Monday, April 7, 2014

Dallas Sees Gold in 2 Dead Malls

Maybe it's because my first real job was in a mall.

But I can't help being a tad curious when I learn new things about America's dated malls, how they're dying, and the various schemes cities come up with to try and resuscitate them.

For many people, especially city council members, mayors, and Luddites who loathe shopping on the Internet, it's easy to forget that shopping malls were a fad.  They were merely one step in the evolution of retailing, from the country store, to the downtown retail district, to strip centers.  And then came enclosed, climate-controlled centers; one fad after another.

It's not complex economics:  shopping malls were destined to fade from popularity whenever the next big thing came along.

And the next big thing, so far, appears to be an amalgamation of online retailing and "lifestyle" centers - kind of a flash-back to the 1960's strip mall, but with a 1920's downtown aesthetic, replete with brick walkways, old-fashioned lampposts, and decorated seating areas that air-conditioned malls popularized.

After each trend has had its day, there's the unsettled fallout as survivors try to hang on to what made them successful.  For example, it took a while for the big-city department store trend to die, yet a few manage to hang on in places like New York, with Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Saks Fifth Avenue; and Dallas, with the flagship Neiman-Marcus.  From other walkable downtowns in cities like Philadelphia to Boston and Chicago, various famous stores have been bought-out by the firm that controls Macy's, and grand old names from the heyday of regional department stores are now all called "Macy's."  Nevertheless, those grand old store buildings still stand, even if more for nostalgia's sake - and with the benefit of hefty tax incentives - than anything else.

If it wasn't for America's Interstate highway system, and small neighborhood locales, strip shopping centers would likely have become extinct when malls came along.  However, the convenience of driving up close to the front door of the store at which you wanted to shop never really became unpopular, even if the neighborhoods where these strip centers were initially built experienced a decline in their social status over the years.

Here in the Fort Worth - Dallas area, decades of booming growth from the fifties on to the present day has meant that not only do we have lots of aging strip shopping centers everyplace, but we also have a lot of those huge malls.  What folks in the industry call "super-regional shopping centers."  With the heat that we have most of the year, air-conditioned malls made a lot of sense, even if you could bake yourself alive simply traversing acres of concrete parking lots on your walk between your car and the closest entrance.

Just off the top of my head, I can count up to about 18 of those super-regional malls that were built around here, including one of the first ever in the country:  North Park Center in Dallas.

Surprisingly, venerable North Park has been fashionable and popular from day one, and today, is practically a tourist destination in its own right.  And part of its ironic staying power is that it defies convention.  It is everything current pop culture says is uncool for a mall:  it's enormous, most of it is still from the 1960's, it has a bland design, it doesn't have enough parking, it doesn't have any glitzy center court, it takes forever to get anywhere inside, it's full of inconsequential Modern art, it's got every traditional department store brand you can imagine, and it gets over-run with teenagers on the weekends.  Yet it's still packed.  All the time.  With stores that sell some of the most expensive stuff in the entire state.  Lines of both imported luxury cars and domestic SUVs alike, their drivers waiting for valet parking, can wrap around the parking lots on Friday and Saturday nights.  Leave a movie at its huge multi-plex after midnight, and its parking lots are still half-full.

Christmas?  You've gotta be kidding.

North Park dazzles politicos and planners down at Dallas' city hall, because it isn't supposed to work, but it does, and wildly so.

But we're only talking one mall here.  For a while, newer and fancier malls like the Galleria, which used to bill itself as the most exclusive mall in Dallas, gave North Park a run for its money.  But these days, nothing local compares to North Park in terms of tried-and-true retailing revenue and foot traffic.  There are some big malls in Dallas' wealthy suburbs, but they're not in the same league as North Park.

Meanwhile, of those 18 super-regional malls that are scattered about north Texas, one has been converted to a discount emporium catering to Hispanics, several have simply died - a couple have been completely torn-down and their property redeveloped; one here in Arlington is defunct and slogging through yet another bankruptcy court battle, with plenty of others only steps away from meeting the same fate, judging by how empty their parking lots are.

