Part 1: The Fall of America’s Malls

It’s no secret that malls all around the United States are dying. Think of a dying or dead mall in your area; I’m sure you can name at least one. One of the malls I frequented as a kid, Randall Park Mall, is now home to an 855,000-square-foot Amazon distribution center, which seems only fitting as it is represents the retail trend responsible for its death. Right?

Randall Park Mall in North Randall, Ohio. Once the largest mall in the country, it was completely vacant and extremely dilapidated before it was torn down in August 2017.

It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. While many may blame the rise of online shopping on the decline of malls, a recent New York Times report argues that there are other factors with bigger impacts that are shuttering malls. For example, warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club and supercenters like Walmart have grown more than online shopping—Sam’s Club’s sales increased a similar amount to Amazon’s from 1999 to 2013, while Costco’s increased even more.

A Shrinking Middle Class

Another major factor in the decline of malls is the steady shrinking of the middle class and subsequent increase in income inequality that’s been occurring since 1970. Costco, Sam’s Club, and Walmart are known for their affordability, especially with the option of buying in bulk, which further lowers costs and saves time (and time is money, after all). Retailers catering specifically to low and high-income consumers have grown as the middle class has shrunk, which has caused those catering specifically to the middle class to falter. Another Cleveland-area mall, Beachwood Place, is located in an affluent area that is set to open five new stores and a restaurant while other malls in the region are closing.

The Shops at Crystals in Las Vegas has the world’s largest collection of designer brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton (the largest in North America), Fendi, and Prada.

Experiences Over Things

Another reason many malls are failing is that Americans don’t spend as much money on “things” as they used to. Now, services such as healthcare, education, and entertainment take up most our income. For example, when we buy clothes today, we may go to discount stores like Marshall’s or TJ Maxx, thrift stores, or online. And once department stores leave malls, the middle-mall stores such as nail salons that rely on mall traffic for the bulk of their business fail as well, leading to the eventual closing of the entire mall. Another cause of mall failure: oversaturation. According to architecture professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, so many malls were built from the 1960s to the 80s that by the 90s, they began cannibalizing each other as they evolved and re-positioned themselves. Malls in affluent areas were able to remain prosperous (like Beachwood Place) while mall owners in struggling areas began defaulting on loans and letting their malls die (like Randall Park Mall).

So What if Malls Die?

Some may argue it’s not an issue that malls are closing, since people are still able to access the things they need at affordable prices elsewhere. What’s the issue? Well, the major loss of jobs and tax revenue that accompany a mall’s closing can have a striking economic impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, and often crime rates increase as well. Malls are major contributors to both city and state taxes, so their closings are also felt at a larger scale than just local.

While there are dead malls throughout the country, this blog mini-series will focus on Columbus—specifically, the once-thriving directionally-named malls: Westland, Eastland, and Northland. They were all opened in the 1960s by the Richard E. Jacobs group, comprised of the successful Ohio-based Jacobs brothers duo for whom Progressive Field was named after until 2008. The three malls were popular neighborhood destinations for decades, but today, one is dying, one is dead, and one is nonexistent. This series will look into each mall and why each has failed. Despite being in three different areas of Columbus, each mall faced similar challenges and succumbed to a similar fate.

Stay tuned to learn the gritty details of the rise and demise of Columbus’ suburban mall culture. We’ll post weekly for the next four weeks about the topic. If you have ideas or suggestions, email Annalise.

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