Dead Malls: Blight on Suburban Landscape

End of an era? Consultant predicts half of U.S. malls will close in the next decade.

Credit: Seph Lawless
Credit: Seph Lawless
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 photographerSeph 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. Patch areas like Illinois Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia, Maryland and California arelittered with abandoned malls.

Experts say a mall is significantly less likely to survive after its anchor store closes. Many American malls were affected by Sears' struggles, which has closed 305 stores since 2010, and JC Penney, 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, also are 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.

Tell us: 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?

Click here for a listing of dead malls by state. Some of the information may not be current.
Paul G. Celentano May 19, 2014 at 09:01 PM
Not a bad idea: convert empty stores into a variety of service centers: Dentist, Doctor, Vet, etc. Would also make good local craft and year round farmers markets or whatever it is that the internet will never be able to provide due to its virtual nature. However, the rental rates don't help.
Mike May 20, 2014 at 02:37 AM
Don't blame the internet. You can't have a nice dinner with friends or a date on the internet. What you're seeing are the effects of 30+ years of creeping American Socialism. "...tax the rich, feed the poor, till there are no rich no more..." Still don't believe me? Take a look at Eastern Europe and compare it to pictures of Detroit...
Ned May 20, 2014 at 09:00 AM
I really don't think the rich are hurting in the USA but the middle class is being eliminated. When that happens you have a 3rd world country. USA will soon be considered 3rd world.
Michael Crowne May 20, 2014 at 11:37 AM
Discount Quality Stores are Booming. TJ Maxx.... Ross..... etcccc.
Emmett Gruici May 20, 2014 at 04:35 PM
I recall a comment made a few years ago at an address by our representative at one of our meetings that the slums of today are the 20 year old malls that have been abandoned.


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