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Passing the test of time

July 29, 2016

The shopping center industry is no stranger to change. It has evolved over many decades in response to the shifting retail landscape, global growth patterns and other forces. While shopping centers were once a uniquely American phenomenon, they are now found in virtually every corner of the world. New formats have sprung up over time, and developers continue to innovate.

Through it all, some of the first shopping centers in the United States have endured, partly because they, too, have changed with the times. Of course, location has played a big role in their longevity. Some of America’s oldest surviving centers have the good fortune to occupy strong locations in markets that have grown over time, typically in fits and starts. Some of these shopping centers predate World War II, but many were built during the post-war boom. In that period, American suburbs were flourishing, and developers, department stores and supermarkets stepped in to fill a void in the emerging markets. 

With ICSC poised to celebrate its 60th birthday next year, the editors of SCT looked back at the early days of a handful of America’s first shopping centers and the ways they have changed over time.    

River Oaks Shopping Center, Houston

Few shopping centers have survived as long as Houston’s River Oaks Shopping Center, which opened in 1937. This open-air center, noted for its original art-deco-style buildings, was the brainchild of the late Hugh Potter, an attorney and developer. Potter developed the center in phases to provide shopping for residents of his planned River Oaks upscale residential community. 

Yet, by the time Houston-based Weingarten Realty Investors bought the property in 1971, it had fallen into disrepair. Having changed hands several times through the years, the center became dilapidated and had a second-rate mix of tenants, including pawnshops and secondhand stores. 

Stanford Alexander, Weingarten’s president at the time of the acquisition, saw in the property a diamond in the rough, according to his son, Drew, the company’s current president and CEO and an ICSC past chairman. Today the elder Alexander is Weingarten’s chairman. 

Over the past 45 years, Weingarten Realty has spent millions on renovations and expansions to the center, which the city designated a landmark in 2007. The city also awarded landmark status to the center’s historical theater, which was built in 1939 and which Landmark Theatres has operated since 1976. Weingarten has focused on bringing uniformity and returning the -property to its original art-deco glory. In its first remodel, the company tore out drab, earth-tone awnings and revealed original sculpted plaster fascias, which were then repainted white, as they once had been. Weingarten also preserved the original black tiles and planted nearly 90 palm trees, trucked in from Florida. The company has worked to improve the tenant mix, which now includes popular restaurants, coffee shops, upscale national chains and an art gallery. Weingarten plans to further develop the site and add new uses. There is already a small amount of office space on-site. 

“The center is and always has been a lifestyle center,” said Drew Alexander, even though it predates that term. The center’s longevity has a lot to do with its strong location, he says. The River Oaks area is still one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city. The center is also close to downtown Houston and the fast-growing midtown district. “It is a wonderful location that, in our minds, keeps getting better,” he said. “It really reinforces the maxim of this business, which is that -location is everything.” 

Westgate, Cleveland

Cleveland’s Westgate stands as a testament to the ability of shopping centers to reinvent themselves, sometimes dramatically. Westgate was an open-air shopping plaza with about 50 stores when it opened in 1954 in the suburbs of Fairview Park and Rocky River. It was one of the country’s first post-war suburban centers with department-store anchors. Its earliest tenants included Halle Brothers and Higbee’s, two now-defunct department store chains unique to Ohio. The Higbee’s store was reportedly that Cleveland-based chain’s first suburban outpost. 

In the late 1960s, the center was enclosed as part of a renovation aimed at boosting its competitive standing, and it was renamed Westgate Mall. The Cleveland-based Richard E. Jacobs Group bought the property in 1984 and ran it profitably for nearly two decades. But in the early 2000s, Westgate’s fortunes, like those of many older enclosed malls, began to wane as a result of changing consumer preferences and new competition. 

In response, the Jacobs Group embarked on an ambitious plan to redevelop the mall into a pedestrian-friendly, open-air power center. The revamped center, now simply called Westgate, opened in the fall of 2007. The tenant mix now includes several major big-box retailers, some fast-casual and sit-down restaurants, and apparel retailers clustered together in an “apparel row.” An Earth Fare supermarket opened in 2011. 

For some of its anchors and junior anchors, Westgate is home to their best-performing stores in Northeastern Ohio, according to Michael -Fitzgerald, vice president and director of leasing for IRC Retail Centers, which bought Westgate in 2012 and has since relocated some tenants and added more apparel chains. “Westgate now has the feeling of a pedestrian-friendly town center,” said Fitzgerald, “and our ongoing initiative to enhance the merchandise mix creates synergies amongst our retailers, which drives better customer traffic and overall sales within the asset.”

Southdale Center, Edina, Minn.

In 1956 the former Dayton Co. forever changed the American retail landscape when it opened Southdale in the budding Minneapolis suburb of Edina. Designed by Austrian-born Victor Gruen, Southdale would become the prototype of the modern mall. It was not only the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center in the country, but also the first project to bring two rival department stores together under one roof — Dayton’s and its closet competitor, Donaldson’s — to create a stronger retail draw. 

