Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dead (and dying) malls

OK, I said this last year in 95 words... but I am feeling cranky enough to say the same thing with 1000. If you didn't see it, check out the story in the PG in the weekend over the state of local malls.. in particular the apparent demise of Century III Mall.

Some may think it is part of some new return to the city.. maybe an extension of the fear of all things suburban that as briefly at hand when gas prices were zooming toward $5/gallon. Or maybe the recession at hand is somehow to blame. Is it something new that malls fail? Let along malls here? Check out the local representation of local venues at a great web site: deadmalls.com. (which has listed Century III on it's featured list for several years already). That should answer that in itself.

Consider also that sheer number of new malls that have opened up in say the last decade. Given that malls are built for decades, and many leases last for quite some time you would not expect to see instantaneous changes caused by new malls to be felt instantaneously elsewhere... but that does not mean the effects will not be there. Here is a little economic secret. The amount spent on retail spending in the region is pretty much fixed. FIXED! More stores and more malls only means that the same pie gets divided up that many more ways. What happens to other retails when new retail gets built is generally called displacement for a more scientific term.. and for a region like Pittsburgh its pretty unavoidable. So until we build a competitor for the Mall for America and we get shoppers from all across the Midatlantic coming to spend their money here the decline of old malls will be inevitable.

Thus, big new malls in one part of the region almost have to result in serious declines elsewhere within the region. How could it not? Pittsburghers all of sudden become the biggest spenders in the nation? Not expecting that anytime soon. It's not like there are so many malls here that the impacts can be spread across them all with minimal impacts on any one. Given how many malls have opened, you have to see some major losses somewhere.. What has opened here in what counts for recent in mall-years... a few little projects like say the Waterfront, like South Side Works.... how about the moderately sized Pittsburgh Mills mallapalooza.... or not just Robinson Town Center itself, but the big box jungle that didn't exist all around it 15 years ago. (ok.. Ikea must have opened a few years before that, but not that many years earlier?). It just isn't possible that people are spending more collectively at these new stores. Something has to give.

Again... they are all going for the same dollars. and people like new and shiny. Old and run down is hard to revamp.. though I see the concurrent news of late of new tenants at Ross Park Mall. Yet there many know there has been ongoing declines up and along Mcnight road. How is Northway Mall doing? Not the same section of town, but I can imagine what the marketing material for the Parkway Center Mall once promised... a near perfect location at the 'center' of the region, close to major traffic access and along the booming airport corridor. How has that worked out?

What's it mean? My take is that one of the bigger stories that will result from the recession nationally will be proliferation of these new greyfields. What to do with the defunct, or near defunct shopping mall is a big big problem. Goes beyond the malls of course. How many big box Circuit City stores are going to remain empty for some time to come. Some malls get transformed in some semi-bizarre ways. I now realize many people reading this blog have no idea what Allegheny Center Mall once was even though it sort of exists today and is just a short walk from Downtown in the center of the North Side. To many in town, Allegheny Center Mall is no more than reason for the bizarre traffic patterns trying to get to either of the stadia. Some dead malls eventually become hazards enough that they have to be razed completely.. Eastland Mall anyone?

Let's not even go into the sad state of zoning laws in Pennsylvania and just focus on why these malls get built or don't. Decisions to build malls may be market driven... but often, or very often, there is a lot of public money that goes into them directly or indirectly. Except in extraordinary circumstances its hard to justify that type of support. At the very least, the cost of cleaning up old mall sites has to be taken into account in the calculus. How much money and effort was spent over decades in support of the Pittsburgh Mills Mall development along Route 28? It was not cheap to build all those highway access roads necessitated by the new mall... and that would be just a beginning of an accounting that will never be done. What I don't get is that that money spent there raised only incidental notice yet people get mad at building a tunnel for mass transit? Just think... if Zayres had survived it would soon have its own subway stop.

