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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Malls of the past a thing of the past?

By Sara Foss
Saturday, February 15, 2014

I could use a new pair of shoes, and so, I poked around the other night on various websites, hoping to find something both durable and suitable for work.

A few styles appealed to me, but I was reluctant to spend a bunch of money on shoes I hadn’t tried on. I stared at the computer, trying to decide on a course of action. And then it came to me: I could go to a store.

This is a thought that seldom occurs to me.

In general, I avoid stores as much as possible, especially if the retailer in question is part of a large, impersonal chain or located in a shopping plaza or strip mall. I find these places ugly and unpleasant. I don’t like driving to them, or navigating their parking lots. If I can get what I need without going to a store, I will.

I’m not the only person who feels this way.

Throughout the country, malls and chain stores have been dying a slow death. Their anchor stores — troubled retailers such as JCPenney and Sears — are closing, and mall owners are struggling to find retailers big enough to replace them. Shoppers are migrating online and killing off once-thriving brick-and-mortar stores such as Circuit City in the process.

A website, deadmalls.com, has taken to chronicling America’s “ghost malls.” According to Green Street Advisors, a California firm that specializes in real estate research, about 15 percent of the country’s malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space — community colleges, business offices, health-care facilities — over the next decade. Some experts believe the figure is likely higher, that as many as half of America’s shopping malls could close by 2022.

These ominous forecasts might explain why I’m skeptical Rotterdam Square has much of a future, despite new ownership. In fact, the new ownership might actually be a problem.

The Long Island investor who purchased Rotterdam Square earlier this month, Mike Kohan, has a history of buying aging shopping malls with low occupancy rates and promising to reinvent them, though he often fails to do so. He has been taken to court and accused of failing to maintain his properties; the Kohan-owned Woodville Mall in Northwood, Ohio, is about four months away from a court-ordered demolition due to its poor shape.

The reports I’ve read make Kohan sound like a lousy landlord. But he is pushing against a national trend that shows no sign of abating. Given the steady deterioration of the nation’s shopping malls, many of his properties might be beyond rescue.

One local mall shows it is possible to inject a distressed mall with new life. Clifton Park Center was on the decline when a local company, DCG Development Co., purchased the 52-acre property in 2006. The company set about transforming the mall into an open-air “lifestyles center” that combined dining, entertainment and shopping. Today Clifton Park Center features a 104-room Hilton Gardens Inn and Conference Center, a 10-screen Regal cinema, specialty retail shops and restaurants such as The Pasta Factory and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Other local malls built in the 1970s — Mohawk Mall in Niskayuna and Saratoga Mall in Wilton — were demolished and replaced by shopping centers with free-standing businesses. Does anybody miss the malls that once were there? Or were they viewed as crumbling relics of the past at the time of their demise?

I suspect there will always be malls, because they provide a centralized place to shop and socialize. But there probably won’t be as many of them, and the ones that survive will have distinguishing features — a state-of-the-art movie theater (the last time I went to the mall was to see the film “Gravity” in an IMAX 3D theater), or a popular restaurant or an especially compelling anchor store.

A recent Business Insider piece, “Shopping Malls Are Going Extinct,” suggests the process of demolishing and converting a mall could take as much as two decades. In the article, Don Wood, CEO of Federal Reality Investment Trust, says failing malls in non-affluent markets will “most likely just stay there and get worse and worse over the next 20 years.”

If this is true, the odds are stacked against Rotterdam Square, just as they’re stacked against the vast majority of malls in America.

 
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