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Zombie malls and other retail centers getting extreme makeovers to keep up with the times

Robert McCoppin, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Denise Richardson took her kids to Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee, Illinois, so often that at Christmas time, the Santa Claus there recognized them by name. She remembers when department stores moved out of Elgin, then a city of 64,000 people in the exurbs of Chicago, to the mall when it opened in 1980, and it was the place to be.

But the mall closed last month, the victim of trends that have been reshaping retail for years. Online shopping. The growth of so-called lifestyle centers in new growth corridors. The COVID-19 pandemic and working from home.

Richardson, who was general manager of the mall, hates to see it go. But as a trustee for the village of Carpentersville, Illinois, where part of the mall lies, she accepted its fate.

“I fought for this mall,” she said. “It’s a beautiful mall. But things happen for a reason.”

Stratford Square in west suburban Bloomingdale, Illinois, also is set to close this month. Like Spring Hill, it was a zombie mall, lurching along with progressively fewer stores and customers, until it was an empty shell of itself.

In both cases, villages took the extraordinary step of buying the malls, with plans to bulldoze the sites and start anew. Those are the most extreme cases, but across Chicago’s suburbs, at centers such as Westfield Old Orchard, Northbrook Court, and Chicago Ridge, managers are trying to replace closed department stores and reinvent the retail experience.

 

Nationwide, the number of malls declined about 17% per year from 2017 to 2022 and many more are expected to close in the next 10 years, according to a report by Capitol One bank.

“Malls are no longer seen as desirable places for retailers,” the analysis found, reporting that mall vacancies are three times higher than for general retail.

But managers believe they can save malls with makeovers that often involve adding entertainment and dining, with a new twist: making malls a place where people cannot just shop, but live.

Builders have built or plan to add hundreds of apartments at malls in various Chicago suburbs. The idea is that residents will have an affordable home with quick access to shopping, restaurants, gyms and things to do, while municipalities will get increased property taxes.

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