You can find them by the grim score on the Internet, photos of broken, abandoned shopping malls: trees growing up through cracks in the floor, toppled ceiling panels scattered like shattered teeth, empty and unlit corridors stretching out to nowhere.
“The pictures are pretty horrifying, and they tell a true story,” says urban planning and economics consultant Christopher Zahas. “Shopping malls are on the decline.”
Which raises the question: Why would anybody want to build a new 200-acre, $4 billion mall on the western edge of Miami-Dade County?
Triple Five, the multinational conglomerate that earlier this week announced plans to build the massive complex it calls American Dream Miami at the intersection of Florida’s Turnpike and Interstate 75 near Miami Lakes, isn’t talking.
“I’m just not going to have any comment for you about any of this,” a company spokesman told a Miami Herald reporter Thursday.
But even retail-industry critics who are pessimistic about the future of malls say that Triple Five, which operates two other other huge North American shopping centers — the Mall of America in Minneapolis and the West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Canada — builds the kind of spectacular, much-more-than-a-mall destinations that can overcome the fierce economic and demographic pressures that have done in so many other malls.
“Packing water parks and roller coasters and condos and hotels into your development, that’s the sort of thing that’s going to help malls survive and prosper,” says Zahas, the president of Leland Consulting Group in Portland, Oregon. “You’ve got to be creative about giving people a reason to come to your mall.”
Triple Five’s proposal comes at time when mall construction is slumping and dying shopping malls are becoming a necrophile public obsession. Dead malls have spawned their own jargon (greyfield: a mall where annual sales per square foot have dropped below $150, the retail version of brain death), their own art genre (“ruin porn”) and even their own literature (photographer Seph Lawless’ coffee table book Black Friday, published last year).
Websites like deadmalls.com feature sepulchral photos of shuttered shopping centers as well as a merchandise center where the truly hardcore mall goth can buy glossy illustrated wall calendars and refrigerator magnets. Newspapers and magazines have run so many elegiac tales of the decayed glory of expired malls that New York magazine this week ago ran a pleading piece headlined: Let’s Keep Abandoned Malls Around for Their Literary Merit.
The stories are not without some statistical foundation. Deadmalls.com lists about 375 malls around the country that have closed or are close to it. Industry groups say two dozen have shuttered since 2010 and another 60 are on the critical list.
Most of them won’t be replaced. From the day in 1956 when America’s first shopping mall opened in Edina, Minnesota, construction accelerated at a dizzying pace. By the mid-1990s, malls were going up at the rate of 140 a year.
But the economic uncertainties of the new millennium slammed on the brakes, hard. In 2007, for the first time in 51 years, not a single new mall opened. Only two or three have been built since then.
The list of suspected mall-killers includes the Internet, which allows consumers to shop from their homes without the hassles of traffic, parking or crowds; smartphones, which have replaced malls as a place for young people to hang out and swap gossip and photos; and lazy retail strategies that created legions of cookie-cutter malls lined with identical franchise stores and fast-food joints.
“Shopping is changing throughout America and even throughout the world,” says Jose de Jesus Legaspi, whose Los Angeles-based Legaspi Company operates malls in seven states. “The Internet has taken some of the sales. That’s undeniable.”
Even so, Legaspi and other industry figures say the statistics are neither as grim or indisputable as they look. Many malls fail for the same reasons other businesses fail, they say -- neighborhood demographics change, physical facilities age, new competition arrives on the scene. That doesn’t necessarily signal that the concept of the shopping mall is in doubt.
“A lot of people see a dead mall in their city, and they extrapolate from that to say the whole idea of shopping malls is over with,” says Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. “But that doesn’t follow. A lot of these malls failed because a bigger, better mall took their customers away.”
Even the slowdown in mall construction, Tron says, is misleading, a natural consequence of the building boom of the 1990s and the general economic malaise of the past seven years. “Nobody thought the industry could keep expanding forever at the pace it did in the 1990s,” he observes. “And then credit dried up. Credit has become a little easier over the past year or two, and you’re seeing a lot of malls refurbish now.”
Others say the impact of the Internet has been overstated. “Ninety percent of retail sales still take place within the four walls of a physical store,” says Andres Mendoza-Pena of the global strategy and management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, which has studied the relationship between the Internet and brick-and-mortar stores. And, he adds, the growing symbiotic relationship between the two defies easy statistical analysis.
“Suppose a woman wants to buy a dress,” Mendoza-Pena says. “She looks on the Internet at different styles; then she goes to the store to try them on; then she goes home and orders from the website, where she doesn’t have to worry about which sizes are in stock. And when the dress comes, she changes her mind, and she returns it to the store, because that’s less of a hassle than doing it by mail. That transaction was completed on the Internet, but it would never have taken place without the store. How do you count it?”
Regardless of whether they regard the ills of shopping malls as potentially mortal or mere sniffles, nearly all these observers believe that Triple Five’s enormous malls, festooned with skating rinks, snowboarding parks, miniature golf courses and luxury movie theaters, are just what the retail doctor ordered.
“Ski slopes! Coral reefs! Sea lions! Submarine rides!” says Robin Lewis, a New York-based retail strategist and co-author of The New Rules of Retail — Competing in the World’s Toughest Marketplace, as he ticks off on his fingers some of the attractions promised for American Dream Miami. “I think they’re going to make it.
“Shopping malls have got to offer some kind of entertaining experience to go with buying stuff. And I think Triple Five is doing just that.”
The strategy has worked very well for Triple Five’s other properties. Time magazine last year declared the Mall of America the most popular attraction in the United States, drawing 40 million visitors — a third more than Walt Disney World and Disneyland combined. The West Edmonton Mall, the largest in North America, was not far behind with more than 30 million.
“They’ve shown us, in practice, what a mall should be,” says Legaspi. “Their malls are an interactive experience, which makes the shopping almost tangential.”
The success of those two properties has enabled Triple Five to keep expanding at a time when most other mall operators are standing pat or even shrinking. It is also building another huge mall in New Jersey, American Dream Meadowlands, scheduled to open next fall.
American Dreams Meadowlands is expected to have similar features to those planned for its Miami counterpart, including an ice park, a water park a ski slope, a concert hall and an amusement park devised by Hollywood’s DreamWorks, all located indoors.
The Meadowlands project was for a long time regarded as something of a myth. Announced at a glitzy 2004 ceremony featuring supermodel Christie Brinkley and other then-celebrities, it has been delayed time and again by financial difficulties, construction problems and lawsuits by neighbors, including both New York NFL teams, which play nearby.
But nearly all the problems occurred before Triple Five took American Dream Meadowlands over in 2013. It settled the lawsuit with the football teams and construction — halted four years earlier — resumed. Local officials say progress is obvious, with hundreds of workers on the site.