Southridge Mall; Des Moines, Iowa

Southridge Mall was the second major mall built in metro Des Moines, after Valley West, and both malls opened within weeks of each other in 1975. The two malls also complemented each other geographically, with Valley West serving the west portion of Des Moines and Southridge driving the retail corridor on the south side. Valley West was constructed by a firm from Minneapolis, and Southridge was built by General Growth Properties.

Des Moines is Iowa’s capital and also its largest city.  With a population of over 500,000 residents, metro Des Moines has four malls that can be classified as regional or better:  Valley West and Jordan Creek Town Center, both located in West Des Moines, Merle HayMall, located in northwest-suburban Clive, and Southridge Mall, located on the southeast side of Des Moines.

Southridge Mall was the second major mall built in metro Des Moines, after Valley West, and both malls opened within weeks of each other in 1975.  The two malls also complemented each other geographically, with Valley West serving the west portion of Des Moines and Southridge driving the retail corridor on the south side.  Valley West was constructed by a firm from Minneapolis, and Southridge was built by General Growth Properties.

Before Southridge opened, the project was named Army Post Plaza, after the adjacent Army Post Road as well as an actual army post; however, the name was changed to Southridge before the mall opened.

When it opened in October 1975, Southridge was anchored by just one store, Younkers, which still sits at center court today.  Sears opened as the second anchor on the east side of the mall in 1977, and Montgomery Ward became the third anchor in 1978, located on the west side of the mall. In 1982, Omaha-based Richman Gordman became the mall’s fourth anchor, opening a store on the southwest side of the mall adjacent to Wards.

In 1984, General Growth sold Southridge to Equitable Life, an insurance company, and General Growth continued to manage the mall until 1998.  At that time, the mall was acquired by an equitable partnership between Simon and Macerich, who continues to manage the mall today.

It seemed Southridge was primed to add a fifth anchor in 1987, when Arkansas-based Dillards wished to open a store in the Des Moines market and chose Southridge.  However, a spat ensued when Younkers sued Southridge management over the Dillards addition, arguing that its lease called for only four anchor slots at the mall.  A federal judge finally ruled against Younkers in 1990, but by this time Dillards had lost interest.  Dillard’s tried again in vain to open at Valley West Mall in 2000, but that never materialized, However, this outcome wasn’t the end of it, as the judge’s decision to allow a fifth anchor opened the flood gates for other interested parties to build, which led to the addition of Target in 1992.

Dillard’s tried again in vain to open at Valley West Mall in 2000, which never materialized, but they did finally open in Jordan Creek Town Center in 2004.

Meanwhile, Richman Gordman went bankrupt in 1992 and closed their store at Southridge.   It was filled in 1994 by JCPenney, which moved from downtown Des Moines.

The 1990s were less than kind to Southridge, as the decline of many regional malls and the nature of overbuilding retail space finally caught up to metro Des Moines.  Southridge became the ‘odd man out’ as retail boxes and new construction favored clustering around the major hub on the west side. By the late 1990s, Valley West Mall, which had originally opened in tandem with Southridge on seemingly equal footing, was clearly the dominant winner in the regional market.

The retail hub for the south side, anchored by Southridge, which had visibly taken a toll to the west side’s retail dominance, was also hit by emerging retail corridors in fast-growing Pleasant Hill, Altoona, and Ankeny to the north.  The south side wasn’t growing as fast, and furthermore, it didn’t have the transportation access the north and west sides enjoyed, sitting adjacent to or directly on Interstates 35, 80, and 235.  A new southerly freeway bypass (US 65/IA 5) of Des Moines opened in 2002 close to Southridge, but it was a bit late to reclaim its status as a successful regional mall.

In 1999, Southridge lost again when Montgomery Ward announced it was leaving Des Moines as part of its first round of bankruptcy closings.  The building remained vacant until it became clear it wasn’t going to be retenanted,and was demolished in 2006 as part of a larger renovation of sorts.

Caldor and I visited Southridge around this time, and although it was not the most successful mall in the region, it was a solid performer and seemingly not in danger at the time.  One of our best memories from that trip is from Southridge, as while we exited the mall we heard a teenage girl on a payphone (yes, a payphone) very obviously and loudly discussing with her friend about a sexual encounter the friend had.  In vivid details.  About the most vivid you can imagine, in fact.

