One expert says roughly 25% of shopping malls will survive

Shopping malls were in trouble before COVID-19 but add that in and experts suggest many malls will need to shut down or transform:

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Of the roughly 1,100 malls left in America, Kniffen believes only 278 are viable in the post pandemic world where online shopping will reign even more supreme. These would be the best of the best malls — or “A” malls as experts call them — that are in densely populated areas and target higher income shoppers…

The pandemic has just sped up the day of reckoning for vast stretches of zombie retail real estate. America had a glut of retail space before COVID-19, with twice as many square feet dedicated to shopping as any other country in the world. Retail is oversupplied by six square feet per capita compared to Europe, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers for U.S. merchants, a New York-based retail trade group…

In the U.S., 20%-25% of retail spaces will become vacant in the next few years due to the pandemic, Crowe estimates. Half of the malls in America will disappear over time, said Najla Kayyem, senior vice president of marketing for Pacific Retail Capital Partners, a California-based retail investment and management company

In the end, the concept of a community gathering place known as a mall still makes sense, experts believe. But the days of malls simply being stuffed with pizza places, apparel stores and various kiosks are over. COVID-19 hasn’t killed the mall, rather accelerated its rebirth into something far more useful for the modern era.

Such changes could have wide-ranging effects:

  1. This could produce nostalgia for the era of thriving shopping malls. Imagine a lot more television shows and movies portraying life between the 1960s and 2000s featuring the shopping mall as something from a bygone era.
  2. If many malls need to close, what happens to all the debt involving these properties? Someone will be on the hook for this though perhaps some of the problems could be averted if the pace of closings is slower and some malls are reinvented.
  3. Where will people go to gather? While shopping malls were never public spaces, they did provide space for people to be around each other.
  4. This will likely affect different communities in different ways. Shopping malls in wealthier areas will likely have a better chance of survival – continuing to bring in revenue for communities – while malls in other communities will close and communities will struggle to fill the land.
  5. As is noted in the article, this presents a lot of redevelopment opportunities. Will there be a common approach across shopping malls that everyone tries to copy or will this look different from mall to mall?

Where shopping mall debt ends up

A story of several traders who shorted shopping mall debt provides insights into financial workings of shopping malls:

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Then, in October 2018, Sears declared bankruptcy, and they decided it was time. Here was the scheme: MP built a position against two slices—called “tranches” in Wall-Street speak—of mall debt with, they thought, a relatively low likelihood of being repaid: CMBX.6 BB and BBB-, which were filled with roughly $2 billion worth of debt, an outsized chunk of which was issued to 39 struggling shopping malls. They bought credit default swaps on the block of debt, which amount to insurance policies on the bonds. If the bonds went completely bust—similar to, say, your house burning down—they would be owed their entire value in cash. But even if the tranches decreased in value, MP’s insurance would be worth more and they could sell the swaps for a profit. In any case, it was an asymmetric bet: the downside risk was confined to what they’d have to pay to hold the insurance, but the potential payout was many multiples of that amount—theoretically in the billions…

Meanwhile, McKee was becoming known on Wall Street as “The Queen of Malls,” and other bearish hedge funds began asking her for advice on shorting CMBX.6. “All I did was talk about malls all day,” she said. This included portfolio managers working for the infamous billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn, who, by the end of 2019, had put on a $5 billion short position, arguably the largest by anyone on Wall Street. This went against conventional wisdom at the time, considering that the value of the mall debt was going up, but once word got out that Icahn had entered the ring, the trade was taken more seriously on Wall Street. “That made a lot of people stand up and say, ‘Hold on, we should look at this,’” McNamara said…

Between March and July, as businesses struggled to pay their rent, CMBS delinquencies, according to Trepp, increased by a staggering 492 percent, the value of the hotly contested CMBX.6 tranches were slashed in half, and the brick-and-mortar retail sector was on the verge of going belly-up. Large retailers like Gap stopped paying rent; Neiman Marcus, J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, Ann Taylor, Loft, Pier 1 Imports, GNC, and JCPenney (among many others) filed for bankruptcy; Victoria’s Secret was closing hundreds of stores and Lord & Taylor announced it was closing its doors for good and liquidating inventory; TJX and Macy’s recorded losses of $5 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively; foot traffic for shopping malls plummeted to basically zero; and, in April, clothing sales fell 79 percent, the largest drop on record. “The economy has declared war on your aunt’s wardrobe,” Scott Galloway, marketing professor at New York University, mused on his podcast Pivot. As for Crystal Mall, Simon Property Group, its landlord, defaulted on the mortgage and is planning on handing over the keys to their special servicer…