Interestingly, Gruen had more than shopping in mind when he designed the two-level mall. He felt the success of the project also hinged on its ability to attract suburbanites by serving as a de facto town center. “By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities, shopping centers can fill an existing void” in America’s rising suburbs, Gruen wrote in 1960. To encourage shoppers to linger, Gruen designed the mall to face inward, with its shops overlooking a garden-themed center court featuring a goldfish pond and aviary, sculptures and a café. By contrast, the typical suburban shopping center of the time had an outward orientation.

Southdale, which attracted some 75,000 visitors on opening day, also featured a small petting zoo, a children’s playroom, a carousel and an auditorium for community meetings. It housed small-town services as well, including a barbershop, a bank and a post office. “The idea was to have everything under one roof,” said Benjamin Martin, the mall’s current general manager. Simon acquired the mall in 2007, and in its own revitalization efforts has stayed true to Gruen’s vision. “We are really diversifying the uses we have at the mall in order to appeal to as many people as possible and to allow people to do many things here during their visits,” Martin said. 

Simon completed an extensive renovation in 2012, though the project retained much of Southdale’s original layout and some of its original artwork and exterior. The firm has also improved the tenant mix with the -addition of leading specialty retailers, new restaurants and a Dave & Buster’s. A Hennepin County service center opened there in May.

Last year marked the grand opening of One Southdale Place, a collection of upscale apartment buildings that Simon co-developed within a short walk of the mall. The company is now co-developing a 146-room Homewood Suites by Hilton on the site of the mall.

Southdale is undergoing rebirth at a time when the surrounding area is once again enjoying population growth and a boom in residential construction. This year the Census Bureau reported that Edina, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis, was one of seven cities that crossed the 50,000-population mark for the first time between 2014 and 2015.

Westfield Old Orchard, Skokie, Ill.

The same year Southdale opened its doors, another trend-setting shopping center made its debut. Old Orchard Shopping Center, now called Westfield Old Orchard, opened some 60 years ago in the suburb of Skokie, on Chicago’s North Shore. The center, developed by Philip Klutznick, became known as the prototype of the open-air regional mall. “Old Orchard was the first of its type: the open regional shopping center,” said architect Donald Hackl in a 1999 published report. His Chicago-based firm, Loebl, Schlossman & Hackl, was the original architect for the project and for a major renovation and expansion that was completed in 1995. “In its original version, Old Orchard appealed to a suburban context, with buildings and materials familiar to suburban dwellers,” said Hackl. “It took on a life very different from urban -counterparts.”

The shops at Old Orchard faced inward, rather than overlooking the parking areas. The mall’s irregular layout encouraged shoppers to stroll through a series of landscaped common areas and created a sense of discovery with each turn. 

For many years the mall — whose original anchors were Marshall Field’s and Montgomery Ward — was regarded as the premier shopping destination in the Chicago area. But by the mid-1980s, it had lost its dominant market position, bested by newer, larger shopping centers. 

In the early 1990s the former JMB Realty Corp., which then owned the mall, embarked on a $200 million expansion and renovation. The redevelopment, completed in 1995, nearly doubled Old Orchard’s size, to 1.8 million square feet. Two new anchors, a Nordstrom and a Bloomingdale’s, joined the existing Marshall Field’s, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue anchors. An enclosed food court, customer-service center and parking decks were also added.

The renovation also enhanced the mall’s garden motif, with the addition of lush landscaping, sculptures, fountains and mosaics. Westfield Corp. acquired the mall in 2002 and subsequently undertook its own multimillion-dollar renovation. Among other things, the company replaced the mall’s Saks Fifth Avenue building with a landscaped plaza that is home to a collection of shops and restaurants. Today Westfield Old Orchard, which generates nearly $600 million in sales yearly, is a dominant property once more in an industry it helped to define.                        

Sunvalley, Concord, Calif.

Industry pioneer A. Alfred Taubman may have gotten his start in the Midwest, but he undertook some of his most ambitious projects in California in the 1960s. Sunvalley Shopping Center was among these. When Sunvalley opened in 1967, in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Concord, the two-level, 1.3 million-square-foot mall was billed as the world’s largest air-conditioned shopping center. Sunvalley was a good deal larger than Taubman’s previous projects, but he was convinced that the mall would draw from far and wide, thanks to America’s new post–World War II highway system. 

The mall’s original anchors included a 233,000-square-foot Macy’s, the result of Taubman’s successful efforts to persuade the chain to open a store that was unusually large for a suburban location at the time. Sunvalley also boasted an ice-skating rink, a one-screen movie theater and a popular collection of eateries known as the World’s Fare, which predated the food-court concept. Today Sunvalley is no longer the largest mall in the Golden State, but it is still owned by The Taubman Co., which continues to add new retailers, restaurants and amenities.

In 2012 the company undertook a renovation of the mall that involved, in part, a new look for its original amphitheater. It is now a spacious, light-filled lounge called Grand Court, offering free Wi-Fi and charging stations for mobile devices. 

Earlier this year Sunvalley unveiled a 23,000-square-foot food court boasting California-style fast-casual eateries. Round 1 Bowling & Amusement, a chain of family-oriented entertainment centers, was slated to open its first East Bay location at Sunvalley this summer. 

With Sunvalley and his other projects, Alfred Taubman “wasn’t just building physical space,” recalled son Robert, chairman, president and CEO of -Taubman Centers, in a 2015 SCT article. “He was trying to build a customer experience.”