Check fire.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because they've pumped billions of tax dollars (overall, not just the train) into a few acres on the North Side for the benefit of multimillionaires operating private businesses. Because roads are cheaper to install than light rail by a very great amount. Because bridges are cheaper than tunnels, especially bridges where the pilings are there before you start. Because the PA blew millions on expensive office space and wasteful executive compensation right before they broke ground on the tunnel. Because the buses that actually carry the bulk of the PAs passengers are over-crowded, dirty and prone to breaking down. Because the mall workers haven't kept me jumping for weeks about whether or not they're going to strike to keep a pension plan that is much better than mine, even after they give the concessions they threatened to strike to avoid, is still better than anyone outside of govt work gets.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 12:43:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

well.. that's an answer. I have to point out that connecting the contract negotiations to the tunnel issues makes little sense.Small small fraction of the drivers are working the T and its unclear what the point of connecting the two issues are unless you are saying the drivers lobbied to build the tunnel????

No argument from me on the state of the buses or spending by the Port Authority management on offices (yes Ken I am sure it's decisions overturned by current management.. but mostly only after a lot of pushback from folks like the auditor general).

The bridge vs. tunnel debate has been misconstrued. I do believe the bridge options were pretty fully considered even if public perception of that is less so. But that is a big topic unto itself so I maybe we will make a blog post just about that someday.. but the bottom line is that the Coast Guard may be more to blame than anyone else for keeping the bridge option from working. and I think the cost overruns at hand at this point are mostly about the new stations that need to be built. I think those costs would be problematic if the river was crossed above or below the river. So it's an issue, but not a bridge/tunnel issue so much.

and the mall workers may not have been making such complaints about their pension benefits (since I bet few have any... is that really a good thing?).. but the owners of the mall continue to benefit from the tax breaks and public spending on the infrastructure. They don't need to complain much since there is nobody threatening to take such tax breaks back (not that that is legally feasible or meaningful at this point) right?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 1:09:00 AM  
Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

"Decisions to build malls may be market driven... but often, or very often, there is a lot of public money that goes into them directly or indirectly. Except in extraordinary circumstances its hard to justify that type of support."

Hard to justify? Jobs, man. Someone gets paid to build the new stuff. It doesn't really matter whether or not we "need" it ... the only question is whether there's a plan on somebody's desk. I mean, I suppose you could spend that money on "education" or something, but politicians seem to be comforted when they see cranes.

Also, I don't think anyone buys your fancy economic "displacement" theory. I think most folks honestly do think that as we build new stores and restaurants, Pittsburghers actually will set aside extra cash to spend there apart from what they are already spending at the venues available to them. They'll just take it out of their mortgage / utilities / medical budget, I guess.

I suppose if you happen to work for a construction company that is proficient in winning government contracts, the economics resolve perfectly.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 3:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. I think that an interesting facet to the tunnel project is that it fundamentally connects government-funded enterprises together (the subways, CCAC and the stadiums/museums). The malls, which demand lots of government support as the article points out (roads, TIFs, etc.) are just propping up a private enterprise of limited utility (lots of low-paying part-time jobs). If it was a corporation investing in connecting its disparate parts together to make them function better, it would be called "driving customers".

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 9:31:00 AM  
Blogger Michael Hellein said...

It's true that mall failures aren't new, and that there is something like a zero sum game in regional retail. What is new is that the retail pie is shrinking, and that new malls are suffering as well, rather than cannibalizing existing retail.

Pittsburgh Mills, an exceptional example, admittedly, is 25% vacant (though it seems considerably emptier in person)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 10:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks goodness Deer Creek Crossing died on the vine.

Wonder how Bakery Square's going. Architectural renderings make it look like a mini South Side Works.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 2:04:00 PM  
Blogger smallstreams said...

Aside from the fact that the article is an overeaction (These malls aren't dying.), what's new and interesting is that we have to think of mall as a brownfield, or sometimes known as a grayfield.

Suburban spaces are going to have to go through the same cycles of creative reuse as urban spaces (cf. *How Buildings Learn*).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 8:58:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Still waiting for some of that creative reuse in N. Versailles (Eastland Mall).

Seriously though, there is even a relatively new Walmart near the Eastland site, yet not sited where the mall was. Anyone know where I am talking about where the Walmart kind of sits on the site of what was once one of the last drive in movie theaters in the region. A point for the nostalgic, but even with a big empty (shovel ready?) site nearby the Walmart choose to build on essentially undeveloped land.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 11:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not familar with the Eastland site, but I know that when Greengate Mall died, it was relatively quickly rebuilt with other retail. However, I think that area has a growing population.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Jason Togyer said...

