The reasons behind a collection of dead shopping malls in the Chicago suburbs

Another shopping mall in the Chicago suburbs closes, joining several other “dead” malls:

Last week, it was announced that Lincoln Mall in suburban Matteson would close after the holiday season, due to its operator’s inability to keep the mall properly maintained and staffed. However, the 700,000 square foot shopping center is not alone, as it joins a growing list of dead malls in the greater Chicagoland area. Chicago photographer Katherine Hodges has been documenting so-called dead malls and other abandoned sites for several years, and has visited numerous shopping centers throughout the Midwest that have either completely shuttered, or are on the verge of closing for good.

Hodges shoots many other sites beyond malls that are on death row, however the images of humungous vacant shopping centers speak for themselves. One mall that Hodges has highlighted — The Plaza in Evergreen Park — was the first modern shopping mall in the Chicago area, having originally opened in 1952. It closed last summer. The Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, another mall featured in Hodges’ series, is currently the focus of a major redevelopment effort that could potentially revive the shopping center.

With big empty spaces comes big problems. Some shopping centers have been successful in turning things around, and others — not so much (Lincoln Mall for example). However, with these vacant spaces come new opportunities, and in the case of Lincoln Mall, there have already been some ideas floated for a possible redevelopment of the property. It’s still a bit early to speculate exactly what will happen to the site, but at least for now, it’s certain that the mall will join the area’s growing shopping center dead pool.

There are a variety of forces at work with these shopping malls – and I’ll throw out some speculative ideas as well:

1. The economic crisis of recent years did not help: consumer spending slowed and stores simply couldn’t have locations all over the place.

2. Population shifts can contribute. Malls are often built in thriving suburban areas but there are no guarantees that the communities around the malls will continue to thrive.

3. Big box stores can locate right next to malls but probably compete for customers. Outside of department stores, malls feature a variety of smaller, niche stores. But, a Walmart or a Target can sell a bunch of goods in one location.

4. How much has the Internet hurt malls? This would include actual sales but might also include less need for a physical social gathering spot (which can now happen online).

5. Malls themselves have changed design over the years. The old model was to construct a large facility of stores with lots of surrounding parking lots. More malls today have added other uses, particularly sit-down restaurants, in order to attract people to the mall and keep them there longer. Malls are not just for shopping; they are now often lifestyle centers.

It may be difficult to imagine but suburban shopping malls don’t have to exist in the future.

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