‘Dead malls’ get new life

Blake Farmer Jul 5, 2013

‘Dead malls’ get new life

Blake Farmer Jul 5, 2013

Dead Mall Revival

Shopping malls around the country are dropping like flies. Roughly a third have trouble keeping the lights on. And estimates from Green Street Advisors suggest 10 percent of indoor malls will go dark within a decade, due to changing consumer tastes.

But some malls are putting up a fight, even with one foot in the grave.

Owners of what was Nashville’s Hickory Hollow Mall are trying to pull off a miraculous resurrection. The city government is spending $32 million to put in a couple of hockey rinks, and convert the old JC Penney into a library and community center. Dillard’s has already been converted into a satellite campus for Nashville State Community College.

“You name it, people are coming up with a really wide range of uses to plug back into these facilities,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, a Georgia Tech professor who tracks hundreds of dead or dying malls around the country. “I really would not say it has come down to a magic formula.”

According to Dunham-Jones’ database, roughly 40 have been scraped to the ground. Fifty or so are giving it another shot, and some have found viable models. They turn into medical centers or office space, even charter schools. The key to success, she says, is making sure the former mall looks and feels substantially different.

Rebranding Shopping Centers

“If people go and just sort of feel like it’s just sort of the same old place, or it feels kind of creepy or empty, that’s not going to work very well,” she says.

For the moment, the interior of the old Hickory Hollow Mall in Nashville does feel the same — vacant and lifeless. In May, the 1.1 million square-foot building held a grand opening as the “Global Mall at the Crossings.” The idea is to cater to the increasing diversity that surrounds what was a community hub.

But for now, many of the storefronts have some version of a “coming soon” sign.

“It’s pretty empty,” says Jade Bradshaw, a young mother on her first visit back since spending her teenage years at Hickory Hollow. “I thought there would be more to it, honestly.”

As of late last year, the new landlords are a well-intentioned husband and wife from India who’ve never owned a mall.

Dr. Reita Agarwal was just looking for space to open a small medical clinic. But when she talked to the corporate owners CBL & Associates, they practically handed her the entire mall for a million dollars. To put this in perspective, it sold for more than $100 million 15 years ago.

“Everybody’s scared,” Agarwal says. “Let’s put it this way — we are really simple people.”

Getting The Traffic Back

Dr. Agarwal says the hockey rinks and library coming to the site in the next few years should be a shot in the arm.

“Really the community is building it,” she says. “When a community builds something, it is theirs.”

But so far, the community hasn’t come back. Foot-traffic has been so slow, tenants haven’t been charged rent.

Azza Eriby has a jewelry shop where beaded necklaces and plastic earrings all sell for the same price — $1. She says her business depends on volume.

“If there is rent paid, I will be closed after one week,” she says. “I can’t make it, just I can’t make it.”

Darren Morgan opened a seafood buffet, but so far it’s been too slow to justify keeping cooked shrimp and lobster on the buffet line.

“Can I make it?” he asks with a laugh. “They seem like they’ve got a good plan in place. It’s going to take some time.”

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