Professor, two years later, Eastland Mall remains creatively re-used as a big gaping hole in the middle of North Versailles Twp.:


The entire Pittsburgh area is severely over-retailed.

If anyone is wondering how the current "credit crisis" occurred, take a look at all of the speculative, half-empty strip malls along Route 30. For several years, banks and REITs were throwing money at these projects. Now they're practically worthless.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 1:15:00 PM  
Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

That drive-in theater along Rt. 30 where the Wal-Mart now stands was fantastic. Four screens showing double features of first-run movies for $5, and a lovely field in front of two of the screens for picnics, frisbee and curling up.

Yes, I can envision now how the Eastland Mall was close by, probably on the other side of the hill. The last I went there, it was being creatively reused as a super Flea-Market (which sold pipes before the era of MBB) and as a 2nd or 3rd tier studio wrestling venue. I guess even that has been shuttered for five years.

Thursday, February 26, 2009 11:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Century III was undone by the bigboxing of the rest of the land that was reclaimed from that slag dump. It used to be the only thing around through much of the 80s & 90s and was the nexus for the mon valley schools (steel valley, EF, Ringgold) and the south hills (baldwin, tj, West Mifflin, the Parks South and Bethel...pretty much everywhere except MtLebo and USC). Now there's no need to go to CenturyIII toystore, ToysRUs is right there. No need to go to Sears or JCPennys because you have a Home Depot right there, and a WalMart on top of the slag heap. No need to hang out at the food court and get hooked up by your highschool friends because they now work at the fast food places that sprung up close, but not in, the mall.

I see some paralells between CIII and it's neighbors and the whole City vs. Region situation - if the city dies, will people really come here to visit the triangle of Cranberry, Robinson/N.Fayette and uh...Monroeville? The Waterfront? Washington County?

Friday, February 27, 2009 8:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please explain: "Here is a little economic secret. The amount spent on retail spending in the region is pretty much fixed. FIXED!"

I'm not being glib. If employment and payrolls in the Pittsburgh region are at "all-time" highs (and presumably growing--at least until recently), then how can retail spending be fixed? We don't seem to be building and buying the biggest houses. Do we save more than the average? Remit more money to other locations?

And, let's be honest, this isn't just a Pittsburgh phenomenon--though the constant focus here on what "used" to be there is. The de-malling of America is well underway. Lifestyle centers seem to be the current way--even in places like Phoenix and, yes, Minneapolis (where the MOA is the exception), where you might think that weather would dictate otherwise. I read of a mall somewhere that was installing an ice rink in an empty anchor to drive traffic. Guess that the Monroeville Mall may need to go back to the future, eh? (And you think that transplants can't learn history).

Retail constantly changes. Is this bad? I don't know. Depends. I may miss the friendly customer service of the mom and pop in Penn Hills where I bought the applicances for my house 10 years ago. They went bankrupt because Lowes and Home Depot crushed them on price (and their service--while not superior--is decent). But, I sure liked the price from Home Depot on the new dishwasher (and, yes, had the mom and pop not gone bankrupt, I would have gone back there).

My point is only that there is always going to be competitive change in a capitalist system. And, on the balance, I firmly believe that is a good thing. Let the better mousetrap win.

Friday, February 27, 2009 6:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


- Ross Park Mall
- Monroeville Mall
- South Hills Village

Ross Park Mall is in the best position of all the malls in the Pittsburgh region. It has several stores that no other mall in the region has, and is thus becoming a retail destination not only for the growing northern suburbs, but for all of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Monroeville Mall is the destination for the eastern suburbs, and has been able to maintain itself because William Penn Highway is the only significant commercial cluster between Plum and North Versailles.

South Hills Village may not have the glamor of Ross Park Mall, but it's located on U.S. 19, which is an affluent, growing corridor in the southern suburbs.


