Business

The rise and fall of the mall that changed Miami

Omni Mall in 1983.
Omni Mall in 1983. Miami Herald File

Forty years ago, a mall opened for business in Miami. But it wasn’t just any mall.

This one had a carousel. A multiplex movie theater. A bakery with killer cinnamon bread. A hotel.

READ MORE: The birth of Bayside Marketplace

The mall gave workers in downtown Miami somewhere to spend their lunch hour. It gave kids in Miami Beach, Little Havana and Overtown somewhere cool to hang out.

SEE MORE PHOTOS: Flashback Miami looks at Jordan Marsh

The Omni International Mall opened on Biscayne Boulevard at 14th and 15th streets in February 1977 on the site of the old Jordan Marsh department store, which was melded into the new complex. The only malls open at the time were far from the city center: Dadeland, Hollywood, 163rd Street.

The Omni wasn’t friendly to the Biscayne Boulevard streetscape. Drivers parked in a dark garage and entered that way. Pedestrians needed to search for an entrance.

The new mall and garage dwarfed a single-family home built in 1937. That house stood next to the massive complex after the owner refused to sell it.

But that didn’t stop the Omni mall from taking off and paving the way for other surrounding development, including a condo and a hotel just to the east on Bayshore Drive.

But less than a decade later with the opening of the Aventura Mall and Bayside Marketplace, not to mention the fickle economy, the mall was hurting for customers. The mall’s peak was in the early 1980s, when Latin American tourists with lots of money to spend poured into the Magic City.

The mall was on life support in the 1990s. Burdines, which took over the old Jordan Marsh department store, closed in 1992. A final blow: when J.C. Penney decided to shut down in 1998.

By 2000, the Omni International Mall was out of business, although the hotel remains. Part of the old mall, once targeted as a telecom hub, is occupied by an art-design school.

And just across the street, a vestige of another old Miami retail complex thrives: the Arsht performing arts center, built on the site of the old Sears store, whose tower remains.

From the Miami Herald archives, here is a look back at the mall that changed Miami, the Omni:

TRYING TO HOLD ON

April 5, 1992: The year was 1975. The speaker was developer Thomas Cousins. The subject was his Omni International Mall, a Great Concrete Hope rising at 15th and Biscayne, designed to pump life back into a down-and-out downtown Miami.

The mood was way upbeat.

"The suburbs turned out not to be the panacea that everyone anticipated, " Cousins said. "They found out there's as much or more crime, there's traffic congestion, drug problems -- the very things they left the cities to escape. We must bring middle- and upper-income families back downtown to participate in what makes a community tick."

Waiting with open doors would be the Omni, a cathedral for the inner-city consumer.

Seventeen years later, the mall seems more like a mausoleum.

"At its worst, you can go 10 minutes in the middle of the afternoon and not see a single customer walk by, " says T-shirt vendor Ira Wish. "Lately, there's no traffic at all from 1 to 5 p.m. It's like a long Mexican siesta around here."

Word that Burdines will close May 31 has some Omni merchants pondering just what the loss of one of their two major anchors will mean to the shopping center. Launched in 1977 with a dose of hype befitting the Second Coming, the Omni boomed at first, then bumped along, reinventing itself while Sears, Jeffersons and other stores shut down around it.

Billed as a breathtaking adventure in urban architecture that would draw shoppers back downtown and light a fire under Biscayne Boulevard's urban renewal, the Omni has been waiting for the rest of the neighborhood to catch up.

Now the mall itself has been broadsided, and the damage could be deep. If its owners can't snag another major department store to fill the soon-to-be-vacant 395,000 square feet, Omni vendors like Tracie Dudrick fear the worst.

"If they don't replace it quickly, it'll really hurt, " said Dudrick, assistant manager of casual-sportswear shop J. Riggings. "Since a lot of us depend on Burdines for traffic, it could mean the end of the mall."

Few shopkeepers interviewed are as alarmed, but Dudrick can be forgiven for two reasons: He says he's steadily been losing business from tourists to Dadeland, Aventura and Bayside; and with his store sitting next to a Burdines entrance, he is perched on a precipice.

People who own the mall say they are scrambling to see that the five-story building, once home to the first Jordan Marsh and occupied by Burdines since October, does not become a black hole.

"We don't want a dark store there any more than anyone else does, " said Beverly Ricks, a vice president with Equitable Real Estate Investment Management. "We also don't want a short-term solution that just fills the space. We aren't looking at the Omni as an isolated piece of real estate; we want what's best for the whole area."

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A shopper stands outside the soon to be closed Thom McAn Shoe Store inside the Omni Mall. Warren Zinn Miami Herald File/1996

Ricks said Equitable was trying to persuade Burdines to stick around, even if in a scaled-down store. She wouldn't talk about other possible tenants, although she was hopeful a new retail resident would be found by the end of May.

She said the Omni shops reported solid sales of $300 annually per square foot. That tops a national average of $250 but is dwarfed by the $580 at Dadeland, one of the country's healthiest shopping malls.