The 2000s were a sad, continuous downward spiral at Southridge Mall, culminating in a high vacancy rate of 40 out of 91 possible stores, or a 44 percent occupancy rate, by December 2009.

In 2004, yet another blow rocked the potential viability of Southridge, pushing it faster toward oblivion, as a brand new enclosed mall opened in West Des Moines, Jordan Creek Town Center.  Jordan Creek, surrounded by a complementary brand new retail corridor of big box, strip malls, and destination restaurants, was one of the last super-regional enclosed malls to open in the United States. As Jordan Creek is located on the opposite side of the Des Moines area as Southridge, 0ne might expect the two malls on the west side of Des Moines to suffer and for Southridge to flourish; instead, the opposite happened.

Interestingly, because of synergy and proactive management on the part of both Valley West and Merle Hay Malls, these centers have been able to work together with Jordan Creek Town Center to remain viable and successful.  Much more viable than Southridge, in fact, which has become a repository of vacancy and an odd collection of many local mom and pop or ethnically-focused shops, with few popular national chain stores and restaurants.

In its management’s defense, though, Southridge isn’t going down without a fight.  Much needed renovations commenced in 2006, which involved the demolition of long-vacant former Wards, sprucing up the food court, as well as adding a new children’s play area.  Mini-anchor Steve and Barry’s arrived on the scene in 2007 to breathe new life into the center; unfortunately, that store closed the very next year when the entire chain went bankrupt in 2008 due to a crazy overzealous expansion that ironically put the store there in the first place.  Nothing lost, nothing gained, I guess.

By 2009, Southridge was identified in an article about the downfall of the enclosed American mall by U.S. News and World Report as one of 84 malls in danger of failure, due to its low sales per square foot and vacancy rate.

In 2011, another direct hit came as JCPenney announced they were bailing on the sinking Southridge ship in June.  We last visited Southridge in August 2011 and took the pictures featured with this post.  The last few stores leading to the former Wards (now demolished) are boarded up now, and this end of the mall seems to be the most vacant.  The bright spots of the mall are near center court, and although the food court was remodeled, it didn’t appear to attract more businesses into it.

There are a few national chain stores (Fashion Bug, Vanity, Radio Shack, GNC, Regis) still breathing life into the mall, but by far the balance of the 40 or so stores still kicking around, other than the anchors, are mom-and-pop local stores.  Many of  these stores are geared toward a specific ethnic population (Filipino Store) or service a small interest group (Iowa Reptile Rescue).  I have no doubt that these stores help serve a niche and I wish them well, but their sole presence unaccompanied by a mix of popular chains is just not enough to get people in the doors and accomplish the synergy necessary for an enclosed regional mall to succeed.

Or maybe, just maybe, this cat at the Animal Rescue League had the right sentiment about this mall.  Mouth open, sound asleep, and snoring as loud as can be.   He was really tired from shopping at Shag, Spike, and Canton.  At least the reptiles next door at Iowa Reptile Rescue didn’t get him.  I hope you got adopted, because you were adorable:

The only saving grace for Southridge are the remaining anchors: Sears, Younkers, and Target.  Their popularity will probably keep the place afloat for a while, but a 40% vacancy rate in the mall combined with a lack of popular brands does not bode well for sustainability.

So what’s on the horizon for Southridge?  As of Fall 2011, a career academy sponsored by Des Moines Area Community College has been proposed for a portion of the recently closed JCPenney space.  We’re hopeful that the plan goes through, because Southridge’s days as a retail-only venue are numbered.  Creative mixed-use schemes have a better potential to draw people into the mall, helping to retain the stores that are already there while reducing blight.

Pictures from August 2011:

37 thoughts on “Southridge Mall; Des Moines, Iowa”

  1. I don’t think ripping a giant hole in the mall, then boarding it up, counts as “renovations.” Where were they going with that, anyway?

  2. What a sad looking mall! By the look of some pictures it seems they had at one point or another: American Eagle Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works, Footlocker, Gap (where ‘Felices Suenos’, whatever the hell that means is), a Waldenbooks (where Book Trader is), Gadzooks (where Shag is) and what looks like an old Trade Secret salon, how depressing! BTW, hope that cute cat on the picture was adopted!

