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.

Trying to save a Sears home in Oakbrook Terrace

Historic preservation is a common topic in older suburbs and one effort in Oakbrook Terrace features a more unusual Sears home:

The city purchased the house of the late longtime city clerk Lorraine Fik in 2008 with plans to demolish it to create a retention pond when it builds a new police station east of city hall. That work is expected to start this summer.

Saving the house, located across from city hall at 17W245 16th St., would require the city to provide water retention by other means, such as under the police station — a more costly option.

The move to preserve the house began after the recently formed historical society contacted architectural historian Rebecca Hunter of Elgin, who found proof of the home’s authenticity in the markings on the basement floor joists. The prefabricated home was built by Lorraine Fik’s husband, Edward, around 1950, and Lorraine had her clerk’s office in the basement until the city got a building of its own.

Kelly Fik, Lorraine’s youngest son, provided the historical society with photos of the house being delivered by truck and read a letter from the Fik family at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

These mail order Sears homes were produced in the early 1900s. Here are some more examples of Sears homes from the Chicago suburbs. On one hand, such homes are unusual and prior to the post-World War II era, mass produced homes were more rare. The era of the large-scale builder had not yet arrived. On the other hand, the homes don’t appear to be too unusual. Why save these homes just because they happened to come through a catalog over other homes built in the same era?

Another note: it is interesting to look at some of these examples and see how people have altered the Sears homes over the years.

Replacing the Chicago suburbs’ first shopping mall with a lifestyle center

A number of older shopping malls have not aged well. Randhurst Village in Mount Prospect now stands where the Chicago suburbs’ first shopping mall once stood:

When Randhurst first opened in 1962, carved from a farm at Rand and Elmhurst roads in Mount Prospect, it announced that the Northwest suburbs had arrived, said Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Mount Prospect Historical Society and author of “Randhurst: Suburban Chicago’s Grandest Shopping Center.”

Peerbolte emphasized the importance of the mall in the development of the suburbs. “Randhurst didn’t open the floodgates; Randhurst was the floodgate,” he said…

By 2007, the village of Mount Prospect felt something drastic had to be done. Randhurst had already had several “makeovers,” and the village’s leadership felt another one would be ineffective. Officials worried for their sales tax receipts, which are key to having the money to run the village’s public services.

The village partnered with Casto Development and took a bold shot — tear it down, and start over.

The new structure seems to represent the new wave of mall development: it is a “lifestyle center” with a variety of uses that helps guarantee a steady flow of visitors. Such a move might help visitors drop older ideas about malls, sterile buildings surrounded by acres of parking lots, and start seeing them as vibrant places that may even double as “community centers.”

The article suggests that Mount Prospect was unusual in taking the step of completely tearing down the old structure and starting anew. Since previous revitalization efforts had failed, perhaps this was the only move remaining. At the same time, it seems like a community would have to be pretty confident or secure in order to make this move.

St. Charles the #1 city according to Family Circle

Chicago’s western suburbs have received awards in the past. For example, Wheaton was named an All-American city in 1968 and in the 2000s, Naperville was named a top 5 community several times by Money. Now St. Charles, roughly 35 miles west of Chicago, can join the party:

After hearing St. Charles had been named the No. 1 city in the country to raise a family by Family Circle magazine, Ray Ochromowicz said he just wanted to throw his hands in the air…

St. Charles was the only city in the state that made Family Circle’s list.

The magazine chose St. Charles for its “friendly neighborhoods, innovative schools and beautiful parks” according to a news release. The conditions considered were “affordable housing, good neighbors, green spaces, strong public school systems and giving spirits.”…

To get to No. 1, Family Circle selected 2,500 cities and towns with populations between 15,000 and 150,000. It narrowed the list to 1,000, and each town had to have a median income between $55,000 and $95,000. After being graded on criteria, the 10 winners were chosen to be featured in Family Circle, which publishes 15 times a year and has 20 million readers.

See Family Circle‘s top 10 list here. The description of St. Charles is what you would expect from such awards: it has good schools, nice but affordable homes, and there is “community spirit.” (I wonder if it has any problems…)

Based on what other suburban communities have done with these awards, here is what we can expect: St. Charles will feature this award for years and civic leaders can show “proof” of the greatness of their community. Family Circle may not be a big name magazine but it has a monthly circulation of 3.8 million and it appeals to families, exactly the kind of people a place like St. Charles might hope to attract.

Of course, these lists are affected by their criteria. For this Family Circle list, why limit incomes to between $55,000 and $95,000 or set the lower population limit at 15,000? There are certain value judgments present here that might reflect what might motivate a typical American suburban adult to live in a certain community but they might not exactly fit the bill.

The methodology behind Money’s 2010 best places to live

Every year, Money magazine publishes a list of “the best places to live.” I’ve always enjoyed this list as it attempts to distill what communities truly match what people would desire in a community. The winner in 2010 (in the August issue) was Eden Prairie, Minnesota

But one issue with this list is how the communities are selected. In 2009, the list was about small towns, communities between 8,500 and 50,000. In 2010, the list was restricted to “small cities,” places with 50,000 to 300,000 residents. Here is how the magazine selected its 2010 list of communities to grade and rank:

Start with all U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 to 300,000.

Exclude places where the median family income is more than 200% or less than 85% of the state median and those more than 95% white.

Screen out retirement communities, towns with significant job loss, and those with poor education and crime scores. Rank remaining places based on housing affordability, school quality, arts and leisure, safety, health care, diversity, and several ease-of-living criteria.

Factor in additional data on the economy (including fiscal strength of the government), jobs, housing, and schools. Weight economic factors most heavily.

Visit towns and interview residents, assessing traffic, parks, and gathering places and considering intangibles like community spirit.

Select the winner based on the data and reporting.

A couple of questions I have:

1. I agree that it can be hard to compare communities with 10,000 people and 150,000 people. But can the list from each year be called “the best place to live” if the communities of interest change?

2. I wonder how they chose the median income cutoffs. So this cuts out places that might be “too exclusive” or “not exclusive enough.” Are these places not desirable to people?

3. Some measure of racial homogeneity is included in several steps. How many home buyers desire this? We know from a lot of research that whites tend to avoid neighborhoods with even moderate levels of African-Americans.

4. Weighting economic factors heavily seems to make sense. Jobs and economic opportunities are a good enticement for moving.

5. I would be interested to see what kind of information they collected on their 30 community visits. How many residents and leaders did they talk to? How does one measure “community spirit”? If a community says it has “community spirit,” how exactly do you check to see whether that is correct?

Overall, this is a complicated methodology that accounts for a number of factors. What I would like to know is how this list compares with how Americans make decisions about where to live. Do people want to move up to places like this and then stay there or is the dream for many to move on to more exclusive communities (if possible)? How many Americans could realistically afford to or possibly move into these communities?

(A side note: the four Chicago suburbs in the top 100 for 2010: Bolingbrook at #43, Naperville at #54, Mount Prospect at #56, and Arlington Heights at #59. Naperville used to rank much higher earlier in the 21st century – I wonder how it has slipped in the rankings.)