COVID-19 also revealed a dirty secret hidden in the crawlspace upon which many commercial mortgage-backed securities were built. A University of Texas at Austin study published in August claimed that banks knowingly inflated underwriting income for $650 billion worth of commercial real estate mortgages issued between 2013 and 2019, including by 5 percent or more for nearly a third of the roughly 40,000 loans. “A well-documented historical pattern is that fraud thrives in boom periods and is revealed in busts,” the university researchers wrote, adding that end investors were unaware of this hidden risk, a deception akin to buying a Ferrari secretly outfitted with a rusted-out Kia engine. It could be argued that CMBS had been a magic trick all along, with big banks one step ahead, luring investors to pick a card from a rigged deck. It took a global pandemic—an act of God—to reveal this financial sleight of hand.

Americans and financial institutions were bullish about single-family homes into the 2000s, until they were not and the housing market imploded. Americans liked shopping malls…and is this a repeat?

Since the story suggests those shorting shopping malls are in the minority, does this mean other investors truly believe shopping malls will successfully reinvent themselves and or redevelop enough to successfully pay their mortgages? Or, are a lot of people hoping that shopping malls make it through?

The default of shopping malls could have a broad effect, particularly on communities that will struggle to fill that space and recapture some of the tax revenue that shopping malls could bring in. More broadly, the difficulties retailers face could impact a lot of people in multiple ways.

Demolish a vacant mall anchor store, build new apartments

The construction of Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois was important for the suburb, particularly since it was in Aurora and not in Naperville. But, as shopping malls and suburbs change, the former site of Sears at the mall may soon be apartments:

Google Street View, November 2018

The vacant Sears store at the Fox Valley Mall could be razed early next year to make way for a three-building apartment development and kick off a new phase of life for the 45-year-old mall.

Aurora aldermen will vote next week on a request to rezone roughly 11 acres of the property along Route 59 side of the property to allow the buildings.

The buildings, each three stories tall, would have a total of 304 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments…

A 2020 report for the city said that, including the closed Sears and Carson Pirie Scott department stores, 40% of the mall’s store space was vacant.

Adding residential units to shopping malls is a fairly common suggestion. With retailers in trouble, apartments fill the space more permanently, can address housing issues in communities, and could provide a ready population of potential customers for the nearby mall and other proprietors.

With the proposal working its way through local government, three things are worth watching regarding these apartments:

  1. How, if at all, will the apartments be connected to the mall? If they are completely separate buildings and are not marketed as being right next to the mall, then they could be like any new apartments. But, perhaps the mall is a draw for those who might want to be close to shopping, an indoor walking site, and food options.
  2. What kind of apartments will these be? Given their location, these will probably not be cheap apartments. In addition to being close to the mall, the apartments are near lots of other shopping and dining as well as potential employers, the location is just west of Naperville, and a busy Metra station is just to the north.
  3. How much of the mall will survive within five or ten years? The apartments could help revive the mall area or help hasten its demise.

Filling empty shopping mall space with Amazon

Amazon might be coming to a shopping mall near you:

group of people walking inside building

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The talks have focused on converting stores formerly or currently occupied by J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Sears Holdings Corp., these people said. The department-store chains have both filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and as part of their plans have been closing dozens of stores across the country. Simon malls have 63 Penney and 11 Sears stores, according to its most recent public filing in May…

Amazon fulfillment centers wouldn’t draw much additional foot traffic to the mall, though some employees could eat and shop at the mall. That is why landlords have preferred to replace department stores with other retailers, gyms, theaters or entertainment operators. Yet many of these tenants are struggling to survive during the pandemic and aren’t in expansion mode.

Simon would likely rent the space at a considerable discount to what it could charge another retailer. Warehouse rents are typically less than $10 a square foot, while restaurant rents can be multiples of that. Depending on when the leases were signed and their locations, department-store rents can be as low as $4 a square foot or as high as $19 a square foot…

Malls’ strategic locations often make them attractive as distribution hubs. Many are near main highways and residences. Amazon has already acquired the sites of some failed malls and converted them to fulfillment centers. FedEx Corp. and DHL International GmbH have done the same.

