Do not call it a shopping mall; call it a campus

With the opening of several hundreds units of housing on a former portion of the Fox Valley Mall, one leader used a different term than “mall” to describe what was unfolding on-site:

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While the mall has been around since 1975, Samson said he even has stopped calling the burgeoning “live, work, play” development by that name.

“Notice how I didn’t say mall,” Samson said. “It’s a campus.”

A shopping mall is primarily about commercial activity. A campus implies something different. Probably the most common usage of the term refers to college campuses. On such a campus, there is a variety of activity: residential spaces, social spaces, academic spaces, athletic spaces, and more.

Many shopping malls are hoping for transformations that help them move beyond just stores and a few eateries. The shopping malls that survive the next decade or two could include apartments, condos, townhouses, hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, and cultural attractions in addition to stores. All of these options would help make the mall/campus more lively throughout the full day rather than just during shopping hours. In this sense, the goal is not that different than numerous mixed-use developments in suburbs and cities: create a home base of residents plus a steady flow of visitors who spend money and contribute to social activity.

Will the term campus catch on to describe former shopping malls? Time will tell and certain influential actors, such as developers, architects, and local leaders, can help make it happen.

Another suburban Chicago mall goes in on denser housing to revive its fortunes

Yorktown Mall in Lombard is planning to replace a vacant anchor store with hundreds of apartments:

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The department store closings have turned other enclosed malls into retail ghost towns. But Yorktown has sought to reinvent itself by thinking outside the big box…

Pacific is now teaming up with Chicago-based Synergy Construction on a major overhaul of the west side of the 54-year-old mall. Plans call for replacing the cavernous, three-level Carson’s store and its vast parking lot with an apartment complex and a public park. The residential portion of the development will cost an estimated $201 million over two phases, Lombard officials say…

Pacific and Synergy have not finalized a unit count, but village memos indicate the latest project could bring approximately 700 apartments to Yorktown.

“You start having a critical mass of maybe 1,500 or 2,000 new residents,” Niehaus said. “And when you look at the rent rates that the apartments are generating, it typically lends itself to people that have disposable income that will want to shop or eat or participate in activities.”

Not all malls will survive the coming years. The idea behind replacing stores with apartments or housing is that it is a better use of the space rather than trying to chase a dwindling number of successful retail options and adding residents next to stores, restaurants, and entertainment options means they will spend some of their money in the remaining mall spaces.

Will this ultimately be the successful tactic that either saves some portion of the mall or revitalizes/transitions the space from retail to other uses? Housing is needed in many communities with shopping malls. Will communities recoup the revenue that used to come in through sales taxes? Will the footprint of the mall eventually disappear into the sprawling suburban landscape? As noted in the article, this is not the only Chicago mall pursuing this. See the example of the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora. Wait another thirty years or so and the legacy of the suburban shopping mall – roughly a century old at that point – might be very different.

How much a declining mall can cost a community in sales tax revenue: almost $20 million a year

The decline of Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale, Illinois meant the sales tax revenue for the community dropped dramatically:

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Stratford was still a cash cow in 2012, generating $20.3 million in sales tax revenue. But that number has quickly dwindled in the last 10 years, with the mall producing just $466,080 in 2021, village officials say.

Dead malls” or struggling malls are a problem in numerous American communities. Popular for decades, these properties provided shopping, entertainment, and social space for visitors, jobs, and tax revenues for communities.

As communities look to transform these properties (and the possibilities are broad), one large factor will be how much tax revenue the new land use generates. Can they ever come close to generating that kind of sales tax revenue? Restaurants and entertainment or experiential spaces can help close that gap. Residences, however, do not bring in that kind of money (unless those new residents shop regularly at local businesses). If not, what other clear benefits will the reconfigured properties offer the community?

A more interactive and informational street sign

A new kind of street sign is in downtown Arlington Heights:

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With three movable LED signs atop the 10-foot pole, the panels display real-time messages pertinent to their surroundings, from how many tables are available at a nearby restaurant, to Metra train timetables. Any governmental emergency alerts, like weather and Amber Alerts, get precedence.