  3. I do love an old Target (Food Avenue FTW!) and cats. Thanks for the post, it brightened up my day.

  4. @Trevor, the “hole” was a tv set that was being built. Their was a bunch of political and legal “stuff” that happened and the area was not able to be used due to court proceedings for embezzlement by the people running the TV promotion. It is still locked in legal proceedings and has to be boarded off (which albeit they could have done a MUCH better job). Thought I’d clarify. The very sad thing is that these pictures were taken during a day the MALL Was OPEN!!

  5. Hey, great article, as always! This mall seems to be hanging in there for the moment. I guess having two anchors open that are not clearance outlets, as well as a Target, helps in this case. I also hope the cat, as well as all the other rescue animals(and reptiles), will find a good home soon. I hate to see companion animals homeless & alone. I don’t like to see people in that position either and we’ve got far too many of both in this world. Sorry, didn’t mean to get on a soapbox or anything! I agree with Nordrike Field, you can tell what some of these spaces were previously. The Sprint store near Younkers looks as though it was once a Helzberg or similar mall jewelers. Thanks for the great articles!

  6. @Nordrike Field, “Felices Suenos” = “Happy Dreams,” or as we would say, “Sweet Dreams.”

  7. Question: How does one pronounce “Younkers”? Is it like YOWN-kers, or YUN-kers? Or something else?

  8. Is it just me or does that top picture look a lot like a 90’s-built Arby’s?

  9. It always makes me sad to see these once grand palaces of retail reduced to empty store fronts and laughable mom and pop stores. I think the “repurposing” of the mall (this one or any) is a really good idea. Building a college or perhaps a hotel (if suitable) where the wards use to be would certainly bring more people to the site who in turn would use the food court, shop etc. I hope the place can get turned around and sink deeper into retail hell.

  10. @J-Man,
    Like the second of the two, Yun-kers. I usually call it Carson Pirie Scott 🙂

  11. YoAnother highlight is the full-size pirate ship,built as part of a movie set , that was then abandoned in-place when the movie tax credit scandal hit.

  12. @Brandon, I pronounce it YAWN-kers.

  13. @Kyle,

    Helzberg Diamonds had a corner space in the JCPenney/Montgomery Ward wing until early 2009. The Sprint store has been there since the early 2000s and recently renovated their store. The only jewelry store left there is Kay Jewelers.

    I want this mall to thrive, so I hope that DMACC brings in some stores! I don’t care if it’s a Family Dollar!

    I had a district manager from Toys R Us stay at my hotel a few months ago and said that it’s in a tentative state right now, but they are wanting to demolish their current 1991 building to rebuild as a Toys R Us/Babies R Us. I think it’s a good idea, but have it connected to the mall rather than being an outparcel.

    If they opened in the dead wing (JCPenney/Montgomery Ward), along with some other big box retailers with mall entrances such as Kohl’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods or a new Best Buy (wishful thinking), and if DMACC completes, it will bring lots of life back into the mall!

  14. @Brandon, I always thought it was pronounced YAWN-kers, lol. But who knows?

  15. Just looked through all the pics here, and is it just me incorrectly thinking something, or was the Shag store once a Suncoast? The facade looks at least slightly similar to the typical ones Suncoast used for their stores, but I’m not 100% positive if this was once one years ago.

  16. @Allan, as someone who used to work at a Suncoast, I can assure you it most certainly does not ‘:B-)

  17. @Russ, Thanks man. Old school Target signage, and vintage 90s interior FTW, and which I oddly missed the first time looking through these pics.

  18. @Allan:

    The Shag used to be a Gadzooks. The mall did have an FYE that was across from the arcade / Regis, but closed in the early 2000s.

    No updates on the DMACC occupany as of yet, but I’ll let you all know when I get one!

  19. An update on this mall. the Fashian bug is closed or almost gone and 99% certain todays announcment that Sears is closing 120 stores the Southridge store will be one of those stores closing. On a better note the city has agreed to work with the mall and they will be tearing down a huge portion of it to make it more of an outdoor facility and where the old Wards was they are going to build a huge indoor Soccer facility that will bring literly thousands to the area for big events and the facility will also be the training facility for the Iowa Barnstormers AFL team. Plus DMAC is still opening the school part. So we hope for better days for this place. It just won’t be a real mall anymore.

