Our latest post takes us to Detroit, a city marked by a history of innovation, a currency of blight, and a future painted with question marks. As one of the country’s most auto-centric large cities, the Detroit area relied heavily upon a model of development favoring shopping malls and suburban sprawl from the very beginning. This isn’t surprising, considering the city invented the modern automobile production process; it seems very fitting the development patterns would favor cars and lower-density development. Even the city itself, as derelict as it is today, is unlike other eastern cities in that it is not at all dense away from its downtown core, owing to the automobile mantra of its development: numerous small single family homes for blue collar auto workers, and a good network of inter-urban freeways connecting them to their jobs via automobile. This all happened even before the suburban explosion changed the way Detroit was forever.
The Detroit metropolitan area became dramatically over-retailed as socioeconomic processes such as White Flight dovetailed with the region’s auto manufacturing success following World War II, establishing booming suburban areas, mostly in Macomb and Oakland counties to the north of the city, and in west suburban Wayne County, the county containing Detroit.
As time went on, Detroit went fallow as investments neglected the city while the suburbs blossomed and flourished. Whites moved up and out of the city to better suburbs, as impoverished blacks had to remain in the city while its infrastructure crumbled. These processes began to act on metro Detroit so early and with such fervor that few large-scale retail developments were ever even constructed in the city itself. There is certainly nothing resembling a traditional mall in Detroit, and the few retail developments that do exist are mostly along Telegraph Road in the far northwest part of the city, or along the southern half of 8 Mile Road, which marks the northern border of the city. Nearly all of the large-scale retail development has occurred in the suburbs.
It’s fascinating to me how segregated the Detroit metropolitan area is, with an economic racial disparity to boot. The two counties representing north suburban Detroit, Oakland and Macomb, are ten percent and three percent black, respectively, while the city of Detroit is 83 percent black. The per capita income in the city of Detroit is $14,000 while the per capita incomes in Oakland and Macomb Counties average $28,000. Hugely similar disparities exist in similar ways for crime, access to education, access to jobs, etc. I realize this is a retail blog, but a socioeconomic history is always visible in the built landscape over time, and it informs the way retail sites behave too.
In keeping with its auto-centric theme, and similar to how many suburbs nationwide were constructed, most of Detroit’s suburbs were built with automobile commuting in mind. However, as growth in the region slowed due to economic factors and competition in the auto industry, so too did the demand for retail in the region. In the past ten years or so, metro Detroit has lost at least four major regional or super-regional shopping malls, in addition to at least as many enclosed neighborhood centers. As a whole, metro Detroit is shrinking, having lost 3.5% of its population since 2000, one of only five of the fifty largest U.S. metropolitan areas to shrink during that time period (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, and New Orleans were the others). However, most of these losses occurred in the city of Detroit; all other counties in the Detroit region have reported gains in population.
Whether you happen to mourn the loss of these shopping malls or celebrate their demise in the eyes of progress, I think most people can agree that these places provided a solid foundation for memories and community-building for at least a couple generations of Detroiters. After all, they were/are the de-facto downtowns that most of these suburbs lack. For this post, we’re going to stray from the failures in the market for once and instead focus on a success: Oakland Mall.
Oakland Mall opened in 1968, flanking the northwest corner of 14 Mile Rd. and John R. Rd., adjacent to Interstate 75, which was completed just prior to the mall’s construction. The mall was built on the southern edge of the city of Troy, a large northern suburb of Detroit located in Oakland County, the mall’s ostensible namesake. Troy is located 15 miles north of downtown Detroit, and has a population of 80,000 as of 2010. Troy is home to numerous corporations and white collar jobs that have been purged out of the city over the past fifty years or so.
Oakland Mall originally opened as a smaller dumbbell shaped mall, anchored by Detroit-based stalwart Hudson’s on the western end, and Sears on the eastern end. A Detroit-based S.S. Kresge store was in there somewhere too. Sears actually pre-dates the mall, having opened in 1965 as a standalone store. Developers must have seen the centralized location and recent opening of I-75 as a no-brainer. In addition, Wrigley Supermarket flanked the north side of the mall in between the two anchors.
One year later, in 1969, a small upscale mall called Somerset Mall opened about 5 miles away, also located in Troy. Anchored by an existing Saks Fifth Avenue store which opened in 1967, the small mall was also anchored by Bonwit Teller. This mall and Oakland Mall have both thrived in Troy ever since, despite massive expansion efforts on the part of both centers.
During the 1970s, little changed at Oakland Mall as other centers were built in and around metro Detroit. Wrigley Supermarket closed and was converted to a JCPenney in the late 1970s, and the mall remained a simple dumbbell. Meanwhile, the massive Lakeside Mall opened in 1976 just 12 miles northeast of Oakland Mall in neighboring Sterling Heights.
In 1980, amid pressure from competition and ample growing demands, Oakland Mall embarked on a massive expansion. The extant JCPenney/former supermarket was demolished for a new northern wing. Unlike the original one-level mall, the expansion was two stories and featured a new JCPenney as well as a movie theater. This made for a rather unique setup, as the two-level expansion wing seems to miraculously sprout from the original one-level mall.
During the 1990s, competition from other centers could have put a strain on Oakland Mall, but didn’t. In 1996, Somerset Mall embarked on a massive expansion project, adding a new three level building across the street from the original mall, more than quadrupling the center’s size. It was renamed Somerset Collection, and became the most upscale mall in the state. This repositioning didn’t hurt Oakland Mall as much as it could have, considering the two malls are only five miles apart, because Oakland Mall is positioned to be more mid-range. Instead, the malls have continued to complement one another.
In 1998, major competition also came with the opening of Great Lakes Crossing, a mostly off-price/outlet mall that opened in Auburn Hills. Fortunately for Oakland Mall, Great Lakes Crossing was both far enough away and not as much of a hit as expected.
Oakland Mall’s more recent history is mostly one of anchor changes and minor updates, as the mall has continued to enjoy success amid fierce competition. In 1987, Kresge closed, and in the late 1990s a food court was added where a former Burger King and Godfather’s Pizza stood.
In 2000, the movie theater closed, and was later converted to Steve and Barry’s, which itself closed in 2009 only to be replaced recently by Michigan’s first Famous Labels, a similar off-price discounter.
In 2001, Hudson’s became Marshall Field’s, as Target Corporation rebranded all of its main line department stores after its most famous Chicago nameplate. That became moot, however, in 2006, when Macy’s acquired Marshall Field’s and rebranded them as Macy’s.
Also interesting to note is that in 2004 Lord and Taylor was interested in adding an anchor store at Oakland Mall, but lost interest pretty quickly in the process. This would have been an interesting addition to the mall, as L&T is significantly higher end than most of the stores here, and also curious because they already had a store at Lakeside Mall. And, at the time, there was also one at Fairlane Town Center, which closed in 2006.
I first visited Oakland Mall in 1992, on a family trip to Michigan. I remember seeing the old massive pylon, before it was toned down to muted modern standards later on, and I remember being fascinated that the third wing of the mall sprouted from one to two levels somewhat spontaneously from the original mall corridor. While the mall has received a few cosmetic updates, it’s been pretty much the same for over thirty years. It’s still successful, and provides a mid-market complement to the massively upscale Somerset Collection located just 5 miles away. It’s also held its own against other developments in Oakland County, and will continue to be a major player on the scene as long as it remains current.
I took the pictures featured here in June 2011.