Dying shopping malls need businesses willing to rent space. But, as the article notes, Amazon is an odd choice: they are partly responsible for the decline of traditional retailers, they may or may not bring in customers for other businesses, and they can ask for lower rental rates. But, what choice do many malls have?

I am trying to imagine former shopping malls that become Amazon centers with more life to them than the typical warehouse setting. The former department stores and other retail spaces can mimic large warehouse spaces while the walkways, fountains and other features, and occasional other tenant provide variety and recreational space for employees. Think tech campuses with a warehouse/shopping mall feel. Or, go further: as shopping malls consider adding residential space, why couldn’t Amazon convert some of the mall space into living quarters for workers? (Perhaps this also lends itself to dystopian visions.)

Not mentioned here: how local governments would like the conversion of retail or restaurant space – good for sales tax revenue – to warehouse space.

Millions of dollars flying out of the King of Prussia Mall

Recently walking through the King of Prussia Mall at Christmas time, I was struck by multiple sights: the variety of shoppers, the Christmas cheer and decoration, and the number of possible activities in and around the mall. Yet, none of these could compete with my biggest realization that day: just how much money was flowing in and out of the mall.

The King of Prussia Mall is one of the biggest in the United States , is in the top 10 of malls by sales, and it helps anchor an edge city roughly twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. It is a site to behold, particularly after an addition a few years ago that connected the two halves of the mall and added a new row of upscale retailers.

But, the biggest goal of the mall is to generate sales and profit. And it looked like the mall was doing just fine on the day I visited. Many shoppers had bags on their arms or strollers. Multiple stores I went into, ranging from smaller retailers to large department stores, had people perusing the racks and shelves. The type of stores at the mall and the people aiming to go into them also hint at the money consumers were willing to spend. With each American estimated to spend a little over $900 on Christmas gifts, the King of Prussia is a good place to spread that cash around.

The commercial activity around Christmas at this mall also hints at the future of shopping malls in the United States. Some malls might last longer than people think, particularly those located in wealthier areas and with a concentration of wealthier stores and a variety of opportunities (retail ranging from Dick’s Sporting Goods to Nordstrom’s to Primark and including restaurants and entertainment). The King of Prussia Mall is a destination mall, likely drawing visitors from a wider region than most malls.

And with all that money flowing around the mall that day, most people looked happy to be spending and enjoying the sights. I suppose those with fewer resources or anti-capitalists might not go to such an upscale mall in the first place but the whole scene looked like an advertisement for capitalism: spend freely in an impressive mall at Christmas time. What could be more American than that?

Two criticisms of “The Death and Afterlife of the Mall”

I enjoyed watching “The Death and Afterlife of the Mall” from The Atlantic. In a little over five minutes, the video presents a short history of the shopping mall and its impact. The connection between malls and suburbs is hard to argue; few other institutions or settings better exemplify post-World War II suburban life.

At the same time, I had two quick critiques of the ideas in the video.

  1. The overarching narrative of the video suggests malls are part of a larger mistaken American project. Early in the video, James Fallows says, “After World War II, there was this misguided ideal of the suburban goal for American life with people moving away from cities.” Later in the video, I believe it Fallows saying, “The dream of modern life is not a mall-centric, car-centric dream anymore.” These are both contestable statements. As of today, a good portion of Americans still appear to like suburban life (or at least dislike the alternatives more). Perhaps we have reached peak suburbia but this does not necessarily mean the American Dream has significantly shifted to more urban or denser communities. Furthermore, the dream of suburban life has deeper roots than just the post-war era and will likely hold on for decades more.
  2. Are all malls dead? Many are in trouble. Yet, there are two big caveats to this. A number of malls are pursuing redevelopment projects ranging from adding restaurants to public facilities to residential units. Depending on the particular project, the mall footprint may still be prominent or the shopping element may never disappear even as the use of space changes. A second caveat is that shopping malls in wealthier areas may just survive and even thrive as rival malls close down. Americans still like to shop, they still drive a lot, and they occasionally like to venture into spaces where other people are there.

 

Chicago suburbs without property taxes – but perhaps not for much longer

In a region known for high property taxes, at least a few suburbs outside Chicago have no property taxes:

A town of about 40,000, Carol Stream managed to avoid a property tax even when another outlier, Schaumburg — a village with a much larger retail base — took the leap during the Great Recession.