  20. My local Target opened as the same day as this one, and looked identical (before it was renovated, anyway)

  21. Wow, just read Caldor’s like to the Des Moines Register and saw the pcture, it looks like it will be a really good thing, just demolish part of the mall that is no longer worth keeping, make it into a strip mall, keep Sears, Target and Younkers and move stores into the new strip mall, maybe Target will expand into a SuperT store? We need to keep and eye on Southridge and see how things turn out.

  22. In late 2011, plans were made to make sweeping changes to Southridge. They were going to put in a training facility for the Iowa Barnstormers (local AFL team) presumably where Montgommery Wards used to be. Some, if not all of the old JC Penny location is going to be a new DMACC (Des Moines Area Community College), and they were going to redo the front fascia to allow for more open front stores.

    Well, when I heard this, I was excited, because I envisioned a revision similar to what happened at Merle Hay. This seemed like a way to breathe new life into a dying mall.

    Instead, this is their idea of breathing life into the mall….

    This link takes you to a page that has a ton of pictures. Most have nothing to do with Southridge, but the ones that do say it all. The west wing, over by the former JC Penny, Canton, Steve and Barry’s, etc (a cross-shaped section of hallway with the round stage in the center) plus Sears, Younkers, Target, and the Former JC Pennys are all that remain of the old mall. The mall itself, as we knew and loved it….is gone.

    The pictures you’ll see on that website of the concept art of the new mall look pretty, until you realize that 99% of that parking space is the old mall. If you take note of the locations of the Sears, Younkers, and Target in the drawing, it’ll give you the proper bearings to see where the rest of the mall used to be…..parking lot. Some of the old super structure of the stores that once made up the southern side of the eastmost east/west hallway (think Radio-shack, and B.Dalton, etc) near sears will be retained and used as superstructure for the row of open-faced stores in the concept that span the space between Younkers and Sears.

    Southridge, as a legal entity, lives on, and hopefully, will thrive in its new form. But legal entities mean little to those of us who grew up spending tons of time there. From our perspective, legal entities mean nothing, and a name is just a name. The mall we loved is gone, dead, and carried away in dump trucks, leaving a hideous, gaping hole on the scene, and in some measure, a hideous, gaping hole in our hearts.

    Southridge is dead. Whatever rises in its place, though it may be called Southridge, and though I’d rather it succeed than fail, will not be the same entity other than legality and name. And I for one am embittered because, while something drastic needed to be done, nothing -this- drastic…I’d rather have the old Southridge back.

    Now, at last, back to Merle Hay: As important as Southridge was to me, as much time as I’ve spent there, Merle Hay is even more important, as I’ve spent even more time there. In the back of my mind, I’ve always realized that someday, the place would have to come down. In fact, the one and only thing that the builders ensured, when they laid the first bricks and steel bars is that it would someday come down in a heap.

    But that was abstract, distant future. Barring an act of God, as long as Southridge stood, Merle Hay would stand. Southridge would come down first. Well, for all accounts and purposes, Southridge has come down. And what’s going to take it’s place is probably only going to be fiscally stronger. So Merle Hay’s safety net is gone.

    I now no longer think of Merle Hay’s demise and demolition in terms of distant abstraction, but as a real and tangible danger. I walk its halls, touring, as it were, a place I’ve seen millions of times, wondering, very sadly, how many more times I’ll be able to tour it before they bar it, and I’ve forever lost yet another childhood/adolescent/young adult haunt, and when the big ball swings, there will be, like Southridge, yet one more way in which I’ll never be able to “go home.”

    Losing Southridge was very painful (I nearly cried when I saw it…nearly), and I’ve hardly been able to stop thinking about it. The dull ache in my heart is similar to the dull ache of having had a friend die. If a similar fate befell Merle Hay, I think I -would- cry, freely and openly, and I think the lingering ache would be that much greater.

    But as I had said earlier, as long as the mall stands, there’s hope, and unlike Southridge, at least it still stands. It’s not quite dead yet.

