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Dead Malls of Illinois: What Have We Lost?

The golden age of the mall is long gone, and many of the malls are, too. A few are being reborn, however, as the shopping landscape changes.

The inside of a long-dead mall, as photographed by Seph Lawless for his new book "Black Friday."
The inside of a long-dead mall, as photographed by Seph Lawless for his new book "Black Friday."

By Melinda Carstensen

They're a blight on America’s suburban landscape: hulking dead shopping malls, many with boarded windows, sagging rooftops and parking lots full of weeds.

The American shopping mall saw its Golden Age from 1956 to 2005, when 1,500 malls were built across the country. But no new enclosed mega-mall has been built since 2006. And while about 1,200 malls are still standing, many have been abandoned and sit on the outskirts of American cities like strange coffins of commerce. In a new book called "Black Friday," the photographer Seph Lawless captures the demise of many of these dead malls in images charged with a kind of haunting beauty.

"It’s almost a sense of sadness because you don’t just miss the malls but everything that’s connected to it," he said. That was America. It was a more vibrant time for us."

The Dixie Square Mall in Harvey was the most famous of the dead malls in the Chicago area, serving as a set for a wild chase scene in the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd film "The Blues Brothers". Opened in 1966, the south suburban mall closed in 1979. The edifice of the dead mall wasn't fully dismantled until 2012, and now it's just a memory.

Another south suburban mall in Matteson, Lincoln Mall, has suffered greatly over the last 25 years, losing its anchor tenants and most of its foot traffic. Renovations got under way in a much-ballyhooed project within the last decade, but the work has sputtered. Last year, the village was forced to sue the mall owner for numerous building code and safety violations.

A west-suburban mall in St. Charles that was all-but-dead will be reborn this year with a $70 million investment. The Charlestowne Mall has been redubbed The Quad, and renovation work started in April.

The website DeadMalls.com offers a state-by-state list of America’s most-forlorn shopping meccas, and 27 malls are listed. Some are dead, some are dying, some are just memories, but a few have been reborn and are experiencing new life as viable commercial centers.

Brementown Mall in Tinley Park, for example, once home to a movie theater, is now occupied by one of America's largest Menard's home improvement stores.

And Orland Park Place in Orland Park, which closed in 1997 as customers flocked to the nearby Orland Square Mall, is now far from empty or dead these days, with a Nordstrom Rack, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Steinmart, DSW Shoe Warehouse, Old Navy and others.

DeadMalls.com's list is far from complete. Last year, The Plaza in Evergreen Park finally closed after 61 years in operation. In its last decades, the mall struggled mightily to retain shoppers.

The ongoing struggles of the big department store chains, namely Sears and JCPenney, are affecting many of the nation's remaining malls. JCPenney announced in January that it would close 33 stores nationwide. The loss of an anchor tenant can be devastating.

Howard Davidowitz, of the national retail consultant and investment banking firm Davidowitz & Associates, predicts half of U.S. malls will close within the next decade.

Outlet malls, however, are thriving. Developers opened 11 new outlet centers in 2013, more than quadruple the number that opened in 2009.

High-end malls, with anchor stores such as Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue, are also flourishing, said Ryan McCullough, a real estate economist at CoStar, a commercial real estate research firm. The Promenade in Bolingbrook, an open-air mall with many higher-end retail outlets and restaurants, opened in 2007. Per square foot, luxury malls saw a 14.6 percent growth in sales from 2009 to 2013, according to CoStar.

Michael Dart, co-author of the book “The New Rules of Retail,” said traditional shopping malls are failing where these high-end malls are succeeding: providing consumers with something they can’t get on the Internet.

Guests can enjoy upscale food courts, fancy interiors and live entertainment. Novelty and exclusivity, he said, lure consumers away from their computers and into these malls.

“The consumer has become satiated enough with the same type of stuff, so it’s become increasingly important to become experiential,” Dart said.

In malls where stores have closed shop, vacant space has been converted into religious, medical or school facilities. For malls that have faced store closures, this is a positive, creative reuse of that space, McCullough said.

The "Dead Malls" of Illinois, as listed on deadmalls.com
Note: article revised to correct a reference to Orland Square Mall

Your Turn:
Do you think the American mall has met its doom, and should abandoned facilities be demolished? Or do you think there’s hope for their survival? What’s happened to the shopping malls where you once shopped or dropped off the kids for the afternoon?

Holly B May 22, 2014 at 09:09 AM
It is easier to shop online, but why not make Grocery stores the 'Anchor stores' instead of other types like Sears because as they say, people have to go to the Grocery store... an idea???? Also, they make the freakin stores SO HOT it is just awful! I can't get out fast enough just to get cool! They NEVER take into account most folks have their coats on, and that the temp they put store on at the beginning of the day will escalate because of all that body heat from customers. By the end of the day you are so hot the last thing you want to do is shop! TURN THE DAMN HEAT DOWN! Make it a fun place to be with kiddie rides and events! WORK IT!
jim May 22, 2014 at 09:29 AM
We have a Mall that is almost entirely empty now. It had a Dominick's which has now left. Dominick's was in that mall for a number of years. Most of the other stores either were empty or businesses would be here today gone tomorrow.
George Murphy May 26, 2014 at 09:21 PM
The pendulum has swung the other way. I remember the early 1970's was a booming time for these "shopping centers." Meanwhile, the privately-owned business in the small towns were suffering as a result. When it is convenient to not have to leave one's home, well, one does not leave the same. The internet, while it is so handy, has killed retail businesses. Another big drawback is the price of the commercial rental. Unless the shopkeeper owns the building, it can be prohibitive in the overhead. Lastly, government regulations have destroyed and consumed much of any profit our merchants may accrue.
George Murphy May 26, 2014 at 09:30 PM
I patronize many businesses just to try to support the numbers. But, I am only one person. New Jersey has seen the same demise with shopping malls. The only head-above-water tactic is to keep other attractions on the property (movie houses, restaurants and kiddie fun places, to name a few). This may help, but it doesn't look as if these shopping wonder worlds will ever return to the statuses of the 1970's. It really troubles me to see people not thriving, especially when they faithfully go out to work each day.

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