Abandoned malls are America’s new ghost towns
Glittering paeans to retail in an era where a prosperous American middle class had plenty of money to spend, and mall store pricing was still competitive.
And so the concept exploded across the country, with multiple malls being built in the outskirts of every major American city — and some smaller ones, too.
Construction of malls boomed throughout the 60s and 70s, finally peaking around 1985.
The agonizing demise of the American mall
Unfortunately, at that point the total number of malls didn’t simply plateau, and building rates didn’t merely decline.
By the late 80s, malls were actually dying, and that was a trend that only accelerated through the 90s up until this very day — leaving behind a landscape of abandoned malls and sprawling parking lots reminiscent of post-apocalyptic ghost towns.
There’s a lot of speculation about why malls, which have so much to offer retailers and customers alike, started fading away. The usual suspects are the obvious competition: cable TV shopping channels that emerged in the late 1980s and later, of course, the revolutionary e-commerce trend.
Others propose that economics were a major factor. As the cost of utilities rose throughout the 70s and beyond, retailers had higher overhead to pass on in their pricing, combined with the fact that Americans’ discretionary income was also on the decline, especially compared to the rollicking consumerism of the 50s and 60s.
Sometimes overlooked is the overbuilding factor — that the pace of mall growth was never sustainable, and populations could not realistically support the sheer number of malls built in their communities. There would be winners… and there would be losers.
The original vision of indoor shopping centers
One man, if he were alive to see the demise of mall properties, possibly would have seen this coming. That would be Victor Gruen, the architect who conceived and planned the first climate-controlled indoor mall in the US.
The concept he had in mind, however, was different from what actually transpired.
Because the leasing would be centralized, businesses could reside near each other more strategically than what usually occurred in a typical downtown proper.
To his disappointment, the allure to developers of cheap farmland in city outskirts overcame Gruen’s conception of intentional city planning and downtown revitalization.
Repurposing dead malls
As it turns out, the types of malls Gruen envisioned — those more thoughtfully integrated into their communities — have proven to be the most successful malls over the long haul, though retail and entertainment are more profitable and therefore largely prioritized over mixed-use purposes.
So what does the future hold for malls and shopping centers, especially those that are currently vacant (assuming they’re not already demolished and the property redeveloped)? Will massive shopping centers continue to exist in the age of online retail?
Some believe that there is still life left in these malls, and they can be saved with innovative ideas such as turning them into residential and office spaces, in line with Victor Gruen’s original vision.
One such example of this idea is Paradise Valley Mall in Phoenix, Arizona, which was sold in 2021 and re-zoned for mixed use. The new developer intends to convert the space into a community that includes homes, offices and a grocery store.
For now, though, most of these abandoned malls exist as ghost towns, if they continue to exist at all. Scroll on for a peek inside some abandoned malls and the sad histories of their demise.
Abandoned Cloverleaf Mall Fountain Plaza in Chesterfield, Virginia
Cloverleaf Mall opened in 1972, but unfortunately, a new mall opened up just three years later and only 5 miles down the road. Still, Cloverleaf held on through the 90s, but by 2008 there were so many store vacancies that the mall closed for good. It was demolished in 2011.
Cincinnati Mall (formerly known as Forest Fair Mall and then Cincinnati Mills) in Ohio
Forest Fair Mall opened in 1988 with four anchors and 200 stores. What followed was three tumultuous decades of financial problems, several changes in ownership, branding, even the entire concept (at one point, it even housed a nightclub).
The mall is largely vacant today and mostly abandoned, yet amazingly, was still open for foot traffic as of 2018.
Abandoned malls: Randall Park Mall in Cleveland, Ohio
Randall Park Mall opened in 1976 in North Randall, Ohio, on the site of a former racetrack. By the late 90s, the mall began to falter. After a decade of declining occupancy and traffic, it closed in 2009.
The building was completely demolished by 2017, and — like salt in the wound — Amazon immediately built a new distribution center on the site.
Abandoned shopping mall in Dayton, Ohio featuring a spectacular sunlit rotunda
Abandoned malls: A decaying shopping mall hallway – Dayton, Ohio
Abandoned Woodville Mall in Northville, Ohio
Woodville Mall opened near Toledo, Ohio in 1969, but within two years another mall opened in the Toledo area, which marked the beginning of the end for Woodville, though no one knew it yet.
Like so many abandoned malls, its decline started in the 80s, accelerated in the 2000s, and by 2011 Woodville was not only struggling to stay afloat, but the structure was in such a state of decay that a judge ordered it closed. The building was demolished in 2014.
Abandoned malls: An empty department store in a dead mall
Abandoned malls: Doralville, Georgia
An old shopping mall being torn down
Abandoned malls: Jasper Mall documentary
In this video, Jasper Mall chronicles a year in the life of a dying shopping mall, its patrons, and its tenants.
There’s no denying retro malls are having a moment. Between the setting of the new season of Stranger Things and the countless videos of dead mall tours gathering millions of plays on YouTube, the mystique of the “mall” is everywhere.
Jasper Mall peels back the curtain on this nostalgic reflection to show the reality of the American mall, complete with shuttering stores, elderly mall-walkers, an optimistic mall manager, a series of community events designed to increase foot traffic, muzak echoing through empty corridors, and the constant threat of impending closure that hovers over so many malls in the 21st century.
It’s a community on the brink of disappearance, and yet around every corner, there exists a strange beauty and a new kind of Americana that reflects the unique, touching, and frequently hilarious realities of the shopping mall in the internet age.