    I did not want what happened to Southridge to happen. If I had my way, it wouldn’t have happened. But it has happened, and there’s nothing that can be done about it now. With that in mind, I can only think forward, and thinking forward, here’s my “make the best of the situation” thoughts: Since the radical majority of the new Southridge will not be enclosed mall, hopefully the stores that did not move to the legacy west wing will move to Merle Hay, fill in some of the empty spaces, and bring a shot of vitality to it.

    In the meanwhile, in my amateur opinion, even if Merle Hay, in its current form, is not to survive in the long run, it seems like it will at least have a few more decent years left, and I plan, unlike Southridge, to not take that time for granted. I plan to be there often, buying stuff when I can, and when I can’t, being a tourist of a place I’ve seen a million times, having a mournful concern for the future, and a longing for the glorious past, yet, underneath that, a delight for just the shape, look, feel, and smell of the place, while it’s there to be seen, touched, and smelled, grateful for whatever time I have left with her.

    And should that day come when they announce the mall’s closure, and the final day of its being open for business is revealed, then Lord willing, I will be there, taking full advantage of my final opportunity to tour the place that I love, and putting my last coins into the coffers of the businesses that kept it alive for me until that day.

    R.I.P. Southridge….but long live Merle Hay!

  23. Just an update on Southridge:

    Here is a list of stores that are either returning or coming to Southridge that I know of:

    rue 21 (was in Southridge before but closed around 2005)
    Kay Jewelers (I don’t know why they moved into the remaining enclosed portion of the mall, only to close entirely…)
    Shoe Carnival (Shoe Carnival closed in 2009…it’s kinda cool that they’re coming back so soon!)

    If you haven’t already, check my Flickr set of the Southridge Mall pictures:

    As well as some of these articles from local network television affiliates:

    Those stores I listed above are supposed to start opening in November.

    I wish Target would get in the game and start THEIR renovation! They can’t pass up this opportunity, because their store looks like an eyesore compared to what they’ve built!

  24. @Nathan Bush, A super belated thanks(despite it being over a year late) for clarifying The Shag used to be Gadzooks. Got so busy w/my life, that I forget to recheck this entry to see if anyone answered my question.

  25. @Nathan Bush, One last comment, has any demolition begun on the east wing of this mall yet? Though I dunno if I’ll get to Des Moines this year(had also considered Iowa City and the Quad Cities for possible retail trips within the Midwest), I’d definitely be open to seeing Southridge(and Merle Hay, since it appears to be the Des Moines area’s oldest mall if I’m not mistaken) if I make it to the Des Moines area.

  26. DMACC Update: I was at Southridge a week or so ago, and they were at work gutting the former JC Pennys in order to begin work on the DMACC. Since then, another trip there revealed that the gutting process is complete. I suspect work will begin soon.

    What I am lacking an update on is the proposed sports facility where Montgomery Wards used to be. Anybody have any info on that?

    Also, wasn’t what used to be shag in the old mall at one time a Spencer’s?

  27. With the new plaza side shops and growing new development in the West End Shops, Southridge is indeed showing a resurgence. The addition of DMACC, The Ice Ridge Skating Rink, and along with other specialty shops and a snack shack, they are serving the needs of the Southside once again.
    Come out and see what you are missing. Support southside businesses.

  28. @Dante, there’s an Arby’s across the street.

  29. @Jay See Double You, I don’t know about a ‘shag’, but yes, Southridge Mall had a Spencers!

  30. Nobody on this site seems to recall Southridge Mall had an indoor water slide / arcade!!

  31. Found more water slide info! This talks about Oregon, but I swear you could replace Oregon with Des Moines and it’d apply perfectly (from what I remember)! My guess is this same company was branched out further than blog author knows, or I missed reading it. The difference he talks about in his write-up is a Deli (or Restaurant) and not an Arcade like I remember in Southridge Mall!

  32. @Burton Powley, The mall management decided not to renew our lease for The Ice Ridge. So we were forced to move out. They have so called ideas for something new and fresh. We all I see is the leaking roof and deteriorating building still remaining in the space we were in. Real forward thinking there. Add yet another dead space to an already dying mall. Smart thinking……

Leave a Reply