Share Your Story

General Mall

Food Court





Related Links

edit SideBar


An Enormous Landmark Joins Graveyard of Malls

By PETER T. KILBORN (NYT) 1274 words Published: December 24, 2003

MEMPHIS, Dec. 19 - No holiday bells ring through the Mall of Memphis this season. No holly, ribbons or blinking white lights bedeck the halls, where just 13 of 160 stores remain open. This giant, two-level, windowless monolith, with 90 acres of roof and yellow-striped parking lots, billed as the biggest mall in the mid-South, is going out of business at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

The enclosed mall, built to mimic a rural Main Street, with lampposts and trees in big pots, looks today like Main Street in a ghost town. It's just dead here, said Lisa Miller, one of only two diners in the food court at noon. It's a dead mall now.

Henry Turley, a downtown Memphis developer, said, What you've got is the value of the ground.

The Mall of Memphis joins several hundred dead or dying indoor malls in or near Chicago; Dallas; Los Angeles; San Francisco; New Haven; Milwaukee; Augusta, Ga.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Jennings, Mo.; and Fishkill, N.Y. Some have been bulldozed away. Some have been converted to homes or schools.

But few deaths have matched the magnitude of this mall's demise, or the magnitude of the insult of the immense black-and-brown bruise it leaves on the southeastern flank of the city, visible from the Interstate 240 Loop and the busiest intersections outside downtown.

The whole idea of bigger being better, I just don't think that's the case anymore, said A. C. Wharton Jr., the mayor here in Shelby County.

In and around Memphis, some other enclosed malls still thrive, Mayor Wharton said, and he himself shops at the upscale, smaller Oak Court mall on the east side of town.

But the idea of 'put a roof over it and put gadgets in it, and the people will come,' I think that day is gone, he said. The premise that convenience means so much that people are willing to put up with so much, like parking lots where they get lost, that's worn off.

The Mall of Memphis took 10 years to build, and lived for 22. It has succumbed to ferocious competition from spiffier malls and big discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target, and to a population shift, racial tensions and fear of crime. Little of the pride that Memphis accords other institutions, like Beale Street and Graceland, is bestowed on an institution that is bigger than both.

Charge a buck to hit it with a sledgehammer and donate the money to fix all the potholes, a reader of The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis daily, wrote in reply to a columnist's request for suggestions. Others proposed an office park, a community college, a football stadium and a new fire department training facility and just burn the nasty thing down. None proposed another mall.

Along the corridors, a small carousel of young girls' lacy party dresses, priced up to $80, stood in front of a children's clothing store. Everything's half off now, said Hamad Awad, the salesman. But in the thick of the Christmas season, there was not a shopper near. It's like losing money every day, Mr. Awad said.

The five-screen movie theater, the Nail Studio, Victoria's Secret, ProImage, Lenscrafters, Vibe, Divas, City G.E.A.R, Regency Jewelers, Gold Valley and Candlelight Weddings, where you could just walk in and be married, have all gone.

The signs above the mall's two big anchor stores, J. C. Penney and Dillard's, have been pried off. Just the shadows remain.

Since the first enclosed mall was built, in 1957 near Minneapolis, an estimated 300 to 400 have been destroyed, locked up or converted to some other use, said William Beyard, a senior fellow for retailing and entertainment at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Washington that studies the uses of real estate. Of the nation's 1,500 to 2,000 currently operating, he said, some 300 fortress malls, each with more than a million square feet and three or more anchor stores, are sucking up energy from smaller malls.

The trends are very clear, he said. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.

In the battlefield vocabulary of retail development, malls are losing ground not only to big discounters like Wal-Mart and Target but also to the Internet, outlet centers and new strip malls, and to power centers, where big-box category killers, like Staples and Home Depot, combine at one site.

This does not mean that malls as a generic type are failing, said Anthony Downs, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a director of General Growth Properties, a leading owner and manager of malls. Our business is booming.

Still, Mr. Downs said, competition and population shifts, often from white to black in urban areas, can undermine malls that are left behind. When the population becomes largely minority, Mr. Downs said, it discourages the white population from coming in. It shouldn't, but it does.

From 1980, just before the Mall of Memphis opened, to 2000, the black population's share of the city's total population grew to 64 percent from 48 percent. Affluent white neighborhoods followed Poplar Avenue from the center farther and father east into the suburbs. Their residents use fashionable shopping centers: Oak Court mall and, farther out, Wolfchase Galleria.

The Mall of Memphis is well off that path. As its neighborhood became more and more black and working class, its customer mix in this city with a history of racial tensions changed. Crime, and the perception of crime, grew among blacks and whites alike. The mall's shops became faddish, Mayor Wharton said, hustling baggy pants one month, something else the next.

Mr. Filbert, the mall's manager, said it was big tenants' business decisions that killed it: in 2001, Dillard's and J. C. Penney left. I think it was plain and simple, he said. The majors left us, though the downturn in the economy hurt us, too.

Crime, he said, had nothing to do with it.

A cause or not, crime is the word that trips off tongues in the mall. In 1992, a 71-year-old woman, a shop manager, was shot to death in the parking lot during a robbery attempt. And Mike Blaekman, owner of the Hockey Stop, one of the shops still open, said: My vehicle was stolen from this mall in 1998. An armored-car delivery service was robbed inside the mall.

Elson Turner, idling the afternoon away with no hair to cut in his barbershop, said, A couple of years ago, a guy killed his girlfriend next to where the drugstore used to be and killed himself in the hall right out here.

To fight crime, the Memphis police put a substation on the ground floor. Crime spotters with binoculars roamed the roof. Elevated guard shacks were installed in the parking lots, though they were removed long ago. That was a negative, Mr. Filbert said of the shacks, because they reinforced shoppers' fears.

In any case, the perceptions endured. The mall's failure, said Mr. Turley, the developer who has helped revive downtown Memphis with new stores and housing, has to do with income, it has to do with race, and it has to do with the disposability of the cities we're building.

The Mall of Memphis, all but desolate as it prepares to close, fell victim to some familiar trends.

Credit - The New York Times