"I think the Omni's been a success in an historical respect, " said retail broker Paco Diaz. "The testimony is you still have lots of good shops paying lots of good rents, and they're still in business."

It has not always been easy. Chick-fil-A's night manager, Eric Rhome, cites a recent purse snatching he witnessed as an example of the crime that continues to mar the mall's image. Scribbles' manager Rosann Yguado says she won't even walk her cash receipts to the bank depository across Biscayne after dark.

The mall's soul has changed, too. Postman Milton Coffee, who has delivered the Omni's mail for 13 years, says the steady replacement of family-run stores by national chains has homogenized the shopping mix. Some older customers, he says, took their business elsewhere.

Other Dade malls have siphoned off customers, too, even as the Omni has undergone impressive renovations. Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, one of the Omni's early boosters, says the Omni got hurt when "the city's center of gravity moved, urbanization went into full play and the other malls took off. The appeal of the core city began to go down. These are circumstantial things, and Miami's a victim of it."

Hope still abounds for the neighborhood, despite the mall's rocky road. There's widespread belief that the planned Metromover extension linking the Omni with downtown and the Brickell Avenue banking district will prime the area's economic pump, just as the shopping center was designed to do 15 years ago.

By punching a hole into the mall's upper level and stringing a walkway over to the people-mover platform, Metromover officials could deliver a new market for the mall when the line opens in March 1994. Thousands of office workers suddenly would have truly rapid transit to the Omni's 80 or so shops and restaurants.

And if a much-talked-about performing arts center ever materializes, even Ferre thinks "the whole area will blossom again."

But that would be then. And this is now.

"The area is going to benefit tremendously, " says retail broker Stephen Friedman. "Unfortunately, that's still two to five years out, so there's bound to be some vacancies for awhile. The mall owners are really going to have to get creative, especially in the market we have now, to get a big chain store in there."

Meanwhile, the Omni's little guys are left with a dilemma of their own: how to assure their clientele, many of them repeat customers from South America, that the Omni is still a savvy -- and safe -- place to shop.

"They've got to clean up this neighborhood, " said Istman Meneses, assistant manager of the upscale shoe store Battaglia. "Burdines or no Burdines, it's bad. Some of my customers are scared to get off and on I-95 because of the windshield-wiper guys. Everyone around here in the streets is asking for money or cigarettes.

"You're safe inside the mall, " he said, "but outside is another story."

BYE-BYE, BURDINES

March 14, 1992: Burdines announced Friday that it will close its department store at the Omni International Mall May 31.

Carey Watson, senior vice president for marketing for Burdines, said the company has been trying to sell this store for several months. He added the store was never profitable one for Burdines, especially since the retailer has another store on Flagler Street in the heart of Miami's downtown.

"We didn't need two stores in downtown Miami and this one wasn't doing particular well, " said Watson.

The 125 employees at the Omni store, which for years was a Jordan Marsh store, were told about the closing Friday. Watson said Burdines will try to find jobs for them at Burdines' other Dade County stores. The store will begin a liquidation sale of merchandise on April 7.

The closing will end an era in South Florida retailing. Jordan Marsh opened its first store at Northeast 15th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in February 1956. At its peak, the Jordan Marsh chain had 18 stores throughout Florida. In the 1980s, Jordan Marsh's fortunes started to fade.

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Miami's first Jordan Marsh store opened downtown in 1956, onm the site of the future Omni mall. Miami Herald File

The Jordan Marsh chain was liquidated as part of the bankruptcy reorganization for its parent, Federated Department Stores. Burdines, another Federated-owned chain, took on the Jordan Marsh lease at the Omni less than a year ago.

Herbert A. Leeds, a local retailing analyst, said the decision to close the Omni store shouldn't be taken as a statement about the mall's overall future.

With two stores less than two miles apart, "Burdines was in competition with itself, " said Leeds.

But "the empty space won't help traffic at the mall, " said Paco Diaz, a retail real estate broker with CB Commercial Real Estate Inc. in Miami.

Equitable Life Assurance Society of the U.S., which owns the Omni Mall, said it's still negotiating with the retailer.

"We'd like to see them stay at the mall" in a smaller location, said Jonathan Miller, a spokesman for the insurer.

CONSUMER DELIGHTS

May 12, 1991: The Omni International has long been known to legions of shoppers, tourists and casual observers as The Mall That Just Won't Die. The gigantic spending emporium an as-yet- unconstructed Metromover stop away from downtown continues to be a fascinating study in death-rattle capitalism. This credit- card cavern has been deemed worm food many times over, only to miraculously rise from the muck and struggle onward. The Omni, built in 1977, is surely as worthy a parable about Miami as any -- a down-and-out leviathan redeemed with expensive face lifts even as its vast, empty halls echo with the not-so-distant rumble of economic doom.

Lest I offer the wrong impression, let me state right out of the gate that I feel a great affection toward the Omni: Not only is it a valuable axiom for culture and a barometer for the economic peaks and valleys of the city, but also it is a quintessential mall. And, heresy though it may be, I love malls.

