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Dinosaur malls? Some say they’re headed for extinction

The cover of Seph Lawless’ new book “Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall,” which is part of his “American Autopsy” project.
The cover of Seph Lawless’ new book “Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall,” which is part of his “American Autopsy” project.

Last week, Slate published photos of empty, decaying shopping malls from a new book “ Black Friday” by photographic artist Seph Lawless, a part of his “ Autopsy of America” project. The images are arresting, and the timing couldn’t be better.

Abandoned malls are hot, but not exactly in the way they want to be.

The Dead Malls Enthusiasts Facebook group boasts almost 14,000 members, and their website has been up and running since 2001; a Google search of “dead malls” produces 5.7 million results; and the desolate interiors of these unused retailing meccas keep making cameos in thrillers and horror films. They use terms like “ghostbox” to describe big empty stores and “label scar” for the outlines of where signs once hung.

The images point to some fundamental changes in suburban America and the retailing experience, though urbanists who hope that failing malls will aid downtown revitalization might be sorely disappointed. The reality, as one might expect, is more complex.

Here are a few things to consider:

A dying breed: What some writers used to call the malling of America is done. Try to find anyone breaking ground for a new regional shopping mall, those hulking structures with 100-plus stores surrounded by vast asphalt parking lots. Since 1990, when 16 million square feet of mall space opened, building has tailed off, and 2007 was the first year in more than four decades when no large malls opened in the U.S. Only one has opened since then, in 2012.

Yesterday’s less sustainable suburban development types – malls, office parks, and commercial strips – are increasingly being retrofitted into more sustainable, more urban places with buildings and spaces that foster communal support, diversity and reduced vehicle miles traveled.

Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail consulting and investment banking firm Davidowitz & Associates, Inc. told CNN that he believes half the nation's 1,500 malls will fail in the next 20 years.

There’s just one catch: Malls that are failing tend to be in areas where the entire local economy is in the dumps, making it hard to see how urban retailing would benefit. In fact, some of the defunct malls are in the center of cities that adopted the suburban shopping-mall model in a futile effort to bring people downtown.

This becomes clear just by eyeballing the list of dying and abandoned mall by state, listed appropriately enough, on the website deadmalls.com. New York leads the pack at 42, almost all of them upstate. It’s no coincidence that five of the 10 slowest-growing metropolitan areas cited in a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors were in upstate New York. Pennsylvania is next on the dead-malls list, with 28; Illinois and Ohio are tied at 27.

California has relatively few at 12, which seems to buck the trend. They include the Central City Mall in San Bernardino, Fashion Island in San Mateo and the Tracy Outlets mall, which is more of a strip shopping center. Even the quintessential mall – the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles, which was used as the location for the ultimate mall movies “Valley Girl” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” – has been transformed from an enclosed shopping area into an open space and is now home to “mixed use” tenants. The only remnants of the original mall are the theaters.

And many malls, including those in midsize cities such as Modesto, are not in any danger of failing. “The vast majority of shopping centers and malls in particular are doing quite well, and have been doing well since the recession,” Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, told CNN.

Also speaking to CNN, D.J. Busch of Green Street Advisors predicted that only 15 percent of all American malls will fail or be repurposed in the next 15 years. He said “low-quality malls” are a particular “competitive disadvantage.”

Buying online: This one is pretty obvious. The Web is doing to malls what malls did to downtowns. Anything J.C. Penney – a classic anchor store for many big malls – can sell, Amazon.com seems to be able to offer for less. Amazon also has the luxury of very patient shareholders who don’t demand immediate profits.

Online shopping is a force few standard retailers have managed to overcome. Since 1999, when Web sales were insignificant, e-commerce has soared. Sales in 2014’s first quarter topped $71 billion, an annual rate of almost $300 billion a year, equal to more than 6 percent of total U.S. retail spending.

The sense of community that teens and young adults once found by socializing at malls has also been displaced, in part, by social media. This, along with online shopping and carlessness, helps explain why foot traffic in all stores has declined so much.

Malls are still getting breaks.

Last year, Minnesota’s legislature approved $250 million in tax benefits to help pay for a doubling in size of the country’s second-biggest mall, Mall of America. The money came from a fund set up to reduce economic disparities between rich and poor areas. New Jersey, meanwhile, has funneled $390 million to a struggling mall project in the Meadowlands known as Xanadu that was supposed to open in 2006. The developers now expect the mall to open in 2016 with a new name – American Dream.

Bloomberg News

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