But officials say Carol Stream is facing significant budget pressures from rising pension costs. If it maintains the status quo, projections also show the village would exhaust capital reserves during the third year of a five-year plan for roadwork and infrastructure projects…

In Oak Brook, another town that doesn’t charge a property tax, candidates in the last mayoral race took stock of the financial challenges from flat sales tax revenues. Carol Stream also saw a 2.4% drop in sales tax dollars — the village’s largest revenue source — from calendar years 2017 to 2018.

Suburbs have multiple ways to reduce or eliminate residential property taxes. Sales tax revenue can come from shopping malls, big box stores, and other retail options. Schaumburg and Oak Brook have sizable shopping malls surrounded by many more retailers. Communities can also seek out industry; Carol Stream founder Jay Stream intentionally set aside much land for industrial parks (which are still there). Some suburbs would not like this as industry could conflict with an ideal of quiet neighborhoods of single-family homes.

The article suggests these suburbs with no property taxes will have to reconsider because of declining sales tax revenues and rising pension costs. Given the fate of shopping malls and the problems facing retailers, even in successful malls in wealthy areas like in Oak Brook and Schaumburg, communities need additional revenue.

Suburbs typically do not have the ability to quickly counter declining sales tax revenues. In order to not have property taxes in the first place, certain decisions had to be made long ago. Then, later decisions build within a framework of no property taxes. Making changes to land use takes time for study, approval, development, and then reaping benefits. A suburb cannot say it wants to bring in more sales tax revenue and line up a set of retailers operating within a year.

The fate of these suburbs will be worth checking in five years to see whether they can hold on against levying property taxes.

(Reminder: this does not mean residents in these communities do not pay any property taxes. Rather, their suburbs do not collect property taxes even as school districts and other taxing bodies do.)

Building Florida’s Metropica around retail

A new development in Florida is built around a shopping mall:

Once safely inside, Kavana returned to explaining what that vision amounts to. Turns out it’s an Instagram-friendly mall that you can live in—one that happens to be smashed up against the side of an enormous swamp…

Approved for construction in 2014, the first residential tower of Metropica’s 4-million-square-foot planned community is set for move-in soon. On opening day, there will be a DJ spinning as buyers (and prospective ones) check out tennis courts and a state-of-the-art gym while enjoying gourmet popcorn. All this, Kavana said, is to showcase the conveniences and amenities that come with living inside a shopping center. He’s well aware that traditional retail is on the decline, but hopes he can buck the trend by bringing online players like Casper Mattress, which is heavily advertised by podcast hosts and Instagram influencers, to a brick-and-mortar location across from Tower One. Although Casper has yet to sign a lease, he hopes to court them and other retailers who might appeal to those millennials who hate malls but love “experiences,” as he put it…

Still, while it’s true that building your own jewelry at a Kendra Scott store is technically an experience, millennials are the most financially beleaguered generation in modern American history, and the only one to prefer urban environments to suburban and rural ones. Meanwhile, units at Metropica start in the mid six figures, and its $1.3 million penthouse overlooks two vast expanses, the juxtaposition of which defines the weirdness of South Florida’s bedroom communities. In full view is the Everglades Wildlife Management Area—facilitating regular clashes with wild animals—but also the parking lot of the BB&T Center, the arena where a different kind of wild animal, the Florida Panthers, battles visiting teams in professional hockey. With student housing, a building for active seniors, and an assisted living center also in the works, it might one day be possible to spend an entire lifetime in Metropica.

The question, however, is whether anyone will want to do that, or if the master-planned community will go the way of other Florida development boondoggles that were also advertised as utopias before falling into disrepair. Kavana is far from the first person to come to Florida and try to build something out of nothing, and perhaps as a result, the state has a long history of producing what sociologists call non-places. As the theory goes, there are three categories to describe where people spend their time in an ideal society: work, home, and a so-called third place where conversation is the main activity. In his book The Great Good Place, a guy named Ray Oldenburg said that might be a bar, a coffee shop, or the prewar concept of “Main Street”—no matter what form it takes, the third place has to be cheap (if not free), easy to get to without a car, and old enough to be embedded in the community.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The rest of the article provides a quick overview of multiple large-scale Florida developments that did not work out as intended. At the same time, is it safe to say that development in Florida might have always been on a big scale? I remember visiting the Edison and Ford Winter Estates years ago and reading about how so few people lived on the Gulf Coast of the state then compared to now.
  2. The article does not say much about the funding for this project. As long as not much or any public money is on the line, the project going belly up may not be too harmful. (Of course, there are still environmental costs and partially developed land might be harder to develop in the long run.)
  3. It is also not clear who would move into Metropica outside of the appeal to millennials. Is this intended for Florida residents or people moving to the state? How does it compare to other developments in the area they could choose from? When I see major developments like this in urban areas that have more expensive housing, I always wonder who will move and/or invest in the property. (The Miami area is known for an interesting set of investors.)