“The sign would orient itself and say, at Salsa 17 starting at 6 o’clock, there’s $7 margaritas or something. And then later it would spin around and say there’s a band playing at Peggy Kinnane’s. There’s a lot of different inputs on this,” said Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus. “It’s a thing that people would be drawn to, and it would be yet another thing that would kind of set our downtown experience apart because it’s not something that anyone’s seen before.”

The village would have control of the sign and approve all messages — done through a secure portal on a tablet, PC or Mac as part of a cloud-based system. And the cost of the sign would be recouped by selling advertisements to local business who want their messages on the street panels, under a lease-to-own arrangement that’s part of the Points Sign’s business model.

Pedestrians also will be able to search for things like local events and shopping and dining locales by turning and pushing a streetside dial.

The sign is customizable; some municipalities in talks with Optimal Design want to put a camera atop the pole for public safety purposes. And while the sign has sensors to know how many people are at a given intersection at one time, it doesn’t have facial recognition technology, Patel and Ottoman said.

The two keys to this sign seem to be that it is interactive and it pushes out information rather than standing passively. It does not necessarily replace static street signs, but it can help point people to opportunities. People can approach it and find something new. Such a sign could work well in locations with plenty of foot traffic and lots of local activity.

This reminds me of what I saw on my most recent trip to a shopping mall. The mall appeared to have fewer directory signs and instead I saw multiple recommendations to download the app for the mall. When I did use the interactive directory sign, I could search within certain categories and then it offered directions to the selected retailer.

Are we any closer to a more immersive sign experience that can provide an overlay of information on a 3D view of a landscape? Imagine going up to an interactive sign, searching for something or selecting something presented to you, and then seeing a 3D image of the landscape with paths and information.

Or, are we close to a time when signs are not necessary as everyone with a smartphone or smart glasses or similar devices interacts through the world through that?

A shopping mall with protected wetlands

I recently shopped at a mall with protected wetlands:

The first thought I had upon seeing this was of “nature band-aids” that can often be found in suburbia as described by James Howard Kunstler. Shopping malls are known for many things but nature is not one of them.

Or, perhaps these are real wetlands that make contributions to the local ecosystem? This outlet mall has a location similar to many other malls: in the suburbs along a major roadway. I could imagine a need for land for animals and water amid development in the recent decades.

It would be interesting to know how these areas came about. Was part of the development of the land contingent on setting land aside for wetlands? Was a discovery made later about local nature? Is there some precedent among shopping malls for this?

“The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall”

A new book looks more positively on the future of the American shopping mall:

Meet Me by the Fountain challenges the dominant narrative. Lange wants us to consider how in prematurely writing off the mall as dead, or in thinking of it as “a little bit embarrassing as the object of serious study, ” we neglect the important role these buildings have played in our lives. At their best, malls have always been more than just sites of conspicuous consumption and leisure, but places for communities to gather, to see and be seen, fulfilling a “basic human need.” Lange’s book reminds us that the mall has helped shape American society, and has evolved with our country since the 1950s. And she posits that there’s still a place for malls in our society, as long as they adapt to better serve their communities.

Malls grew alongside—and because of—the federally subsidized postwar expansion of the suburbs. “The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall,” Lange writes. If the American dream was owning a detached house for your nuclear family, the mall was where you bought the goods to fill your home and clothe your kids. Malls became the suburban equivalent of downtown shopping districts. But while malls, like their city counterparts, serve as public spaces, they are privately owned and policed, and any sense of community that one gets from spending time at them is always secondary to the primary pursuit of consumption…

And yet, despite these problems, Lange reminds us what the mall gave us in the past and explains why she sees in its form hope for a future of adaptive reuse, in which these spaces will “embrace their public role” rather than try to privately control who can use them and how. Lange argues that malls should be repurposed for walkable mixed-use developments that combine the residential, commercial, and public. The behemoth shells of anchor stores—the department stores that sat at the ends of corridors—could enclose food halls, entertainment-centered businesses like trampoline parks, or public libraries; parking lots could be repurposed for senior-housing units. These places would still be malls, but ones that are more experience-driven and less shopping-centric…

This kind of ambivalence is all over Meet Me by the Fountain. Lange’s ultimate vision for reusing the space of malls might be one that largely repudiates a singular focus on commercialism, but she doesn’t discount shopping and what it can do for us. She argues that we “find freedom in shopping” for our “true selves,” and that malls have given us more than just self-expression. They are what Ray Bradbury, in a 1970 essay in West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, called “Somewhere To Go”: a place that draws people together, that creates a de facto community.

