Oakbrook Center; Oak Brook, Illinois

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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.

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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.

oakbrook-center-14Within 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.

oakbrook-center-30Today, 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.

49 Responses to “Oakbrook Center; Oak Brook, Illinois”

  1. I’m not sure how I like these open-air malls, but they seem to have a certain charm. I think I’ve seen these mall photos on the Labelscar Flickr Group or something like it.

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  2. Oakbrook Center is a true super-regional shopping destination. This place is massive, feels bigger than Woodfield. Everything is super-upscale, even Sears has higher quality items than a typical store. They once had one of the few Warner Bros. stores in the Chicago area. If everything seems too pricy, there is a McDonalds on the lower concourse (Headquarters are just down the road off 22nd St).

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    Chip Reply:

    @Chip,

    The really fun story is nearby Yorktown Center. This is the mall that should be dead but never stays down. This Z-shaped two level 1.5 million sq. feet mall manages to bring itself back from the brink time and time again. It lost center court anchor Wiebolts in 1987, which sat empty until Von Maur opened in 1997. Junior anchor closed next door was turned in restaurants on the first floor, food court on the second. Woolworth space next to Wards was used by the parent company of Veggie Tales before becoming a Steve and Berry’s. When Wards closed in 2000, the south wing cleared out and looked like the end again. However management tore down the Wards building and put in an outdoor plaza anchored by Forever 21. Also check out the Penneys anchor, which has the old interlocking JCP logo embedded in the concrete around the entrances

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    emmett Reply:

    @Chip,

    i check this site often, hoping for an old-school feature on yorktown. seems i was in that mall once a day as a kid, and ended up working there in high school.

    you’re dead-on about it constantly being brought back from near-flatline.

    i’d love to see photos, or even an old layout/mall map, from any time in the 70s or 80s. i have lots of memories of stores and restaurants from that time, but can’t for the life of me remember their names.

    here’s hoping for something archival to surface soon!

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    AM Reply:

    @emmett, I’m the webmaster of the blog Venture Into Retailing(knock on wood this comment gets through, since too often they seem to get blocked strangely…). Unfortunately I’ve gotten off to a WAAAAAAAAAY slower start than I would’ve preferred, but Yorktown will be among my future mall entries. I even got some more malls and older shopping center entries planned(and for BOTH Chicagoland and non-Chicagoland), that Labelscar missed. No knock against Labelscar obviously, since it was this blog and Sky City(but ultimately the latter) that inspired me to finally start Venture Into Retailing.

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    emmett Reply:

    @AM, i visited this site today for the first time in a while and saw your comment. i’m going to poke around and see what i can find about your venture. i do hope there’s something there, as this subject interests me, but i’m still super interested in information and photos relating to the old yorktown days.

    if you see this message, i hope all is well!

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  3. For all the hand wringing about “people will never shop outdoors in a cold climate”, Oakbrook seems like a good example, that “yes they will” at least if they have something other than an ordinary mall experience.

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  4. I always thought centers such as Northland in Jennings, MO, were model “outdoors” centers.

    The main problem I see with this is that if it’s cold outside I really don’t want to walk one foot more than I absolutely have to. It looks warm and inviting in its current state, but in January I bet it’s miserable as all get out. Still, at least this looks like it’s an enjoyable destination instead of a glorified strip mall.

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  5. I’m guessing they must do well during the Christmas season, which is when retailers earn up to half (or more) of their profits. And it sure is cold then in Chicago, yet oddly at that point the cold isn’t the worst and a lot of people consider it novel, if not essential to the season. But January, February, and March are pretty brutal here in the upper midwest, and summers can be awful hot. There are seriously a scant number of days when the weather would be ideal for an outdoor mall. I guess people are far better troopers than we think.

    Still, I’d love to see the sales stats on one of the new lifestyle malls and then compare them, by month, to a comparable enclosed mall. Just sayin.

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    SEAN Reply:

    @Prange Way, 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.

    You forgot About Old Orchard Center in Skokie wich went just as upscale as Oakbrook. That would make it a quad, not a trifecta.

    OAC IS ALSO OPEN AIR AS WELL.

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    Chip Reply:

    @SEAN, make that a pentfecta (is that a word?). Orland Square is the regional power house of the South Suburbs and is just as upscale as Woodfield. OS is surrounds by miles of strip centers and chain restaurants. Orland Park is second in Illinois for retail tax revenue (behind Schaumburg.)

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    SEAN Reply:

    @Chip, Wasn’t there a Cineplex Odeon triplex theatre at Orland Square? It closed a few years ago along with two other theatres in Orland Park that were twinplexes.

