Dead Malls Offer Cities and Towns a “Do-Over” Opportunity

As the age of the consumer fades, America’s retailers are undergoing a gut-wrenching metamorphosis.  A recent report by commercial real estate firm CoStar says that nearly one quarter of all malls in the United States are at risk of losing an anchor store.  When they do, traffic will plummet and the malls are likely to fail.

America has already lost close to 200 malls.  According to Wikipedia, 104 have been demolished and another 78 are defunct.  Perhaps the most famous of these is Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois.  Dixie Square was the mall “destroyed” during the legendary chase scene in the original Blues Brothers movie.  It took local officials over 30 years to find the funds to tear it down. Now they’re struggling to figure out what to with the land.  I don’t know why.  As viewed from Google Earth, it isn’t hard to see that it represents a tremendous opportunity to re-establish the grid and redo the community in a manner that encourages walking and biking.

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The former Dixie Square Mall site offers local officials an opportunity to extend the grid and create walkable and bicycle-friendly development.

Ogden once had a downtown mall.  It was built in 1980, ostensibly to save the city’s struggling core.  It was a nice mall (it even had a Nordstrom’s) but it failed to save anything.  It was the wrong solution to the problem.

Fortunately, local officials recognized that it was a mistake.  The mall is now gone, replaced with a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood that encourages people to get out of their cars and walk or bike.  It is the very epicenter of the city.  Downtown Ogden is vibrant and growing again after years of decay and neglect.   There’s a nearby rail connection to Salt Lake City and people are moving into updated apartments and condominiums here.  They can live car free if they want to.  Regardless, they bring a humanity to street level that cars don’t.  It’s like magic.

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Ogden City Mall, 1997 (Google Earth)


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Same location today.  There are streets and sidewalks for people.  There are residences.  The grid has been re-established.  This is good.

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This was once an enclosed fortress mall, accessible primarily by car.  Now it’s totally mixed use and accessible on foot or by bicycle.  The scale is right and people love to come here.

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Protected bike lanes on the Grant Avenue Promenade.  There are plans for more of this here.

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The nearby FrontRunner commuter rail station provides a link to Salt Lake City and beyond.

Bicycles, walkability and transit are a big part of Ogden’s renaissance.  This is by design and it is working.  There are protected bike lanes on Grant Avenue just to the west of the former mall site.  There are plans for downtown bike sharing.  There’s no way you can look at all of this and say that it is not an improvement over what was here previously.

So dead malls are not something that cities and suburbs should fear.  They are an opportunity to make things right, a “do-over” so to speak.  Places that embrace this opportunity and learn from the mistakes of the past will grow and be better as a result.  I’ve seen it for myself.  I’m a believer.



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