Two of those near-death malls are back in Dallas; one in the city's wealthier, whiter, northern part, and the other in the city's poorer, blacker, southern part.  Valley View, in the northern part of Dallas, is already closed, for all practical purposes.  Red Bird, which developers tried to re-name "Southwest Center" after most of its stores fled two decades ago, is on life support.  Literally.  People have gotten shot to death inside of it.
Dated, drab, and sterile... is this Valley View?  Red Bird?
No, it's Dallas' wildly popular North Park Center.  Go figure.
(This photo must have been taken right after it opened for the day;
I've never seen it this empty when I've been there.)
The reasons for both malls' problems are at the same time identical, yet different.  Valley View declined as shoppers were poached by newer malls around it, including the Galleria, and as traffic congestion on the freeway bordering it, the notorious LBJ, practically suffocated it.  Red Bird declined as the neighborhood surrounding it transitioned from a mixture of middle-class blacks and whites to nearly all-black of meager economic means, with the commensurate rise in crime and blight that unfortunately accompanies most such transitions.  It's not just Red Bird Mall that's empty today; most of the strip centers, motels, and restaurants around it are either empty as well, or renting out to mom-and-pop shops of dubious distinction.  The entire Red Bird neighborhood has become a byword for urban decay around here, even as middle-class blacks move out for nicer, safer, cleaner suburbs further south from Dallas.

Nevertheless, with their gaze on North Park, city leaders see promise in both Valley View and Red Bird.  And are trying to commit $432 million in taxpayer funds to pump new life into them.

Already anticipating the push-back they'll receive from Dallas voters who are very much aware of the eyesores that both Valley View and Red Bird have become, one city councilmember, Tennell Atkins, has issued a warning for critics of the $432 million outlay.

“People [who say] we should not put this money in Valley View and [Red Bird], you’re wrong," Atkins defiantly said, trying to call the property by it's contrived alias, Southwest Center Mall.  "This is the City of Dallas.  We’re going to put the money there.  We’ll grow the city, we’ll grow development… in the south and north and take development back from the suburbs.”

Except that no new mall has been built in Dallas, Fort Worth, or their suburbs in years.  Now, granted, Atkins and his fellow councilmembers are talking about mixing in some apartments and offices into their aspirations for rejuvenating these two dormant malls.  But it's no secret outside of Dallas' council chambers that shopping malls themselves are dead weight these days.
Valley View Mall (foreground) with the Galleria in the distance,
between the two towers with arched roofs.
Although it's ironic that both an affluent sector and a poverty-stricken sector of the same city have defunct malls, the Valley View property poses far more potential than the Red Bird property does.  Its neighborhood consists of some run-down apartment complexes and dated office buildings, but the whole district may be on the cusp of some major changes.  That awful Interstate running alongside Valley View, the LBJ Freeway, has endured years of an above-ground and below-ground expansion that will be completed before too long.  When construction comes to a close, Valley View's property will be far more alluring as a redevelopment site than Red Bird's.  You see, although Red Bird sits along not just one but two well-traveled freeways, its surrounding neighborhood shows no signs of reversing its serious decline.  Valley View's property, meanwhile, will still be relatively accessible to not only some of Dallas' most desirable residential neighborhoods, but also several nearby suburbs, all of which are densely populated by an increasingly diverse pool of well-educated, high-income people.  The type of people who, no matter their skin color and ethnicity, simply don't want to live around Red Bird.

Owners of Valley View are asking for a handout from City Hall because that's what developers do these days.  Time was, a developer funded a project with private money based on its merits.  These days, developers cloak their ideas with language evoking "economic revitalization," and ask for taxpayer money to help pad the profit margin of projects that may or may not actually make sense.  For the Valley View property, it would take a pretty incompetent developer not to make a profit on re-using that prime swath of real estate.  In a city where golden Wild-West-style bragging rights used to ride on glitzy shopping centers and daring skyscrapers, one would hope that some good ol' Big-D hubris still exists to fuel some dirt-movin', steel-raisin' passion.

Red Bird, sorry to say, will languish no matter what takes place.  It's almost too obvious that advocates for Red Bird's redevelopment are throwing Valley View into the mix so they can ride the coattails of the northern mall's presumed success.  But Valley View will never again be just a mall.  In fact, it likely will never again have a shopping center as its major tenant.  For Dallas, as with all of North America, those days are almost certainly over, as retailing continues to churn through its bottom-line trends.

So, how about where you live?  Any dead malls nearby?

If your local politicians think throwing $432 million to gussie them up is a stupid idea, be thankful.  Here in Dallas, it's called the cost of gilding nostalgia.

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