- The Mall at Robinson
- Century III Mall

The Mall at Robinson gives the growing western suburbs a retail destination, but with Robinson Town Centre nearby, they'll probably have to work a little bit harder to attract tenants.

Century III Mall can still be viable, but it may have to move downmarket to do so. It's located on PA 51, which is a run-down, dying corridor in the southern suburbs. Aside from Pleasant Hills and Jefferson Hills, there's not a lot of income nearby, especially considering it's the retail destination for the "upper" Mon Valley.


- Allegheny Center Mall
- Parkway Center Mall
- The Galleria

Allegheny Center Mall is not only dead, but it's also a monolith in the middle of a neighborhood. That space can be put to much better use.

Parkway Center Mall is dying and poorly-built. It should be turned into a general shopping plaza just like North Hills Village Mall and Northway Mall have been.

The Galleria should be demolished, and South Hills Village should be expanded to include the stores that the Galleria has now.

As for Eastland Mall, three things killed it:

1. It was squeezed by Monroeville Mall and Century III Mall
2. It was not located on a major thoroughfare
3. It served the Mon Valley

Wal-Mart probably didn't build where Eastland Mall used to be because they preferred to be on U.S. 30 instead. Had Eastland Mall been built on U.S. 30, then it might not have died so quickly.

Friday, March 06, 2009 6:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the record: Now that Northway Mall has "demalled" itself, it's no longer enclosed, and is now known as The Shoppes at Northway. North Hills Village Mall has also become North Hills Village Shopping Center.

Somebody said that the entire Pittsburgh region was overbuilt for retail. Yes and no. It really depends on which part of the region. The reason Monroeville has flourished as a retail destination is because many of the surrounding suburbs are severely underbuilt for retail. William Penn Highway is the commercial nexus for everybody from Plum to Forest Hills to Murrysville to North Versailles. None of those suburbs have a significant commercial presence, and neither do Penn Hills, Churchill or Turtle Creek, for that matter. Monroeville is the only game in that part of town.

The North Hills is the only area that was severely overbuilt. They built three malls (Northway, North Hills Village, Ross Park) where there only needed to be one. Ross Park Mall ultimately prevailed while the other two, as I mentioned before, have demoted themselves to mere shopping plazas. Right now McKnight Road is in flux, much like William Penn Highway was back at the beginning of the decade. But William Penn Highway has since rebounded with new businesses, and I'm sure McKnight Road will too, especially with Ross Park Mall becoming a regional magnet.

The South Hills has reached its saturation point with The Waterfront and the South Side Works (both of which benefit city residents as well), and the western suburbs probably will with the completion of Settlers Ridge.

The plight of Pittsburgh Mills baffles me a bit, though. The Allegheny Valley is a bit far from both Monroeville Mall and Ross Park Mall, and The Waterworks is just a conventional shopping plaza, so I was always under the impression that that area was somewhat underbuilt for retail. Furthermore, there are affluent areas like Oakmont, Fox Chapel and O'Hara nearby, so the income is there, even if some of the "upper" Allegheny Valley towns are struggling. Maybe it's the curse of the Pennsylvania Turnpike? Aside from Cranberry, there's very little suburban sprawl along the Turnpike, especially compared to I-79.

Saturday, March 07, 2009 12:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DBR96A, the Northway Mall may have been demalled but it still features an enclosed court area in one part of the mall, plus an enclosed hallway fronting McKnight Road. Also, the problem with Pittsburgh Mills might have more to do with the sheer size of the complex itself. Even though it's a nice mall, the setup is really awkward, and may have worked better as a two-story mall. Another part of it is location. Even though it's off of 28, it's about a few miles away from the Turnpike, and getting off the toll road to get to 28 can be a bit of a challenge for those not familiar with the area. Also, the area in which the mall is located is still relatively rural, and perhaps the Fox Chapel/Oakmont residents may find it to be out of the way, when Ross Park Mall offers a better selection of stores and is relatively closer.

Monday, March 16, 2009 2:00:00 AM  
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Anyone think a destination mall / entertainment center in a tower would work here in downtown or oakland with all the urban revitalization in the sorrounding city vistas like Lawrenceville. Think center city in Philly or tower city mall in Cleveland.

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