What happens when a shopping mall dies

A quiet Northland Center mall in its last days.

A quiet Northland Center mall in its last days.

by Dan Rafter

Northland Center Mall in Southfield, Michigan, was once the busiest of places.

First opening to the public in 1954, the mall featured a four-level Hudson’s department store. Six years later, the mall opened its movie theater, one that featured a then-futuristic Cinerama screen.

And in the 1970s, construction crews enclosed the mall. In its boom days, Northland Center boasted about 100 stores.

Today, the mall sits empty. Macy’s was the mall’s last remaining anchor, and it closed on March 22 of this year. That was a significant date; It was exactly 61 years since the mall first opened.

Frank Simon

Frank Simon

The mall won’t be around for much longer. Frank Simon, managing partner of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based law firm Simon PLC, has been appointed receiver of the property. The plan is to find a buyer who will purchase the mall, knock it down and rebuild. Simon said that a big-box retail use would be a good fit for the site.

“A good redevelopment would be perfect,” Simon said. “Maybe a big-box store such as WalMart or Home Depot, that kind of retail, with some restaurants and banks around the site, would be a good use at that location. It might work for a medical use, too. There is talk that some medical user might be interested. That is the other option there.”

What happened?

How did a once-busy mall get to this point? Northland Center suffered from many of the problems facing other malls across the country.

Northland Center is far from the only mall that has shut down in the Midwest. Consumers’ tastes are changing, and many no longer want to spend an entire day strolling through an indoor shopping mall.

northland mall 2

“This mall was built in the early 1950s, so it’s not designed to today’s standards,” Simon said. “It’s not user-friendly. People who want to shop at a particular store have to walk a long way to get there. It’s like a maze inside there. You have to go through many turns, through several different sections, to get to a particular store. It really is a major process to find a particular store.”

Newer malls aren’t designed this way. They feature a higher number of exterior doors to allow shoppers to quickly find the stores they want.

Then there are the more popular open-air, outdoor malls. With these malls, consumers can quickly find their store, jump out of their cars, pick up what they want to buy and continue with the rest of their day.

It’s difficult to make a quick stop at a mall like Northland Center. Simon said that Northland Center boasted more than 1.6 million square feet of space. Today’s newer malls are often half that size or even smaller.

“They are more user-friendly,” Simon said. “They are easier to get around.”

Northland Center’s mix of retailers hurt it, too, especially after its anchors started to leave. Simon said that the enclosed malls that are thriving today are those that feature high-end, luxury retailers.

Northland Center lacked that. And so it closed its doors in September of last year, and Simon was appointed the mall’s receiver.

northland mall 3This is far from the first time that Simon has taken over as a receiver of a large retail property. He has been appointed a receiver for more than 81 properties, Simon said.

It’s certain that other aging malls like Northland Center will soon close their doors, too. Unless malls have the right tenant mix – think stores like Nordstrom and Macy’s as anchors – it will be hard for them to compete with the miles of strip centers and outdoor lifestyle centers that so many communities now feature.

And because consumers’ shopping preferences have changed – few shoppers want to spend long hours inside an enclosed shopping mall, while many others are doing more of the buying online – there’s no guarantee that enclosed shopping malls will ever see another heyday.

“Today it’s all about becoming user-friendly,” Simon said. “People used to go into a mall and spend several hours walking around. Now people want to go into a particular store, buy what they want and leave. They don’t want to spend an entire day at the mall. That is a big difference, and it’s why the outdoor open-air malls do well. You are outdoors. It is friendlier and quicker. That’s a big transformation.”

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