Tilly: Requiem for a mall

BY ZACH TILLY | MARCH 08, 2013 5:00 AM

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Sycamore Mall — the retail tumor attached to that Panera over by Petland — was rescued from foreclosure earlier this week. The RC Cola of Iowa City shopping experiences will live to sell another day. But understand: The move by Great Western Bank to grant the mall a new loan is akin to pouring a cup of warm water on a man freezing to death.

The mall’s ownership group owed Wells Fargo $12 million when that bank foreclosed in December. Despite the new funding, the mall isn’t poised for a comeback.

See, the place is anchored by a Dollar Tree. Arguably, its finest dining establishment is Pizza Ranch. Its sole draw — the department store Von Maur — will move to Coralville this year. As if all that isn’t bad enough, it actually contains a store called Defunct Books.

Nestled among the mall’s occupants are 12 vacant units.

Sycamore is but an especially severe instance of a much broader trend: The American shopping mall is dying.

Around 50 years ago, malls sprung up all over as America got settled in the suburbs. This likely happened out of economic necessity; smaller retailers needed to be close to major “anchor” stores such as Sears to attract increasingly spread out customers.

Shoppers enjoyed the new format because it made shopping more convenient and more fun. Malls offered a sleek, modern shopping experience and the old-fashioned convenience of the dense downtown shopping districts that were laid to waste by suburbanization.

Sycamore Mall was very much a product of this early era; one of Iowa’s first enclosed malls when it opened in 1969. Von Maur, Sears, and Walgreens anchored and, for a while, Sycamore was the only game in town. Things started to change when the Old Capitol Mall arrived downtown in 1980.

For nearly two decades, the Old Capitol Mall was anchored by JC Penney and Younkers. It even had the familiar trappings of a real life mall: Claire’s, Foot Locker, Sbarro (still there), Orange Julius, etc.
During the Old Capitol Mall era, the mall hit the peak of its cultural relevance. A decade and a half of movies from Fast Times to Clueless placed the mall squarely at the center of the youth culture.

The Galleria was Cher Horowitz’s sanctuary, where she could “gather [her] thoughts and regain [her] strength.”

By the mid-90s, the first generation of America’s consumerist temples was in need of an extreme upgrade for the 21st century. Malls got bigger, better, pizzazzier to appeal to consumers yearning for bigger, better, pizzazzier experiences.

That’s when the comparatively massive Coral Ridge Mall went up, and the fate of Iowa City’s malls was sealed. Sears left Sycamore Mall, Penney and Younker’s left the Old Cap. All for radder pastures on the far side of Coralville.

For 15 years, Sycamore trudged on, wounded but alive. The Old Capitol Mall morphed into the bizarre quasi-mall it is today. Coral Ridge ruled with an iron fist.

Today, malls are stagnating, and this time even the biggest and strongest are threatened. Vacancy rates in malls across the country are climbing, and rents are falling.

Many major retailers, including some of Coral Ridge’s biggest tenants, are struggling. Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Sears and JC Penney all plan to close hundreds of stores this year just to stay afloat. Other retailers, such as Gap (and Old Navy by extension), just aren’t moving product like they used to.

It’s easy to chalk up the malls’ decline to online shopping and a sluggish economy — those are major factors, no question — but I think at least part of the truth is that we fell out of love with the mall.

I would happily pay a premium for my goods if going to the mall was a genuinely pleasant experience. Lots of people pay ungodly prices for beer because they enjoy the experience of being in a bar. Same concept. But the mall simply isn’t a nice place to go anymore; those commercial palaces of yore have become dilapidated and increasingly empty.

Previous generations may well have been captivated by the novelty and convenience of the mall, but today, they’re neither convenient nor novel. Imagine the most exotic mall you’ve ever been to — got one? —  it has an American Eagle, Bath and Body Works, probably a Yankee Candle. There’s a Hot Topic, a Pac Sun, four jewelry stores, and (if it’s a real nice place) a Cheesecake Factory.

We all know the pattern by now.

The mall didn’t die when we all started shopping online; the mall died when it stopped impressing us.

Which brings us back to Sycamore Mall, a truly unimpressive strip of boredom kicking frantically against an unstoppable force: death by indifference.

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