Beyond its obvious use as a consumer's hideaway, the mall is a fascinating place of study. Like television, it creates a completely artificial sense of comfort — come rain or shine, immute and unchangeable, you can rely on it simply being there. The brightly-lit mall (nary a speck of sunlight) has a timeless, generic feel to it. Most good malls — and here the Omni is among the very few in Miami to adhere — don't try too hard to push the right geographic, class and multicultural buttons. Think of places like The Falls, the new CocoWalk or Bal Harbour: One is a veritable water palace, another a pink playground, and the last as overhanging with horticultural niceties as Tammy Faye's eyelashes. Each offers a contrived spectacle going too far in pursuit of a tropical theme, rather than allowing a visitor to focus on a mall's true purpose: maximum shopping with minimum effort. It's like that other defining American metaphor —the freeway. Both are triumphs of function over aesthetics.

Speaking of aesthetics, how about that carousel? Outrageous? Vulgar? Misguided?

Well, this merry-go-round has been going round since the Omni's earliest days, and emerges today as a truly eccentric coup. Sure, it was conceived to attract children (back then there was a more expanded amusement park), but in such a vast, enclosed arena as the two-level Omni, it adds a quirky decorative touch. The massive carousel — with a canopy displaying portraits of Florida's history, from the Spanish conquistadors onward —fits snugly at the western end of the lower mall, and rises upward in the processed air like some fanciful organ that sustains life in this subterranean world. At 50 cents a ride, the price is right, but few kids are there to line up.

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Omni Mall security guard Ralph Higgins stops to talk with Maria Rocco, who sells watches from a cart in the mall. Miami Herald File

That's the thing about the Omni. It so often looks as vacant as a Metrorail parking lot. For years it has been written off as an inner city staging area for troublesome youth. My guess is: They aren't loitering, they're just waiting for a show at the mall's multiscreen theater. The Omni consistently produces some of the most interesting film audiences around. They can be respectful and intent, and rambunctious when appropriate. During a recent showing of Sleeping with the Enemy, one young woman gave the best play-by-play of Julia Roberts' performance imaginable: "She going to show her sex now. Then she wiggle her behind. Now she toss her hair and put her clothes on." Pauline Kael, God rest her retired critic's heart, couldn't do it any better.

But for all its fabled signs of decay, the Omni continues to surprise. Consider the recent renovation with all its tile work and glass brick. Consider the relatively new food court. All of a sudden, at noon, the place fills up and the pace quickens. But where do these hungry patrons come from? Argentina and Brazil, most likely. A recent and insanely unscientific spot survey failed to turn up the employees from downtown trekking over to the court for a bite. (That's Bayside's crowd.) Not that the feeding frenzy is a sign of anything special on the menu. This is not particularly inspired fast food, although there is a sandwich shop that has on its menu, next to the chicken gyro, vintage Dom Perignon, at bargain basement prices.

But the price of the mall's recent cosmetic surgeries was certainly not in the bargain basement range. From what source do these inexhaustible dollars spring? The Omni is owned by Equitable Life Assurance (itself an embattled company, as reported in The Wall Street Journal last year), and since 1985 has been managed by the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. I asked Dan Guinsler, the Omni's manager, how much cash it takes to jump start a white elephant. Guinsler wouldn't say for the record. But it's millions.

And worth every penny if it brings us such delights as the newsstand right beside the carousel. Now here's the real window to the world the Omni aspires to -- you can find every European magazine and world newspaper: From our hemisphere there's Colombia's El Espectador, Brazil's O Globo, Venezuela's El Universal and Argentina's La Nacion; from across the Atlantic, you'll see Germany's Die Stern, France's Le Figaro, Spain's ABC, Italy's Corriere della Sera, and a sublime collection of Britain's Fleet Street papers and rags, among them The Times, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, along with News of the World, The People, Daily Mirror, and The Sun. The tabloid headers will put a smile on your face faster than you can say J.C. Penney. I saw one that ran: GOLFING BIRDIES ON THE GAME! Predictably, the cover story was about hookers brought over to Portuguese golf resorts as after-hours entertainment; naturally, the photo was of a scantily bikinied tart holding a pitching wedge for support. Ah, those Brits.

Perhaps its reduced circumstances make the Omni experience slightly soporific and melancholy: Business is slow these days, and many store owners are found standing outside like street hustlers on New York's Seventh Avenue.

But they're not going to mug you -- not yet anyway. They're still hoping to do it the old-fashioned way -- through store receipts. The collective verdict of Omni store managers is one of dogged optimism. Victor Kaufman, manager of Bally of Switzerland, a high-tab shoe store that's been there since the genesis: "I think they're on their way back. When the Metromover comes in 1994 it'll get better."

And yet — whether or not the toy train is salvation for the revenue-raising monolith — as a peculiar institution of a most peculiar city, it is in its own clumsy way, already triumphant.

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