Retail trends of late have not only been soured across the board due to the economic recession, but they’ve also been especially unforgiving in regard to traditional enclosed malls – the number of which currently planned or under construction across the nation has (unfortunately?) dwindled to the low single digits. Current development trends have favored the competitors of enclosed malls for various reasons, and one of the most popular “replacements” of enclosed malls – either in redevelopment or new construction – is of a tidy, roofless, mixed-use type of development called a lifestyle center, which ideally combines retail, entertainment, offices, dining, and often residential components housed together.
These lifestyle center developments have a less-rigid set of standards than traditional enclosed malls – a tenet which most likely contributes to their success as a fad. Where traditional enclosed malls are focused by large department store anchors, drawing shoppers between them via interior corridors lined with shops on all sides, lifestyle centers are not only less focused on anchors in general – indeed some have no discernable anchors at all – the anchors they do house tend to be of a variety of types, and range in genre from entertainment to box stores. While some lifestyle centers feature pedestrian-only corridors, most feature strips of stores with driveable streets and accessible parking in front of or nearby every outlet featured. In fact, many of these new developments have been criticized for not necessarily being a new idea at all, and instead are nothing more than touched-up strip malls. In addition, lifestyle centers seem to speak to a narrowcast demographic, featuring women-only apparel stores, accesory shops, and women-geared services and amenities. The few retail markets cornered by men - such as gaming - are often not present or grossly underrepresented in lifestyle developments.
Oakbrook Center, located in west-suburban Chicagoland about 20 miles directly west of downtown, is NOT a lifestyle center for several reasons, but it is a cousin – or perhaps a grandparent – of the lifestyle concept, and its success is often (mis)attributed to the proliferation and fad-like success of lifestyle centers popping up all over the country these days. Oakbrook Center is, according to its website, the largest open-air mall in the entire country; and, at over 2 million square feet of leasable space, it’s a believable claim. It was, also according to the website, voted as the number one shopping destination in all of Illinois. This claim is a bit more dubious, as it’s also been reported that Woodfield Mall is the #2 tourist destination in all of Illinois behind Navy Pier.
Semantics aside, Oakbrook Center is a huge mall with mostly upscale – but not ridiculously so – chain stores. Its anchors include Bloomingdale’s Home, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Sears, and in addition it features oversized locations of your favorite chain upscale retailers – anyone need a 21,000 square-foot Express? Or how about a 26,000 square-foot Pottery Barn?
But it wasn’t always this way. Oakbrook Center started out plying to a wider demographic back in 1962, when it opened with Sears, Marshall Fields, and a Jewel Food Store. Back then, Oakbrook was located on the fringe of the western suburbs, and most of DuPage County was still a largely rural landscape dotted with independent, mostly disconnected cities – which are now the behemoth suburbs of Lombard, Naperville, Wheaton, and so on.
Within a decade after opening, though, Oakbrook Center began its transformation into an upscale destination-mall for the entire Chicagoland area. This all occured in spite of competition 2 miles down the street in the form of an enclosed mall, Yorkown Center, which opened with 100 stores and three anchors in 1968. However, unlike some instances of outdoor malls faced with enclosed mall competition throughout the past, Yorktown’s influence and competition did not cause Oakbrook to enclose, as it did for River Oaks Mall in southeast-suburban Calumet City, which enclosed in 1994 after decades as an outdoor mall.
In 1973, a Lord and Taylor was added to the south side of the mall, and upscale Bonwit Teller also opened. Then, in 1981 an expansion to Oakbrook doubled the size of the mall with a new southeast court featuring upscale anchors I. Magnin, Saks, and Neiman Marcus, and the Jewel Food Store was kicked out. Bonwit Teller and I. Magnin closed in 1990 and 1991, respectively, but their areas were quickly subdivided into larger-than-your-local-mall editions of Eddie Bauer and others – not to mention a Tiffany and Co. location, just for fun. Also, in 1991, an expansion north of Sears gave Oakbrook the first Nordstrom location in the midwest, as well as a two-level mall expansion both totaling almost 500,000 square feet.
Throughout the rest of the 90s and into the 00s, Oakbrook Center continued it rapacious upscaling, solidifying its position into the destination mall it is today. Saks closed their doors in 2002 amid a nationwide cutback, but the parent company quickly replaced its location with a Bloomie’s Home Store, which opened in 2003. Finally, the Marshall Fields went the way of the dodo in 2006 when Macy’s bought them and unified all their nameplates under the Macy’s banner – we’re still kind of sore about that one.
Today, Oakbrook Center is – together with Woodfield Mall in the northwest suburbs and Michigan Avenue downtown - part of a trifecta of uber-regional shopping destinations serving the Chicagoland area. The upscale stores featured at the mall are a collection slightly beneath the boutique-style, exorbitant stores at malls such as South Coast Plaza in Orange County, California and the traditional mix of mall stores found at other larger malls like Woodfield and the Mall of America. This mix of stores, combined with the mall’s sheer size and location – smack dab in the middle of the Chicagoland metropolitan area and at the crux of I-88, I-294, and I-290 -offers shoppers from the entire area and beyond easy access to the mall.
Once again, Oakbrook Center is not a lifestyle center; instead, it is a regional mall that happens to not have a roof. Its pedestrian corridors don’t have cars or parking – instead, they contain beautifully landscaped gardens, trees, and fountains. Its anchors are the traditional behemoths from years gone by. No doubt, though, outdoor malls like Oakbrook have been an inspiration for the lifestyle centers of today. Oakbrook does have an office tower, but it isn’t quite the mixed-use ‘community of tomorrow’ and also has no residential component, nor even much entertainment for that matter – a seven-screen movie theater closed in 2003 after 16 years of business. Oakbrook does, however, have a relatively high number of destinational restaurants, something many traditional enclosed malls lack and many lifestyle centers focus on.
While Oakbrook is not a lifestyle center, it is, perhaps, an inspiration or model of what a successful lifestyle center should – or could – be, with its aesthetics as well as its selection of stores secured soundly in place. In fact, many commenters on Yelp and other sites have noted they enjoy shopping in an environment with an established sense of place and community; however, interestingly some of them wish the mall was enclosed and one commenter even said she goes to Yorktown if the weather is bad. If the fad of lifestyle centers is the result of merely imparting the convenience and open air aspect from established, successful centers like Oakbrook, then their focus is short sighted and ultimately misled. Ultimately, successful modern developments like lifestyle centers must not cheaply take successful ideas from places like Oakbrook part-and-parcel, and will instead realize the lesson that architecture, immaculate gardens, fountains, and trees are as much a part of a shopper’s experience as having a great selection of stores or the best parking spot.