Even Woodfield Mall could be enhanced by nearby high-density residential development

As shopping malls struggle, an area near Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg may soon include taller apartment buildings:

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Schaumburg officials are considering drafting regulations for potential redevelopment near the Northwest Transportation Center of Pace Suburban Bus that would permit high-density residential buildings, as well as one or more parking structures.

Trustees are poised to vote Tuesday to direct the village staff to prepare such a transit-oriented district bordered by Woodfield Road to the north, Martingale Road to the east, Higgins Road to the south and the eastern edge of the Schaumburg Corporate Center to the west.

Transit-oriented developments — characterized by a mix of uses including homes near transportation hubs such as train or bus stations — are found in many areas of the suburbs. But this would be the first true example in Schaumburg, Community Development Director Julie Fitzgerald said.

The entire commercial area around Woodfield Mall so far has been free of residential development since the mall was built more than 50 years ago.

Such a plan would build on three trends:

  1. Including more residential units in and around shopping malls (recent examples from the Chicago suburbs here and here). This helps increase the number of people who might frequent the businesses nearby.
  2. Locating higher-density housing around transit hubs. The resulting transit-oriented developments could reduce the reliance on cars with mass transit options immediately accessible.
  3. Placing higher-density housing away from single-family homes and lower-density housing. Such a location is less likely to draw concerns from neighbors who express concerns about traffic, noise, and an impact on their property values.

If plans go forward, it will be interesting to see the price point of these residential units and whether this kicks off more residential development in what is already a busy area. Perhaps Schaumburg will become the home to more businesses and more apartments?

Sears in Illinois began as catalog, became a department store, and ends in a suburban shopping mall

Sears has come to the end of the retail road in Illinois at Woodfield Mall:

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The last Sears department store in Illinois, which closes Sunday in the Woodfield Mall nearly a century after the retailer opened its first store ever in the Merchandise building, looks very, very…beige right now, in its final hours. Like beige on beige. Like the color of back-to-school Toughskins in 1974, the color of your uncle’s Corolla in 1982 and the color of linoleum at the DMV in any decade.

It opened the same day that Woodfield — named for Sears executive Robert Wood and department store magnate Marshall Field — opened in 1971. It was the largest Sears then, boasting 416,000 square feet of sales floor. From the looks of it in late 2021, it’s hard to imagine anything changed in 50 years…

At its peak, Sears, once the largest retailer in the country, had 3,000 locations, so naturally this Woodfield store is far from alone. Also dead after Sunday are Sears department stores in Pasadena, California; Maui, Hawaii; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Long Island recently lost its last Sears department store; Brooklyn loses its last Sears on Thanksgiving Eve.

Indeed, seeing a Sears department store still serve as the anchor for a large mall right now is like a window into just how stormy and unmoored from the 21st century the American shopping mall has become. Sears sits at the south end of Woodfield, while JC Penny is at the northern end; Macy’s and Nordstroms occupy port and starboard sides.

There is a lot that could be lamented here (and is suggested in the piece): the experiences of many shoppers and employees, the connection of Sears and Chicago, bustling shopping areas now languishing, memories of earlier eras.

I find it interesting that the last Sears department store in Illinois closes in a shopping mall. And this is not just any mall: this is Woodfield, one of the largest in the United States, center of the fast-growing edge city Schaumburg. Department stores hit their stride in central business districts in the United States where rapid urbanization helped fuel consumer activity. But, the geography of business shifted as the population shifted to the suburbs. Department stores continued but now as anchors for a full range inside shopping experience primarily accessible by car. While suburbs are still growing, shopping malls are struggling and the fate of their department stores have both contributed to this decline and been affected by it.

The Internet may have hastened the decline of department stores but I wonder how much the move to the suburbs already weakened them. Stores need shoppers and it makes sense to move department stores closer to those shoppers (and other consumption opportunities). At the same time, the department store in a mall is different than the multiple floor downtown department store. Thinking along the same lines, how different are local stores, Sears, Walmart, and Amazon over time – which is the bigger jump and which factors mattered the most for the shift?

Thinking ahead, could the experience be recreated by putting a new Amazon store in the same spot? The location and infrastructure of the current setting is hard to beat. Shopping in person is still an important experience for many people even with Internet sales.

If Schaumburg is advertising business opportunities and a central location, this means…

I heard again a radio ad recently from the suburb of Schaumburg extolling the benefits for businesses, including a central location, if they relocate there. I thought about this in January 2021 and I wonder now if this ad hints at three patterns:

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  1. Schaumburg is an edge city with a lot of office and retail space. The suburb grew rapidly between 1960 and 1980, going from under 1,000 residents to over 50,000 residents. It is home to Woodfield Mall and numerous sizable office buildings. It is featured in Joel Garreau’s book Edge City. If Schaumburg has a lot of vacant space and is struggling to find businesses to sell goods and services or to set up operations, what hope is there for other suburbs that do not have these concentrations that were successful in the past? Brick and mortar operations are declining and COVID-19 has encouraged working from home and this has particular effects on communities highly dependent on both.
  2. This may be less about the troubles of Schaumburg and more about the game that suburbs have to play today. Suburbs market themselves and attempt to differentiate themselves from other suburban communities. The Chicago area has a number of these, including Elk Grove Village hoping to attract makers and Bedford Park touting its industrial space and resources. It is less clear how successful these efforts are but more communities seem to think they need a media presence.
  3. Is there something preferable in advertising a place on the radio? Are people listening in the car more likely to be mobile and/or move? Communities have other options but I do not how attractive they might be. Television is a very broad audience. Targeted Internet or social media ads could be worthwhile if particular categories could be identified. Print may only work in certain outlets. Would billboards catch people’s attention? This may be an emerging branding landscape for which I have not yet found an overview.