Nostalgia for shopping malls amid decades of critique

Many shopping malls are in dire straits. The potential end of shopping malls can also induce nostalgia and good memories. Add to the decades-long critique of how shopping malls have harmed communities and societies and we have an odd moment: should we celebrate or lament the end of shopping malls?

A few reasons why there is nostalgia:

  1. The shopping mall was a prime social space, let alone a business space, for at least a generation or two. Hanging out at the mall as a teenager was a sign of independence for many and it is glorified by media narratives and images.
  2. The shopping mall is a marker of the past and those growing older can often lament the disappearance of what they knew. Perhaps they did not even like shopping malls or visit them very much but they are a marker for a particular era.
  3. The shopping mall was a significant shift in the shopping experience by providing a collection of chain stores in a single place surrounded by plentiful parking. While we have since moved to big box stores and now to online shopping, the shopping mall transformed retail.

But balance the nostalgia with the critiques:

  1. Shopping malls killed downtowns, from big cities to suburbs to small towns, across the country.
  2. Shopping malls are part of suburban sprawl that wastes resources and land (and contributes to more driving)
  3. They contributed to mass consumption and commercialization. As one quick example: would the commercial celebration of Christmas today be the same without the development of the mall?

How shopping malls end up in the collective memory down the road still remains to be seen. Once the generations that spent so much time in shopping malls is gone, what will their legacy be?

 

Chicago area malls trying to reinvent themselves yet not adding many residential units

Multiple suburban shopping malls in the Chicago area are trying to turn it around with different uses:

A casino is envisioned for the former Lakehurst Shopping Center site in Waukegan, which closed in 2001 and was demolished in 2004. It was the proposed site of a casino until the 10th and final state license was awarded to Des Plaines in 2008. With the latest round of gambling expansion, Waukegan could revive that dream.

St. Charles has seen little momentum on a concept plan presented two years ago for the largely vacant former Charlestowne Mall site north of Route 64. It called for the property’s complete revitalization, including a residential development, a smaller mall building and the construction of free-standing commercial structures. Mall owners have yet to make a deal with developers.

Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale, which opened in 1981, has been struggling for several years having lost three anchor stores since 2014. It launched a multimillion-dollar renovation project featuring interior and exterior improvements at the 1.3 million-square-foot center. An earlier renovation included the 2014 opening of Round1, a 40,000-square-foot entertainment center featuring bowling, billiards, video games and karaoke…

To further increase foot traffic, several suburban malls have incorporated entertainment venues. There’s now a Cinemark movie theater at Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee, a Round One entertainment center at Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, an AMC Hawthorn 12 theater and a Dave & Buster’s at Hawthorn Mall, a Pinstripes near Oakbrook Center and Pac-Man Entertainment (formerly Level 257) at Woodfield.

With retailers everywhere struggling, the trend toward multiple uses in shopping malls continues. The hope is that multiple uses can attract people to the site who after eating might want to shop or who after seeing a movie might want to eat there and so on. (I think this then could lead to the issue of how many entertainment centers can make it in the suburbs but that is another problem to tackle later.)

One piece that is missing from these descriptions: adding residential units. This would likely require some zoning changes as the mall properties probably only allow commercial properties now. Furthermore, it could take some work to reintegrate the full property with the surrounding street grid (which likely includes residential units nearby). Having residents on site could address multiple problems facing suburbs: filling vacant space; providing round-the-clock customers; increased population growth which is an issue in many suburbs with no major land parcels left; and the possibility of having affordable housing. These residential units may not bring in as much money as stores and restaurants that add property and sales tax revenues but they could add life to stand-along properties.