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    Allan Marshall Reply:

    @SEAN, I was trying to reply to your post, but not sure why it didn’t properly submit the first time I commented. Here goes attempt 2(and crossing my fingers this goes through):

    Orland Square once had a 4 screen theater(later called Orland Square 7-10, which opened under Plitt Theaters in 1977, and later when the theaters were renumbered, Cineplex Odeon). After Cineplex Odeon and Plitt theaters merged in the mid-1980s, CO opened Orland Square 1-6 in the late 80s.

    Both theaters operated, until Marcus Theaters opened a 10(later 14, when a 4-screen addition was built after it opened) screen theater in Orland Park. Theaters 7-10 closed in the late 1990s, and 1-6 closed in 2001, around the time CO and Loews Theaters(Loews sometimes went under the name Sony Theaters) merged. I remember the CO chain extremely well, and it was quite a nostalgia trip to go to Rivertree Court(8 screen theater in Vernon Hills originally built by CO, and which have a similar design to Orland Square 1-6) in December of last year!

    Here’s more info on both Orland Square 1-6 and 7-10:
    http://cinematreasures.org/theater/5369/
    http://www.cinematour.com/theatres/us/IL/11.html

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    SEAN Reply:

    @Allan Marshall, Here’s a tour of Old Orchard [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWq8R7bfj-o&w=560&h=315

    As you can see it is comperable to Oakbrook minus the Westfield branding.

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  6. As great of a mall as Oakbrook is, it really isn’t so great if the weather is extremely cold or hot. If you go there, wear comfy shoes, because the intense walking will catch up with you. The best time to go to Oakbrook is around now (not too cold, not too hot).

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  7. What a beautiful shopping area!!!! I agree with the others, though: Winter would suck, spring would be beautiful. I understand the former Blue Ridge Mall in Kansas City was built as an outdoor shopping area such as this one, and the roof was added later.

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  8. I just checked fandango.com the AMC-6 theatres at Oakbrook closed. I’ll bet AMC once things improve will open a new complex there. AMC has been on a closing binge lately, dumping older General Cinema, Loews & Cineplex locations for theatres with stadium seating. They have about another 75 locations that could be dropped for that reason.

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    SEAN Reply:

    @SEAN, My bad, I missstook the cinemas @ Old Oarchard for Oakbrook.

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  9. Ahhh… Oak Brook. I prefer this mall over the indoor one nearby. I live near the Fox Valley Mall, and that place is annoying as hell. Fox Valley in recent years have gotten rid of the fountains and flowers and put in areas for those annoying kiosks. The clientel of FV is starting to become a lower class. Good example is the upper level by Sears. It seems very ghetto in that part of the mall. There are 2 very annoying play areas in the Carson’s court and the JC Penney court. If I had kids, I wouldn’t let my kids play in those areas. They don’t look clean. And of course all of the punk ass teenagers from inner city Aurora.

    Now, Oak Brook isn’t for all weather, but it is a very nice mall in the spring and summer. Yes there are expensive stores, but there are also affordable ones as well. I am a kid at heart and love the candy section at Macy’s in the lower level. Macy’s has a bigger selection of merchandise. I love the center court area at the height of the flowering season. Very nice. People are more well behaved, and there aren’t any play areas that I know of. Kiosks are kept to a minimum. The Sears is massive as well and a little more nicer than Fox Valley.

    So if you have friends and family that are visiting, Oak Brook is the place to go. Don’t take them to some other dingy mall.

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  10. Christmas in Chicago can be cruel (I’ve known a few), so I don’t think Christmas profits have sustained Oakbrook. Rather, it is a well designed center that provides a good shopping experience. It has adapted, physically, in ways that malls often have not been able to do–I think this is the real reason developers no longer want to build malls. They see a place like Oakbrook and they never want to build another place that might turn into Lakehurst.

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  11. Wow – this mall looks strikingly like the original Northwest Plaza in St. Louis before it was enclosed in the late 80s, complete with the office tower. I’m guessing they shared an architect.

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  12. In MallsofAmerica, someone (“Jeff”) said about this mall:

    The most amazing thing about Oakbrook is that it still looks pretty much the same! I love shopping there, even in the cold, cold winter. Reminds me of a more upscale version of the original Northwest Plaza in St. Ann, MO (near St. Louis), before the horrible late 80’s enclosure.

    But MallsofAmerica has been removed from Blogger! Horrors! :o

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  13. Labelscar’s 3rd birthday is tomorrow. I sure hope something is done about the total absence of MallsofAmerica (it went offline between May 12th and today) and about some oft-requested malls…or something. Specifically, I’m thinking of a mall that very briefly had Bonwit Teller as a launch anchor…that’s in Ohio…that was once owned by the Mills…

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    Caldor Reply:

    @Jonah Norason, we have nothing to do with (and no say about) anything that happens with MallsofAmerica. It’s unfortunate that it’s gone (*very* unfortunate, actually) but there’s nothing we can do about it.

