Recently I’ve been following coverage of some pretty extensive renovations taking place at Lincoln Mall, a long-beleagured super-regional mall in south suburban Chicagoland. Initially I was excited at the prospect of even a modicum of success here, especially considering I’ve never seen the mall even close to its potential. I first visited Lincoln Mall about a decade ago, after it fell in the toilet but before it drowned. I recently re-visited for the first time after some of the renovations have materialized, and was extremely dismayed – both by the progress of the renovations and also by a personal, not-so-fun experience I had there.
Matteson, Illinois (pronounced matt-uh-son) is a diverse suburb of Chicago, located about 30 miles south of downtown. With a population of about 17,000, Matteson is economically middle class, squeezed in between poverty-stricken Chicago Heights to the east, and wealthy Frankfort to its west.
Within Chicagoland, Matteson is part of – and centrally located within – a larger economic region known as “Chicago’s Southland” – a regional economic development and tourism consortium comprised of nearly all of the suburbs south and southwest of Chicago. Made up of 86 communities with a population of nearly 2.5 million people, the region is simultaneously diverse yet allied by common goals. Much of the region, specifically the suburbs directly south of the City of Chicago and east of I-57, has been negatively impacted by the loss of heavy industry during the latter part of the 20th century. In an attempt to promote the region’s shift from a manufacturing to a service based economy, the consortium advertises the region’s proximity to Chicago, the transportation network – numerous rail lines as well as 5 interstates converge here – and the region’s affordability in comparison to the western and northern suburbs.
Suburban blight, crime, and poverty have become significant problems in the Southland region, with some good examples in postwar suburbs Harvey and Chicago Heights. In fact, one of the most famous dead malls in the country is located in Harvey, and – as of late 2009 – is still standing after being abandoned for almost 25 years. However, this traditionally blue collar region is by no means lacking in riches; some of the Chicago area’s wealthiest zip codes are in Frankfort, Orland Park, Palos Heights, Olympia Fields and other areas within the region.
Matteson is home to a concentration of numerous strip malls and big box stores, mostly located along Route 30 and Cicero Avenue (Route 50). It’s one of several areas in the south suburbs of Chicago with a high concentration of retail strip, and also home to one of the south/southwest suburbs’ first super-regional malls, Lincoln Mall.
Lincoln Mall opened in 1973 on the southeast corner of the intersection between Route 30 (Lincoln Highway) and Route 50 (Cicero Avenue), just east of I-57. When it opened, the mall contained nearly 1 million square-feet of retail space shared between 4 anchors – Carson Pirie Scott, Wieboldt’s, JCPenney, and Montgomery Ward – and two levels of mall space connecting the anchors. The original design of the mall was very similar to Yorktown Mall in Chicago’s western suburbs, which is still open and successful, and the former Lakehurst Mall in north-suburban Waukegan, which closed in 2001.
Lincoln Mall was an instant success, predating Orland Square by three years and the enclosure of River Oaks Mall by two decades. In fact, it wasn’t really until the late 1990s when things began to dramatically go south, despite the closure and 8 year vacancy of the Wieboldt’s store when that chain folded in 1987. In fact, the mall was refurbished with a major remodel and update in 1993, and Sears moved into Wieboldt’s old location from nearby Park Forest Plaza – an outdoor center that predated Lincoln Mall and died due to its competition – in 1995.
The 1990s saw the beginning of the end for Lincoln Mall. In 1993-94, nearby River Oaks Center was enclosed and up-sized. In response, Lincoln Mall remodeled and filled in the dead Wieboldt’s anchor with Sears, but in the end it wasn’t enough. The unsurpassed growth of the 90s moved the almighty dollars westward, and cities in the Orland Park and Frankfort corridor saw the most growth and the best incomes in the Southland. Thus, the retail strip surrounding and including Orland Square, along 159th Street and Route 45 got the best stores. This is still true today. Lincoln Mall’s retail portfolio began to slowly disintegrate, as middle tier and popular national chains began to leave and were replaced by local stores and vacancies. The core demographic of the mall’s clientele changed too, slowly yet surely, from racially diverse to predominantly African-American by 2000 or so, and the stores began to reflect this.
In 1999, Montgomery Ward closed up shop at Lincoln Mall, about two years before their nationwide shuttering, and in 2000 JCPenney left during a round of closings in a lousy period for that chain. These two blows left only Sears and Carson’s at the helm of a sinking ship. During the early 2000s stores began to leave in droves, and the mall was put on life support.
In 2005, a commercial realty partnership from Texas, Realty America Group, was contacted by the mall’s owner to sell the mall. The owner apparently wanted to cut their losses and get out, but Realty America said “Wait just a dog gone minute!” – I’m paraphrasing now – and decided that Lincoln Mall was more of an asset of opportunity than a dead mall that should be left for – well, dead.
So, after completing due diligence, Realty America went to the Village of Matteson and apparently made a stellar presentation for redevelopment, because they were awarded $45 million for the project in April 2005. Groundbreaking took place in August of that year, with the construction of a new four-lane road behind the mall connecting Route 30 and Cicero. The theory behind this was that prospective new tenants wouldn’t want to be at the “back” of the mall with restrictive visibility and access. The new road essentially eliminates the idea of the “back” of the mall altogether, providing – in theory – the same level of access on all four sides of the mall.
