- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Owings Mills Mall in its heyday was a vibrant commercial center in Baltimore County, bustling with shoppers, diners and walkers among its more than 150 stores and eateries.

But over the course of a few years, many of those stores closed and were not replaced. In the mall’s final months, its abandoned spaces became “just a surreal, crumbling monument to the past,” said photojournalist and author Seph Lawless (https://sephlawless.com/), who captured the otherworldly mallscape in a series of photographs.

Once the mecca of American retail, shopping malls across the country are closing at an alarming rate. Real estate analysts and business trend observers point to a multitude of factors changing the way Americans shop, including the rise of online retailers and the more frugal habits of millennial consumers.

Low-price fashion chain Forever 21 this week became the latest retailer with a significant presence in malls to seek bankruptcy protection amid fierce competition from online rivals. Popular among teenagers and young people seeking low-cost clothing, Forever 21 will close almost 180 stores in the U.S.

Retail and technology analysis firm Coresight Research said U.S. retailers have announced this year that they will close 8,558 stores and as many as 12,000 stores could close by year’s end.

Such closures hit malls particularly hard. Studies show roughly 1 in 4 across the country are expected to close by 2022.

PHOTOS: Images from the abandoned Owings Mill Mall in Maryland

About 1,000 malls are in operation, down from a peak in the mid-1990s of roughly 1,500.

The issue has commanded the national political spotlight. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang lists mall revitalization among his core domestic economic policies.

“Malls used to be a hub for socialization and commerce in many American communities,” the Yang campaign said in an email. “They were where families would go shopping for school supplies before grabbing dinner and catching a movie. Teens would have their first jobs working retail there and spend their Friday nights with friends.”

Enclosed shopping centers grew out of the post-World War II movement of developing suburbs.

Victor Gruen is credited with inventing shopping malls. An Austrian Jewish architect who immigrated to the U.S. in 1938, Gruen designed the 800,000-square-foot Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, which opened in 1956, complete with indoor fountains, an aviary and art installations.

Historians say Gruen grew to despise what malls quickly became: climate-controlled megastructures that mushroomed across America as the nation’s car culture exploded. He feared the malls drained vitality from traditional downtowns.

The escalator-connected, air-conditioned spaces nevertheless became staples of American life throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The trend peaked in the early 1990s with the opening of the 5.6-million-square-foot, 500-shop, Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, which even featured a fully enclosed amusement park.

Rick Stein, founder of Urban Decision Group, a planning consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio, said the rapid collapse of mall commerce and culture was essentially baked into their meteoric rise.

“The entire concept quickly became bloated and overbuilt to the point that researchers generally agree there is 40% to 50% too much retail space in the country because there are too many malls and large shopping centers,” Mr. Stein told The Washington Times.

June Williamson, chair of the architecture department at the City College of New York, studies how malls are transforming. She said in an email that the U.S. generally has almost 22 square feet of retail space per capita, compared with Europe’s roughly 2 square feet of retail space per capita.

Mr. Stein, who lectures nationally on urban design, said overbuilt malls now are being put out of business by “super-efficient rapid delivery services like Amazon Prime.”

“I call it the ‘Amazoning’ of America,” he said.

Demographics are also trending against malls, with younger consumers staying away in ever larger numbers.

Amanda Slavin, founder of the Las Vegas-based marketing firm CatalystCreativ, said millennials and Generation Z want more from the physical buying experience than malls offer.

“They like music festivals or pop-up museums,” Ms. Slavin said. “They want to expand their digital footprints, which older people see as young people always behind their screens. To younger people, being behind the screen documenting things is part of the experience.”

As such, malls have not adapted to younger consumer tastes, she said, adding that millennials and Generation Z also seek low prices and discounts, “which they can find much faster online without wasting time in a place they can’t brag about.”

Inside the mall industry, analysts see store closings more in terms of evolution.

“Like most businesses, retailers are finding it necessary to adapt to rapid changes in technology and shifting demographics. This is leading to reinvention rather than demise,” said Stephanie Cegielski, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Examples of transformations include the conversion of Silicon Valley’s Mayfield Mall into a Google office and a former Nashville mall into a community college satellite campus, a library and a hockey team’s practice rink.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said that nationally, “6.7 percent of gross leasable area has shifted from traditional retail tenants to these non-retail and dining establishments, keeping occupancy rates high.”

The online competition has even moved into space it previously hunted. Amazon is building massive delivery centers on the sites of three malls in Ohio that were long in decline.

“Retail real estate isn’t just about the retail stores any longer,” Ms. Cegielski said.

Owings Mills Mall officially closed in 2015 and was demolished in 2017. It is now an outdoor “lifestyle center” called Mill Station anchored by a Costco and a Lowe’s.

Mr. Lawless, the photojournalist who documents mall closures in books such as “Autopsy of America” and “Black Friday,” said: “Consumers no longer want to walk through a maze of stores to get where they want to go. But when you go through, all alone taking photos, it can be very sad and very emotional remembering all the good times that people had inside.”

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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