Adding to the pressure has been the migration back to city centers of a segment of the country’s affluent people. But David Simon, son of the company’s founder and CEO, said on a conference call with Wall Street analysts Monday evening that trend had been overblown.
“All of the urbanization two, three, four years ago, the question was, Why are the suburbs going to exist? Everybody is going to live in urban environments, yada, yada, yada,” Simon said. “I’m telling you the suburbs are going to be hot, and our quality real estate is going to be where the action is.”
Putting aside data proving the rebirth of city centers over the last 20 years, even if there is a boom in the suburbs that are home to Simon malls, the bigger question is whether the developer can reinvent those properties adequately given retail’s changed landscape…
For now, Simon seems to be holding its own. After a difficult spring in which many of its tenants, notably Gap Inc., withheld rent while stores were closed for weeks on end, Simon has collected 90% of billed rent for the past three quarters. The company reported today that it has given tenants about $400 million in rent abatements and another $310 million in deferments.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Multiple issues need to be resolved:
- Can the retail market steady or rebound? Will the problems of COVID-19 keep going or permanently push shoppers to online platforms?
- Can malls both shift their focus from retail to other uses, including food, entertainment, community spaces, and residences, quickly enough even as they search for the magic formulas that will keep people coming in?
- Will many malls face big problems while some in wealthier areas and with deeper pocketbooks survive?
- Might a growing suburban population boost the chances of all malls?
- Is the shopping mall a destination of the past? For a few decades they were an exciting place but now no longer have the same buzz.
Given all of this, I would not be so optimistic. Perhaps Simon has a big plan and thinks it can revive their malls. If people are interested in the suburbs again, there might be a glimmer of hope: make some strategic changes at certain malls, become a destination in a way that single-use suburban properties cannot easily match, and try to capitalize on land that could be valuable because of its location.