Two features of this summary stand out:

  1. The shopping mall as it is known in the United States is part of suburbia. Even though malls can be found in major cities, they started in suburbs and are primarily found there.
  2. Related to #1, shopping malls emerged as places for community within a suburbia that prioritizes private single-family homes and has relatively few public spaces.

If this was a “chicken and the egg” question, the answer seems clear: suburbs came first and then shopping malls developed in that context. The shopping mall even co-opted the department store, the urban shopping emporium that emerged decades earlier in rapidly growing cities.

The enduring tension, described in this review, seems to be this: can malls ever truly become places for the whole community or are they primarily profit-centers where some enjoy shopping together and gathering around other shoppers? Or, to put it in other terms, can shopping malls ultimately serve people and not just markets?

The suburbia where those who work from home have money to spend nearby

If more suburbanites are working from home and spending more time in the suburbs, suburban communities and businesses want their money:

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Suburban developers and retailers are working to provide ways to escape home, be around others, and, most importantly, spend newfound time and money…

Neighborhood retailers are eyeing the money she and others are saving on the commute, in addition to the thousands of dollars that office workers typically spend annually in restaurants, bars, clothing stores, entertainment venues and other businesses. In many cases, coffee breaks, haircuts and happy hours that used to happen near downtown offices have moved to the suburbs…

In the Washington region and nationally, the trend is most striking in higher-income inner suburbs, where more residents have computer-centric jobs suited to remote work and money to spare…

The new weekday demand, developers say, has helped suburban shopping centers and entertainment districts reach and, in some cases, surpass 2019 sales. The pandemic also accelerated long-standing pre-pandemic trends toward walkable suburban developments and the “third place” — public gathering spots like coffee shops and bookstores, where people can connect beyond home and work.

I want to expand on one of the ideas suggested above: this may already be happening in wealthier and denser inner-ring suburbs. These communities already have residents with more money to spend and already have a denser streetscape from a founding before postwar automobile suburbia.

But, could this go further? Suburbanites with more money to spend live in certain places. The shopping malls that will survive and even thrive are likely located near wealthier communities. Having more resources could enable certain suburbs to redevelop and add to their offerings compared to others that could languish in a competition for spenders and visitors.

Imagine then an even more bifurcated suburbia where wealthier suburbs have vibrant entertainment and shopping options while other suburbs do not. The suburban work from home crowd is not evenly distributed and neither are the communities and amenities they might prefer.

Transitioning a glittering downtown shopping mall to a more experiential space

Water Tower Place on North Michigan Avenue has fallen on hard times, as have many malls, and plans are underway to revive the property with new uses:

In consultant-speak, today’s juice is “experiential” retail. It means that people not only want something they haven’t seen before, but they want an experience to go along with their purchase. The Apple Store and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery further south on Michigan Avenue are examples of that — places where shoppers come to see and feel as well as to buy. A pop-up show called the “Dr. Seuss Experience” filled Macy’s former space in Water Tower Place this winter. Down the street, a “Museum of Ice Cream” is opening at the base of the newly renovated Tribune Tower this summer…

But she and her colleagues are already thinking big. A report titled “North Michigan Avenue: Strategies for a Vibrant Future” issued in March by a group of business and city leaders envisions a grand promenade running from the historic limestone Water Tower, past the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the lake along Chicago Avenue; and a soaring pedestrian bridge stretching from Michigan Avenue, over DuSable Lake Shore Drive, to Oak Street Beach. The bridge, modeled on a structure in Moscow, would make it possible to see and get to Lake Michigan from the Mag Mile without descending into dank tunnels under the beachfront drive.