If these trends continue, I can imagine a media landscape where ads for suburbs and cities play back to back or near each other, directly juxtaposing their different perceived advantages and trying to chase the elusive businesses and residents who might move.

Selling Schaumburg, Illinois

Schaumburg, Illinois, nearly 30 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, is a prototypical edge city. Home to Woodfield Mall, hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, and over 70,000 residents plus located at the convergence of I-290, I-90, and IL-390, journalist Joel Garreau mentioned Schaumburg in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. When I heard Schaumburg advertising on the radio, I wondered: is this an aggressive or a desperate move in these particular times? Where does Schaumburg fit among other Chicago suburbs also trying to get their name out there (examples here and here)? A few thoughts on this.


-Woodfield Shopping Mall is one of the largest in the United States. Even with numerous shopping malls struggling plus the problems of brick and mortar retailers, Woodfield will probably survive due to its size, location, and status. It may need to transform significantly – can it still support hundreds of stores? – but it is likely in good shape compared to numerous other Chicago area malls that are exploring new paths (other examples here, here, and here).

-Office space may be hard to fill. Schaumburg is not in a city; other suburban office parks have become less desirable in recent years with firms looking to appeal to young workers. Add the complications of COVID-19 when more workers are not going to the office. At the same time, many workers going to Schaumburg are doing so via car and they may be coming from relatively well-off suburban areas.

Growth is important to American communities. Like many edge cities, Schaumburg experienced explosive growth early in its history: it had 986 residents in 1960, in 1980 had over 53,000 residents, and peaked in 2000 at over 75,000 residents. Where does it go from here? Population loss and/or the loss of businesses would not be a good image for the community as it tries to chart a bright future.

Compared to other Chicago suburbs, Schaumburg is likely in good shape. At the same time, the growth and status of the past and present does not have to continue amid new social pressures and internal decisions. If Schaumburg is advertising in order to attract businesses, perhaps this hints at broader issues across suburbs: can they all succeed in what may be a challenging several year period?

Schaumburg’s rise due to relocation of Pure Oil headquarters in 1958

Schaumburg may be well-known for Woodfield Mall but the Chicago suburb was helped on the path to becoming an edge city (see Joel Garreau’s 1991 book) when Pure Oil relocated from downtown Chicago to fields near Schaumburg in the late 1950s:

Frandsen knows it all started nearly 15 years earlier with the construction of the Pure Oil building on the opposite side of Golf Road — the same building that’s now Roosevelt University’s Schaumburg campus…

Though a corporation’s move from the city to the suburbs is a scenario that’s been repeated many times since, one difficulty at the time was establishing a fair and true price for land that had previously been purely agricultural, Frandsen said.

Along with the company’s move came its employees’ relocation to the suburbs as well. Frandsen and his growing family moved to Arlington Heights, one of the nearest residential areas to the office site which was then in unincorporated Palatine Township.

Unlike today, when the one-story building crouches behind a taller strip mall to the south and IKEA to the north, Pure Oil’s headquarters sat like an island among the fields that continued to be leased to farmers.

It is critical to remember that the post-World War II suburbanization boom in the United States wasn’t just about people moving to the suburbs: many businesses relocated as well. Businesses moved for a variety of reasons including being closer to employees, finding cheaper land and lower taxes, wanting to have more “campus-like” developments, and being closer to the homes of executives.

If Pure Oil really did help kickstart the corporate boom in Schaumburg, this story doesn’t sound too different than that of Naperville where the opening of a Bell Labs facility in the mid 1960s along the relatively new East-West Tollway led to a number of other firms also locating nearby. Both Pure Oil and Bell Labs were originally outside of municipal boundaries and were eventually brought into city limits through annexation. Both Schaumburg and Naperville were already communities prior to the coming of these firms and the arrival of new kinds of businesses pushed community leaders to pursue new opportunities. This shift toward office space and white-collar jobs transformed both suburbs.

Edge city Schaumburg sees growing minority population, declining white population

The Chicago suburb of Schaumburg has attracted attention in recent decades for being an edge city. The community, full of office parks as well as Woodfield Mall, was mentioned six times in the book that defined edge cities. New 2010 Census figures suggest Schaumburg reflects larger population trends in the suburbs:

U.S. Census figures for 2010 showed that while the overall population of Schaumburg dipped 1.5 percent in the last decade to 74,227, most minority groups grew and the white population decreased by nearly 12 percent.

“It’s good to have that kind of mix as far as population is concerned,” said Village President Al Larson. “That says that Schaumburg is a very attractive place to come to.”

The largest minority group is Asians that number 14,731, according to the census. That’s about 38 percent more than 10 years ago…

Schaumburg’s changes are happening elsewhere,  said Mike Maly, who chairs the Sociology Department at Roosevelt University. He’s studied census numbers and the changing demographics of the Chicago area.

“What’s happening in Schaumburg is part of a larger trend in suburban Cook County,” Maly said. Minority groups are moving out of the city, and into the suburbs. At the same time, the white population seems to be moving to the outskirts of the suburban area, he said.

So like many suburbs, Schaumburg is experiencing growth in the minority population. But it is also interesting to note that the Schaumburg’s total population declined and the white population dropped by over 11 percent. Some questions should emerge out of this:

1. What is the long-term future of Schaumburg? Declining population in a suburb is not particularly a good sign.

2. Where exactly is the white population going in the Chicago suburbs? If you look at the interactive map here, one might guess that the whites are moving to the outer edges of the Chicago region.

3. On one hand, it sounds good that more minorities are moving to the suburbs, particularly communities like Schaumburg. But if white residents are moving out of these places where minorities are moving, are the same issues of residential segregation simply going to be reproduced in the suburban landscape?