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California's Dead Malls: What Have We Lost?

The golden age of the mall is long gone, and many of the malls are, too. One consultant predicts half of U.S. malls will close in the next decade.

Photo Credit: Seph Lawless (www.facebook.com/sephlawless)
Photo Credit: Seph Lawless (www.facebook.com/sephlawless)

By Melinda Carstensen

They're a blight on America’s suburban landscape: hulking dead shopping malls, many with boarded windows, sagging rooftops and parking lots full of weeds.

The American shopping mall saw its Golden Age from 1956 to 2005, when 1,500 malls were built across the country. But no new enclosed mega-mall has been built since 2006. And while about 1,200 malls are still standing, many have been abandoned and sit on the outskirts of American cities like strange coffins of commerce. In a new book called "Black Friday," the photographer Seph Lawless captures the demise of many of these dead malls in images charged with a kind of haunting beauty.

"It’s almost a sense of sadness because you don’t just miss the malls but everything that’s connected to it,” he said. “That was America. It was a more vibrant time for us.”

The website DeadMalls.com maintains a state-by-state list of America’s forlorn shopping meccas. Patch states, including California, are littered with abandoned malls.

Though they may not all be completely shuttered just yet, many Southern California malls like the Carousel Mall in San Bernardino are hanging on by a thread, as seen in this YouTube video from September.  Even the addition of a large-- you guessed it-- carousel in the early 90s couldn't attract people to the mall like "the good old days."

Prior to 2002, you may have noticed one of the famous so-called "dead malls" in SoCal from the big screen, The Sherman Oaks Galleria. 

Made famous in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," the facility was also featured in films like "Back to the Future Part II" and "Terminator 2," the mall has been rebuilt as a mixed-use property, featuring restaurants, office buildings and some stores.

In the Bay Area, San Mateo's Fashion Island mall closed in 1996.  It once contained an ice skating rink and arcade, but those features were also not enough to keep shoppers coming back.

Experts say a mall is significantly less likely to survive after its anchor store closes. Many American malls were affected by the closing of Sears, which shuttered its flagship earlier this year, and JCPenney, which announced in January that it would close 33 stores nationwide.

Howard Davidowitz, of the national retail consultant and investment banking firm Davidowitz & Associates, predicted half of U.S. malls would close within the next decade.

Still, some malls though are thriving, like outlet malls. Developers have capitalized on a still-struggling economy and opened 11 new outlet centers in 2013, more than quadruple the number that opened in 2009.

High-end malls, like those with anchor stores such as Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue, are also flourishing, said Ryan McCullough, a real estate economist at CoStar, a commercial real estate research firm. Per square foot, those luxury malls saw a 14.6 percent growth in sales from 2009 to 2013, according to CoStar.

Michael Dart, co-author of the book "The New Rules of Retail," said traditional shopping malls are failing where these high-end malls are succeeding: providing consumers with something they can’t get on the Internet.

Guests can enjoy upscale food courts, fancy interiors and live entertainment. Novelty and exclusivity, he said, lure consumers away from their computers and into these malls.

“The consumer has become satiated enough with the same type of stuff, so it’s become increasingly important to become experiential,” Dart said.

In malls where stores have closed shop, vacant space has been converted into religious, medical or school facilities. For malls that have faced store closures, this is a positive, creative reuse of that space, McCullough said.

Here is a list of California's "dead malls" as listed on DeadMalls.com  (May not be current.)


Your Turn: Do you think the American mall has met its doom, and should abandoned facilities be demolished? Or do you think there’s hope for their survival? What’s happened to the shopping malls where you once shopped or dropped off the kids for the afternoon?



Ken Harrison May 31, 2014 at 01:19 AM
Pardon me Roy (have you tried your new shoes?). What on Earth have we lost when we lose malls? Consider what we lost when malls became the norm; local, civic oriented business, owned by locals, centered in the downtown area of many cities, and offering (relatively) fair wages to the local young people they were employing. Malls disappearing? Yay! And as for the gratuitous remark about malls being attacked by Muslims (JEANIE TULLIUS May 18, 2014 at 02:30 AM), just how how racist can one be? Terrorists are not Muslims (can you say "McVey?") but terrorists might be Muslim. Then again there is the terrorist from Chicago, whose name is Donald Rumsfeld. I suspect he considers himself Christian.
denny rane May 31, 2014 at 02:44 AM
Well Said Ken. As much as a slime-ball Bush is/was. (pick one...jeb, george, it does not matter)...the guys I always thought should Burn were Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Paul Robeson was right...It is not wealth, but rather The Wealthy that contempts the vision of humanity. best
desertpatriot May 31, 2014 at 07:25 AM
@ken and denny: you two are delusional. muslims are the true terrorists of the world today. if we do not keep them in check they will continue to kill the infidels (non-believers) and spread their hate-filled cult beliefs
ChrisG May 31, 2014 at 08:55 AM
@ken, I was in agreement until your rant on racism and terrorism. Please come back to reality. The vast majority of terrorist acts are caused by Muslim fundamentalists. It is not racists to assert that. Also, calling Rumsfeld a terrorist destroys your credibility. Now we know you're nothing but a partisan and that diminishes the weight of your comment by at least 40%.
Phillip Evans June 02, 2014 at 05:41 PM
Who can afford it? Taxes and fees and fees and taxes. Compulsory insurance. Price of gas. Money devaluation. QE Infinitiy.

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