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    Jonah Norason Reply:

    @Caldor, I know. But considering that a lot of pages here link to it, it would be kind of cool to go in and see what can be saved from MallsofAmerica. Or something.

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    Jonah Norason Reply:

    I’m slapping together a cheap, MOA-esque blog, kind of “saving” what I can.

    http://retailaddictionblog.blogspot.com/

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    Jonah Norason Reply:

    @Caldor, it appears to be back!

    http://mallsofamerica.blogspot.com/

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    Allan Marshall Reply:

    @Jonah Norason, I just noticed today(albeit several weeks late!) that Steven Swain had made a post on his blog saying that MoA was gone. Good to see that it wasn’t deleted, after all.

    I really hope you do try to copy the important information from his posts, in case the site again attempts to take the old posts offline. Just hope Web Archive did save his posts regardless, during one of their recent rounds of archiving sites.

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    Jonah Norason Reply:

    @Allan Marshall, no problem. Despite my blog no longer featuring the “MoA Mirror”, I have merely disabled them, ready to show up again in case of it going down again.

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    Allan Marshall Reply:

    @Jonah Norason, Glad you do have the mirror site ready to go, in case MoA does go offline for any future indefinite periods.

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    Bobby Reply:

    @Jonah Norason, I think you’re thinking of Forest Fair, now Cincy Mills.

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    Jonah Norason Reply:

    @Bobby, Correct. But it’s Cincinnati MALL now, because they lost the right to use the Mills name.

    HAPPY THIRD BIRTHDAY, LABELSCAR!

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  14. I remember this place; my 19th birthday was at Nordstrom.

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  15. I wonder what that tiny standalone Starbucks in the middle of the concourse once was?

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    Kurt Reply:

    @Bobby,
    The starbucks was added, built on top of some landscaping

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  16. I was just at Oakbrook the other day; I live in Rockford and usually go there at least once a year. It hasn’t changed much over the years. It seems to be a little more upscale than Woodfield, although Woodfield does have more stores.

    I lived in South Carolina for a few years and people were always very surprised when I told them that northern Illinois has such large outdoor malls. I once read somewhere that people spent more money at Oakbrook (and Old Orchard in Skokie) on snowy and rainy days than at Woodfield mall. Occupancy seems to be full every time I go there. I also remember going Christmas shopping at Oakbrook with my family when I was younger, and it was busy.

    The Marshall Field’s store (now Macy’s) was one of the largest in the original Marshall Field’s chain. I worked a second job at the Marshall Field’s in Rockford (CherryVale Mall) for a few years. I left shortly after Macy’s announced they would be changing the name (not for that reason, although I am not a fan of the name change). My supervisor had left for a position at the Oakbrook store in which he assisted in the Macy’s makeover. I miss seeing so many of the designer brands which used to be carried in this particlar store; Macy’s traded many of these for their “in house” brands.

    Also, I’ve never been to Northbrook Court but from what I know it would be another upscale mall to add to the list.

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  17. Glad to see this report on Oakbrook Center here. Oakbrook was actually one of four similarly-designed malls and for many years one of the region’s 3 large outdoor malls.
    Park Forest Plaza was the first, built in the 1940’s with a large Marshall Field’s and Sears stores as anchors. Old Orchard came next north of Chicago, with another large Field’s store. Oakbrook followed, and finally River Oaks Center in the late 60’s with another large Field’s and Sears.
    Park Forest lost many tenants and was smaller and not well located (lack of highways and main roads), but the latter three malls served as a trifecta of upscale outdoor malls for the region for decades. The three were also expanded several times, though the third expansion of River Oaks also enclosed the mall.

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  18. Me and my friend grew up in Elmhurst, 15 minutes away… Our parents always took us to Oakbrook when we were kids to look at the flowers, which were and still are lovely.
    We still joke about how, since our families didn’t have a dime those days, we never even noticed that Oakbrook had stores, and always thought it was an amusement park for old people.
    That mall’s a part of me, though, easily my favourite mall. Yorktown comes in second.

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  19. A proper lifestyle center. I especially love the international style office building in the center.

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  20. I have visited this mall many times and love the atmosphere and stores. It seems to be doing good and I hope it continues for a long time.

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  21. I hope they NEVER enclose Oakbrook. Yes, Chicago winters can be brutal, but the one thing that others have not metioned is that there are plenty of place to duck in and get warm.

