originally published January 5, 2013
The above photo is a news clipping for West Edmonton Mall, published shortly before it opened in September of 1981, giving my unlikely northern city the curious honor of hosting the world’s largest shopping mall. Two years later the mall expanded, adding a McDonald’s and the largest indoor amusement park on the planet, at which point it became Mecca for myself and all other eight-year-olds who needed something indoors to do in a city where winter lasts for half the year.
I’m not entirely certain why those two ladies on the left side of that photo are standing so casually in the middle of oncoming traffic on 170th street; perhaps that was meant to demonstrate just how captivating the shopping palace would be. “A Mall So Glorious, It Might Actually Kill You.”
Alas, West Edmonton Mall has slipped down the charts in the last 30 years, falling to #12 on the list, #13 if you count the amusement park in the middle of the Mall of America in Minneapolis. But at least our mall is thriving. If you want a giant slab of depressing capitalist debris, do a Google search for Dead Mall.
A dead mall is just what it sounds like. Very few, or sometimes no stores left, not enough foot traffic to fill the bleachers at a little league game, and probably a fantastic resonance for hearing one’s own echo.
Sometimes it’s the departure of an anchor store that kills a mall. Those are the giant stores that entice people through the doors before spewing them into the guts of the mall itself. Sometimes the surrounding neighborhood has fallen onto hard times. Maybe a larger mall, or a Walmart moved in to the area and messed with the natural order of things. We had our own such mall – Meadowlark – which was so overshadowed by West Edmonton Mall (11 blocks away), it was reduced to a drug store and a bunch of medical offices.
The past decade has ushered in the era of the big-box monstrosity. Often located in clumps along a strip of road, now they seem to gather together in big-box communities, offering the same experience as a mall, except you have to drive from store to store and I’ll be damned if you can find a friggin’ Orange Julius. They call these places ‘Power Centers’, which sounds more like a hockey term. Alternately, if the Power Center features some upscale recreational facilities in their midst (like a roller-Tae-Bo arena) , the correct term is ‘Lifestyle Centers’. Which sounds like a euphemism for a seniors’ home.
Big Box stores are small-business assassins. But they usually offer better prices and more selection. No grass-roots movement is going to talk a city into abandoning Staples for some mom-and-pop paperclip emporium.
So what can be done to save the shopping mall?
Well, one option is to make sure you build your mall in a cold-climate locale. At one time, Edmonton boasted (though I doubt anyone was impressed) the best ratio of people to shopping malls of any city in the world. We’ve lost a couple since then, but people still enjoy the sensation of walking from store to store without losing fingers to frostbite. Also, build your mall close to where seniors live. Old people love malls. It’s a fine place to graze when your mobility isn’t so great. Plus, friggin’ Orange Julius.
By the mid-90’s, Eastmont Mall was the last shopping mall left in Oakland. Once its anchor stores bolted for the hills, management stuck some offices, a library, and a Social Security office in the empty storefronts, and wound up attracting new crowds and new retailers. But much like people, usually when a mall is dead, it stays dead.
Mohawk Mall in Niskayuna, New York began its life in the 70’s mall boom, but by the time they were down to their last four retailers, even the management didn’t want to touch the place. The mall continued to operate without any maintenance staff, reeking of mold and urine. This was a piece of local history; astronaut Donald Slayton handed out moon dust to kids there in 1987, and the mall’s Santa Claus dropped dead of a heart attack the year before. By 2000, it was a goddamn Power Center.
Lake Forest Plaza in New Orleans had its own wonky set of circumstances. It had shrunk from five anchor stores to just one, mostly due to a downturn in the local oil industry. Eastern New Orleans was once an upscale neighborhood, but the shift in the economy had meant a drastic alteration to the general public under the mall’s roof.
Once the possibility of being randomly stabbed becomes a factor, suddenly a trip to the local Payless just ain’t worth the savings. When Hurricane Katrina swept in and rendered the mall uninhabitable in 2005, it was probably a blessing.
Now here’s a healthy mall, bustling with consumers and no doubt overflowing with canvas bags featuring dollar-signs stamped on the outside. Except that the above image is an artist’s rendering. The real mall looks more like this:
This is the New South China Mall in Dongguan, China. This isn’t just another dead mall. This one is a monster.
New South China Mall is the largest shopping mall in the world, with over 7.1 million square feet of gross leasable area, eclipsing the #2 mall on the list (also in China) by over a million square feet. It features the longest roller coaster in China, an 82-foot replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a stunning replica of St. Mark’s bell tower in Venice, and over a mile of canals, complete with gondolas.
You can visit seven different ‘zones’, themed to resemble Amsterdam, California, the Caribbean, Rome, Paris, Venice and Egypt. The mall has space for 2350 stores. The number of stores actually in the mall?
That’s it. Many of the 47 are western fast-food outlets. The mall opened in 2005, the vision of instant-noodle billionaire Alex Hu, and it has never been able to chip away at its 99% vacancy rate. Again, the problem is all in the planning. Dongguan has no airport. There are no freeways or highways anywhere near the mall. It’s also really only reachable by car or bus, so China’s massive bicycle-dependent population can’t get there conveniently.
They may as well have built the thing in Antarctica.
The website deadmalls.com is a great place to keep track of the decaying retail medium in the US. The future of the shopping mall doesn’t look great, but fortunately there’s always Edmonton. We still love our malls, even just as a place we can go for a while to escape winter.