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Dead Malls of America: What Have We Lost?

The Golden Age of the American shopping mall is over and the shopping landscape has changed. Or has it?

The inside of a long-dead mall, as photographed by Seph Lawless for his new book "Black Friday."
The inside of a long-dead mall, as photographed by Seph Lawless for his new book "Black Friday."

By Melinda Carstensen

They're a blight on America’s suburban landscape: hulking dead shopping malls, many with boarded windows, sagging rooftops and parking lots full of weeds.

The American shopping mall saw its Golden Age from 1956 to 2005, when 1,500 malls were built across the country. But no new enclosed mega-mall has been built since 2006. And while about 1,200 malls are still standing, many have been abandoned and sit on the outskirts of American cities like strange coffins of commerce. In a new book called "Black Friday," the photographer Seph Lawless captures the demise of many of these dead malls in images charged with a kind of haunting beauty.

"It’s almost a sense of sadness because you don’t just miss the malls but everything that’s connected to it,” he said. “That was America. It was a more vibrant time for us.”

The website DeadMalls.com maintains a state-by-state list of America’s forlorn shopping meccas. The Midwest is littered with abandoned malls.

Experts say a mall is significantly less likely to survive after its anchor store closes. Many American malls were affected by the closing of Sears, which shuttered its flagship earlier this year, and JCPenney, which announced in January that it would close 33 stores nationwide.

Howard Davidowitz, of the national retail consultant and investment banking firm Davidowitz & Associates, predicted half of U.S. malls would close within the next decade.

Some malls though are thriving, like outlet malls. Developers have capitalized on a still-struggling economy and opened 11 new outlet centers in 2013, more than quadruple the number that opened in 2009.

High-end malls, like those with anchor stores such as Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue, are also flourishing, said Ryan McCullough, a real estate economist at CoStar, a commercial real estate research firm. Per square foot, those luxury malls saw a 14.6 percent growth in sales from 2009 to 2013, according to CoStar.

Michael Dart, co-author of the book "The New Rules of Retail," said traditional shopping malls are failing where these high-end malls are succeeding: providing consumers with something they can’t get on the Internet.

Guests can enjoy upscale food courts, fancy interiors and live entertainment. Novelty and exclusivity, he said, lure consumers away from their computers and into these malls.

“The consumer has become satiated enough with the same type of stuff, so it’s become increasingly important to become experiential,” Dart said.

In malls where stores have closed shop, vacant space has been converted into religious, medical or school facilities. For malls that have faced store closures, this is a positive, creative reuse of that space, McCullough said.

Your Turn: Do you think the American mall has met its doom, and should abandoned facilities be demolished? Or do you think there’s hope for their survival? What’s happened to the shopping malls where you once shopped or dropped off the kids for the afternoon?


John Ferman May 12, 2014 at 08:31 PM
Before malls, one had to drive to multiple places to get stuff; with malls, one could drive to one place and get of what you needed or wanted. The meant convenience.
Steve M May 12, 2014 at 11:40 PM
Dinosaurs.
John Ferman May 12, 2014 at 11:57 PM
In counting the number of failed malls, is account taken of the difference between 'strip' malls and the enclosed multi-floor malls. The former were generally absent an anchor tenant.
Joe Morice May 13, 2014 at 10:18 AM
I have about as much use for shopping malls as a hog does for a wristwatch but there is one good thing closed malls could be used for. How about parents dropping off their spoiled unruly brats at the abandoned malls so they won't aggravate, intimidate and cause all sorts of problems for the customers of malls still doing business?
Steve M May 16, 2014 at 01:37 AM
A new mall opening in October is gonna feature only high-end luxury stores for people that have money coming out of their ears, eyes, nose and mouth.

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