Renovation proceeded with some pretty grandiose plans, including the demolition of both dead anchors, complete renovation of the interior space, structural updates, outside facade updates including a new entrance, and a cherry on top. A cornerstone of the entire renovation project is the Promenade at Lincoln Mall, a non-enclosed district comprised of retail boxes, other shops, restaurants, and entertainment taking the space of the anchors that were demolished as well as along the new four-lane road. The new open-air space would comprise between 400,000 and 500,000 of new retail space, restaurants, and a planned movie theatre, bringing the total square-footage back to the original size of the enclosed mall – about 1 million square feet. The end idea, according to Lincoln Mall’s general manager, was to create a “best of both worlds” scenario, complete with an enclosed mall for people who want a climate controlled environment in the harsh climate of the upper midwest, along with an outdoor area for big box stores and other tenants who don’t want to be in the enclosed part of the concept, as well as to indulge the somewhat-nonsensical fad of outdoor shopping for outdoor shopping’s sake. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
In Summer 2007, the new road behind the mall was complete, just in time for Target to open their new 126,000 square foot store on a parcel south of the mall, south of the new road. Then, in Fall 2007, JCPenney opened a 106,000 square foot store southeast of the mall, also south of the new road. Then the project kind of stopped. Whoops.
In October 2008, the village of Matteson threw another $10 million at the project, to get the next phase running – the filling in of the demolished anchor pads, the exterior/interior renovations of the remaining enclosed mall, addition of other tenants, etc. About the same time, in September 2008, the Texas partnership of Realty America, who owns the mall, apparently stopped making mortgage payments on it, according to their lender, Texans Commercial. Not so, said the manager of the partnership, Rives Castleman (what a name); instead, he claims that the lender is forcing them into default by playing dirty tricks and instead owes them $20 million; they have filed counter suit. This is all from court documents, as both Castleman and his lawyer, Eugene Geekie (another name!) have refused to comment to reporters. Texans had agreed, in 2004 – when this entire project began – to finance the initial stages of the redevelopment, in addition to the $45 million received from the village at the get go. The loan had an outstanding balance of over $37 million at the time of the foreclosure.
The court case began in January 2009, and has apparently screeched the renovations to a halt. As of October 2009, the enclosed mall looks like a weird retail Frankenmonster (hey, it’s Halloween) – there are gross, visible concrete seams and an unappealing mess where the dead anchors were torn off and demolished, and a temporary fence sits along the half of the mall where the demolition took place. They, at least, cleaned up (most of) the rubble, and the JCPenney and Target are operating in separate buildings south of the new road they constructed. It honestly looks like a terrible mess, and if I were a resident of Matteson I’d be really embarrassed of this eyesore.
Here’s an obvious question – why didn’t they just put Target and JCPenney in the mall? They had two vacant anchors, and one of them even WAS JCPenney, and they had 2 anchors to put into place. Seems like simple math to me. The mall would have definitely been reinvigorated by having two brand new anchors, including the ever-popular Target, so how is putting them outside and essentially across the street going to ever help the interior part of the mall that they wanted to keep? We’re really scratching our heads here. Unless it really comes together into something cohesive and pedestrian-oriented, linking Target and JCPenney and funneling people into the mall, the Promenade at Lincoln Mall is nothing innovative nor remotely beneficial to the mall structure. It’s been done before – ever see businesses on a mall’s ring road?
The interior portion of the mall today is kind of sad. There are some popular national retailers, like Old Navy, Bath and Body works and Express, but there are seemingly more vacancies and local stores. You know your mall is unwell when Dollar Plus is listed under the food ‘catagory’ (sp) on the directory map. Also, they converted an old Sbarro into a place that advertises a combination of Mexican and Italian food. Furthermore, the center court area has been sectioned off with cages where you can pet live tigers, and a temporary stage is set up near one of the demolished anchors where magic shows are held nightly, performed by a mullet-clad man named Joe Exotic. The show itself costs no money to the mall, and Joe even suggests on his website that his shows are great for dead or dying malls. This is a unique and possibly innovative idea, but obviously temporary and not a real solution.
We visited the mall in October 2009, on a weekday night, and walked around and took pictures of the mall as usual, when we noticed we were being mysteriously followed by someone who appeared to be an employee of the mall – a janitor? He had a walkie talkie or a cell phone, but we weren’t sure; the mall wasn’t that crowded, and this person was definitely following us. It appeared to be time to leave, due to this turn of events, but as we were leaving a security guard by the name of C. Mack popped out from somewhere on the 2nd floor of the mall and approached us with fervor.
Uh oh. Here it comes, the “we caught you photographing in the mall” spiel. We’ve heard it before, and it’s never pleasant, but what actually transpired here was unexpected and sort of shocking, but ultimately kind of hilarious. He got out a little notebook – the kind real police officers use to take statements – and got out a writing utensil and kept up with our pace (we didn’t stop to indulge him), all pretty intently.
“I have reports that you were soliciting.”
“There have been reports based on your description that you were soliciting in the mall.”
“Well, I haven’t opened my mouth or talked to a single person since I entered the mall, so no.”
“Well, the description I was given was definitely you.”
At this point, I was admittedly a little freaked out, and a few thoughts whizzed around in my head. Why was I being accused of soliciting when I honestly hadn’t spoken to anyone, at all, since I entered the mall? I had only been there maybe 10 minutes at this point. I was taking pictures, the ones featured with this post, but that’s not soliciting. Did someone not know what soliciting means?
At any rate, after I denied soliciting a few times he immediately backed off and started walking the other way. I wasn’t kicked out of the mall, and nothing else happened. I did leave immediately, as planned, and maybe this was their intent, but it’s still kind of puzzling.
I have a few questions to pose to y’all: Is this mall a case of biting off more than one can chew, resultant of the current state of the economy combine with the greed and mismanagement of non-local entities looking to make a few bucks? Or is it just a case of bad luck and some honest tries? Maybe it’s a combination of all of these factors. Or maybe we’re completely off the mark here. Leave comments and let us know!