Also in the report: a more run-of-the-mill property tax on landlords raising about three quarters of a million dollars passed the City Council this year; it will be used for cultural events like “Music on the Mile” and for security cameras. The city also awarded Bares’ group money from a federal grant to deploy a team of uniformed “ambassadors” — unarmed security personnel with radios to help tourists, assist the homeless and report criminal activity on the Mag Mile — starting in June.

But most of the report is focused on getting people excited about going downtown to enjoy attractions such as music, art and culture, and Water Tower Place recently scored its own big get on that front. In April, the world-renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago surprised everyone and moved from a temporary home on the North Side into the mall’s fourth floor.

For years, shopping in a lively context was enough “juice” to bring in both serious shoppers, curious shoppers, and other visitors. Shopping was one of the most popular activities for Americans and the glamor of a downtown mall plus at least a decent-sized crowd would make it feel exciting.

Now that shopping is decoupled from physical space, these former shopping spaces do not have enough “juice.” They need more experiences, ranging from music to arts to unusual sights to places where people can post intriguing social media images.

Can cities and communities be flexible enough to shift spaces and experiences? And how many experiential areas can there be? On the first question, communities need to open to how spaces might be used in different ways when conditions change. Shopping malls may have worked for decades and brought in significant revenue, but when they struggle, what is next? For the second question, Chicago already has some of these experiential spaces: Navy Pier, the Museum Campus, a Riverwalk, and other concentrations of interesting activity. Can these work together in that a visitor could access several of these in a single day or trip or at some point do they start competing against each other?

The decline of in-person shopping is a big deal and a shift that many communities are struggling to address. Those who find successful alternative uses for these shopping spaces and also develop a mindset of needing to refresh certain places may just come out ahead.

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?

Residents, local leaders oppose a plan to redevelop a struggling suburban mall with 560 apartments and several businesses

Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, Illinois has struggled in recent years (earlier posts here and here). Yet, when a developer proposed adding 500 apartments to the property, residents and local leaders did not like the idea:

Google Street View

Plans were to raze the majority of the largely vacant mall to make way for 560 apartments and townhouses, a hotel, new restaurants and retail spaces along East Main Street…

“It’s a good plan but the question is, is this the best use of space?” 2nd Ward Alderman Ryan Bongard said at the meeting. “In speaking with constituents, they don’t want to see 500 apartments.”

On Friday, St. Charles Mayor Lora Vitek confirmed the developers have pulled out of the project. The partnership of S.R. Jacobson Development Corporation and Lormax Stern Development Company LLC had previously entered into a purchase agreement for the former Charlestowne Mall property with current owners The Krausz Companies LLC.

In December 2017, Krausz closed Charlestowne’s interior shops and enclosed mall space at the center. Anchors Von Maur and Classic Cinemas Charlestowne 18 remains…

“That’s the overwhelming comment that I have heard through the city council,” Vitek said. “And I do believe that we can try to accomplish that. We shouldn’t settle. We’ve got a lot going for us. We know there needs to be more people here and we’re going to bring residential, but there needs to be a balance over there, too. The east side is very important to our town, but we do want to see the right fit.”

On one hand, I can understand this common suburban concern: if you eliminate commercial property and rezone it for other uses, will you ever get the same amount of money in tax revenues from the property? A successful shopping mall or entertainment area brings in sales tax revenue in addition to paying property taxes.

On the other hand, this particular shopping mall has languished for years. Shopping malls in general face big issues and many will not survive. There are only so many suburban entertainment districts that will work. A willing developer wants to build a mix of residences and businesses and it is not enough?

Here is my guess about what scuttled this project: suburbanites do not often like the idea of hundreds of apartments, particularly when they are located in a community that sees itself as full of nice single-family homes. Apartment dwellers are looked at with suspicion. Apartments threaten the single-family home nature of the community as they can increase traffic, bring more kids to local schools, and threaten local property values. Even expensive apartments are not desirable in large numbers.

As St. Charles does not “settle” for this kind of proposal, what better option will come along?