    Shopping at Oakbrook is cool because it feels as if you are walking in a garden.The mall has undergone renovations, but those changes showed some sensitivity to the original design, unlike the clownish renovations that were done at Old Orchard.

    Oakbrook has a sense of style and class, is aesthetically pleasing, and as someone else mentioned, the people seem to be more well-mannered than in other malls. That’s not being snooty, it’s just a reflection of the surroundings-they are designed to uplift.

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    James Reply:

    @Rope-A-Dope, I agree with your desire never to see Oakbrook enclosed. And, you are right. Oakbrook does have a sense of style and class that seems to be missing from other shopping malls.

    We moved to the Chicago area nearly 11 years ago, settling in DuPage County. I recall at the time that my wife and I were surprised to find an open air mall (Oakbrook) in the area. We had the usual reaction- An unenclosed mall in Chicago? In the winter? Must be awful, we thought. But, as we learned our way around the western suburbs, exploring the various shopping venues, Oakbrook became our favorite. Oakbrook has many assets that far outweigh the seeming inconvenience of inclement winter weather.

    Some of those assets:
    1.The architecture- nothing gimmicky, just a clean fresh international style that is as contemporary in 2009 as it was in the 1960s when Oakbrook was built.;
    2. The landscaping – the gardens are well-tended, the trees are mature and one can actually experience the change of seasons which, to my mind, is a positive. Oh- and the fountains work!
    3. The mix of stores. Really, there are very few stores on Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue that do not also have locations in Oakbrook.

    I have no disclaimer to make here, because I have no connection with Oakbrook ownership or any of the Oakbrook stores. I just happen to recognize Oakbrook as one mall (may be the only mall) that actually is capable of generating some enthusiasm among my family. Yorktown down the road is certainly an acceptable mall and in fact seems to be improving, but Yorktown just doesn’t have the same panache as Oakbrook. Interestingly, the newest section of Yorktown, on the site of the old Montgomery Wards, is open air, with storefronts facing open walkways, apparently in emulation of Oakbrook- good luck, Yorktown…

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    AM of IL Reply:

    @Rope-A-Dope, Same here. It was a sad day when River Oaks(sister shopping center to Old Orchard and Oak Brook) in Calumet City was enclosed in 1994, since it took away the charm it had as an outdoor mall.

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  22. I have always lived just a few miles from Oakbrook so have been there plenty often. (More than Oakbrook Center proper, I often am at the nearby Borders and Container Store.) In these hard economic times, there are a number of empty stores — especially in the Nordstrom wing of the center. Currently the center does not look quite as well kept up as it used to.

    I was disappointed that McDonald’s moved out of the center. I don’t remember who I asked about it, but someone told me McDonald’s now wants only free-standing restaurants. They no longer want to be in shopping centers, food courts, etc. (McDonald’s has moved out of Yorktown also.)

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  23. Boy, I’ve lived in downtown Chicago forever, but I grew up in Lombard and went to Oak Brook Center as a kid.

    I seem to remember the big draw for families back then was gardens and fountains (maybe with colored lights?) in the summer and christmas lights and little christmas vignettes with robotic characters under glass in the winter (like snowmen or elves or sledding kids or whatever, sort of like the downtown stores had the robotic characters in their windows).

    They were spread out over the walking areas, so families would just go see the fountains in the summer and the christmas characters in the winter.

    (I assume the robotic vignettes were actually how the center converted the fountains for winter use–turn the water off and put a glass covered vignette in a fountain’s place–but I can’t really remember.)

    I see the comments above about “how could people shop outside in Chicago,” but they really turned the outdoor aspects into an asset. And, you know, the cold weather doesn’t stop Michigan Ave. from being packed in the Christmas season either.

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  24. I personally don’t like outdoor malls because I hate walking outside in the humid weather or freezing in the colder months.

    I worked at Victoria’s Secret and crazy people still shop when it’s freezing or snowing!

    One of the things that I didn’t like about working there was when I would get out of work at 3am and there would be a skunk in my way right in front of Starbucks! I think it lives in the bushes. I’ve also seen rabbits and mice.

    This mall really needs more restaurants! I got sick of Sbarros and Subway. Other than that the stores are okay. I like Yorktown better.

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  25. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILtZcDQw3zw&w=420&h=315

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  26. Over the past year, Oakbrook has been refurbished and landscaping, fountains, etc. have been changed. Totally different look. Modern. Makes me think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style. I didn’t like it at first, but it has grown on me. One big fountain isn’t quite finished. I’m anxious to see it in the spring and summer.

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  27. The old Cineplex Odeon quad theatre has recently reopened. A bit surprised that AMC chose to reopen this theatre as aposed to building a new complex on the mall property.

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