Retail Endeavors: Visionary but Short-lived
One particularly interesting case is Toledo’s Portside Festival Marketplace, which opened in 1984. Prior to the mall’s construction, Toledo had already been in steady decline for a decade as thousands moved out of the city and into the suburbs. During that time, all of the city’s department stores also closed, and the beloved Tiedtke’s Brothers Department Store had already burned down in 1975. Even today, only a handful of retail stores remain downtown, including a fur shop and an eclectic thrift store.
Due to this ongoing lack of commercial activity, local investors began raising funds for a shopping center based on similar facilities in Baltimore and Boston. The project was primarily funded by Toledo Trust and Owens Illinois; Enterprise was brought to Toledo to provide additional support and expertise. The city provided plenty of support for the project, including the construction of a new parking garage and hotel nearby—all in an attempt to revamp the downtown area. Unfortunately, what would become Portside Festival Marketplace was a short-lived endeavor.
Paul Hollenbeck, now president of the Toledo Design Collective’s board, recalls Portside as a bright spot in Toledo while it was still around. Many local entrepreneurs opened up shops there, selling everything from art supplies to kites. For two years, Portside was thriving and lively. Then, high rent and a lack of returning customers began driving tenants out and, five years after opening, Portside shuttered. And with it went millions in public investment and the hope it brought to the city’s redevelopment of economic activity downtown.
“There was a lot of public pride,” said Hollenbeck. “It made you feel good about being in Toledo. And then conversely, it made you feel really bad when it sat there and emptied out and became a shell of its original self.”
To Suburbia and Beyond
Portside wasn’t the only mall to attract Toledoans, though it was the only endeavor specifically crafted for downtown. The Toledo region has seen its fair share of come-and-gone retail, including retail’s move into the suburbs and beyond. With the construction of four major indoor shopping malls in surrounding suburbs (Woodville, Franklin Park, Southwyck, North Towne Square), popular Toledo Downtown department stores such as Lion’s Store, Lamson’s and LaSalle’s moved away from the urban core to stay competitive. Together with other national retail chains, these malls secured the attention of suburban shoppers outside the city core with architectural spaces that gesture more at Italian courtyards and British gardens than local urban-scapes—think Woodville’s terrazzo flooring and Center Court dome, and Southwyck’s Old English lighting fixtures.
Rivalry soon ensued between these four suburban indoor malls in the 70s and 80s to renovate and vie for consumer dollars, but as anchor stores shuttered their doors one after another, the amenities and the investment also moved further and further away from Toledo’s center. For example, two large outdoor “malls” opened on the fringe of suburbia next to cornfields and historical sites: Levis Commons in Perrysburg and Fallen Timbers in Maumee. Both of these are considered “lifestyle centers,” a decidedly outdoor concept whose practicality remains questionable for local residents.
From the perspective of the developer, sales are what matters in the life and death of malls; but sales are only one part of what makes a mall. There are also contextual factors like weather and local preferences that create the community in the space that indoor malls offer. Whether you like it or not, malls are oftentimes the only type of public space accessible to residents in the cold-climate towns of the Midwest. O’Neill from The Collaborative points out that malls often fill the need for a “third place,” or a place other than your home or workplace that offers social interaction.
Yet all this flurry of activity to create “an elaborate fiction” of main streets in suburban new-concept malls “discourage developers from concentrating on existing downtowns,” according to Dr. Alan Plattus, a Yale University professor of architecture. This was clearly the case for Toledo, as anchor stores first moved out from the city center to the suburbs, collapsing shopping culture in the downtown, and then forced a repeat of history when a new wave of development came through that pulled resources even further from the city.
Ultimately, in the 2000s, the development of the newest lifestyle centers were responsible for the final death blow to existing area malls. With a view for profit, anchor stores that own shares of the mall (and oftentimes its life or death) can easily pack up and move with little loyalty to its clientele and location. In the instance of Southwyck, the owners hired a local developer who was also ironically overseeing Southwyck’s biggest competitor, Fallen Timbers (only a fifteen-minute drive away). Unsurprisingly, two years later, Southwyck’s last and final anchor Dillard’s store jumped ship and set up shop in the new outdoor development. With such conflict of interest, is it any wonder new and bigger malls that contribute little to the city of Toledo have been successfully financed and constructed, while the original three of four Toledo-area malls have become vacant or demolished eyesores in their respective neighborhoods?
Even when malls close, their closure opens up new imaginative possibilities for the space to become part of the community in a new way. In 1997, the Portside facility was refashioned into the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), a family science museum that was rebranded as the Imagination Station in 2009. Like Toledo did with Portside, many communities are also working to repurpose old mall buildings. Malls across the country have been converted to call centers, filming locations, charter schools and homeless shelters.
In some ways, Portside is a unique instance of an urban shopping mall experience, which distinguishes it from most malls that we know of today. Its strategic urban site on the riverfront, in some ways, made it worth saving. But this almost-inspiring story of creative structural reuse is not the case for most dying or dead malls in the area. First opened in 1972 and then demolished in 2009, the Southwyck Shopping Center in South Toledo (nearly reaching the suburb of Maumee) is an excellent instance of uninspired decay. For some 11 years, all that was left of the mall complex was an overgrown, untended parking lot. Local elementary school students even toured the area annually, finding fodder for creative, speculative projects about how vacant space in Toledo could better serve the community as public transit stations, homeless shelters and nontraditional parks.
Falling short of these young and perhaps idealistic dreams, the land plot was bought by Amazon in 2020 to be used as a massive 150,000 square-foot concrete box of a delivery station. Its contribution of 400 new jobs in the area, while needed and valuable, doesn’t serve the same needs of the public engagement and public space that the mall had once taken on.
But, of course, adaptive reuse isn’t always that simple. Hollenbeck of the Toledo Design Collective points out that there are already some issues with repurposing malls, particularly because of the way they’re built. He also does not think all malls have to be made into an “active use” but rather can be torn down and used in a “passive use,” such as as a public park.
For O’Neill, the redevelopment opportunities of a mall vary depending on the specific location. She believes that while Portside could be converted due to its openness and small size, this might not be possible for a larger facility or a mall in a more urban setting. She notes that other malls revamp themselves by including entertainment spaces or play parks to attract more families. And for malls that are in empty neighborhoods and no longer easily accessible to people nearby, she says the easiest solution may be to bulldoze the site and start over.
There is hope, however, for the American mall. Across the country, communities are continuing to build new malls and innovate with old ones. Still, in the face of shifting market patterns and increasing economic turmoil, the future of the shopping mall is ultimately uncertain.
“I don’t think shopping malls will be completely dead in my lifetime,” O’Neill said. “But beyond that I’m just not sure.”
But maybe the future of the American mall doesn’t look anything like its past, and perhaps there’s a need for more imaginative speculation about how space serves a community, how we gather together and share that space and what our communal future looks like.