Warren, Michigan, Detroit’s largest suburb by population, is located directly north of the city of Detroit in Macomb County. As a result of the post-war industrial boom, Warren grew explosively from World War II into the 1970s, while the manufacturing industry around Detroit reached its peak. People moved en masse from the city to these inner-core suburbs including Warren during this period as they got better jobs and made more money, and also because of white flight. After the 1970s, however, Warren fell victim to suburban sprawl itself as even newer, more affluent communities developed to the north and west, and population has declined in Warren every decade since 1970. Unlike Detroit, though, Warren has kept a steady, middle class base. In fact, Warren is ranked first in the nation for resident longevity at 35.5 years, which has kept the community from falling into horrible disrepair like its ill-reputed cousin to the south.
By the mid-1960s, the suburban explosion had given Warren over 100,000 residents (compared with 22,000 in 1940) and the growth wasn’t about to stop, so retail developers eyed the city for a new, large-scale development to compete with other then-new Detroit metro malls like Northland, Eastland, and Macomb. Universal City, the mall which preceded Universal Mall, opened in 1965 at the corner of Dequindre and 12 mile Roads, in southwest Warren (the Oakland County community of Madison Heights is directly across Dequindre from the mall). It opened anchored by Montgomery Ward on the north end, and Detroit-based Federal Department store at its south end, with an enclosed section of shops linking the two anchors and a large Woolworths near the northern end as well. In 1979, Federal closed its doors and became Crowley’s, another long-running Detroit-based chain.
During the 1980s, even though growth had peaked in Warren about a decade earlier, an expansion was planned for Universal Mall to compete with existing area malls and newer centers which were emerging as category killers. The new wing hinged off the mall’s center court to the west (toward Dequindre) and featured many stores culminating in a new anchor, Mervyn’s. Following this addition, the mall was renamed and re-imaged (for the last time?) as Universal Mall in or around 1987.
The 1990s were a period of steady decline for Universal Mall, culminating with an occupancy rate of less than 40 percent by the end of the decade as shoppers preferred Oakland Mall and other super-regional competitors to Universal Mall’s value-oriented and local retailers. In 1997, Woolworths closed up shop nationwide, leaving a large vacancy in the northern part of the mall. In 1999, the entire Crowley’s chain went under and the store, which was a Detroit mainstay for decades, was replaced with Value City in 2000. In 1999 and 2000, mini-anchor stores A.J. Wright and Burlington Coat Factory opened in the mall as well, with Burlington replacing the dead Woolworths. So far, so good.
1999 also saw the mall’s ownership change hands, resulting in mild refurbishments to the three-decade-old facility while embarking on an intensive marketing campaign to let shoppers know of the updates. By 2001, occupancy rose past 80 percent again and things seemed to be looking up for Universal Mall, as the new owners attempted to reinvent the indoor shopping mall’s concept – from mid-tier regional center to an off-price destinational and neighborhood mall. The revival showed developers that the inner-core functional obsolescence of Universal Mall, and others like it, could be changed with a little tender loving care. Once again, so far, so good, and the mall stayed buoyant.
However, the period of revival was all too brief, as 2001 was the beginning of several major, repeat blows to Universal Mall. Long-time anchor Montgomery Ward shut their doors nationwide that year, including this store, which as of 2008 remains dark despite ruminations of renovation. As a result, stores in this northern wing began closing, and in 2006 western anchor Mervyn’s departed the Detroit area, closing this store and causing vacancies in the western wing. In March 2008, southern anchor Value City closed as that chain went through a round of bankruptcy closings, leaving Universal Mall without any of its traditional anchors (the theatres, A.J. Wright and Burlington Coat Factory are still open as of May 2008, but are located along the mall corridors).
It seems as though Universal’s days are numbered in its current state. In fact, in June 2007 the state of Michigan OK’d a brownfield designation to the largely vacant mall, which will freeze the mall’s property taxes at current rates, so revenue gained from any redevelopment or renovation which betters the mall will go straight to the owners instead of through them to taxes. These incentives should allow for the asbestos and lead removal at the site, demolition of the current structure and building of a new 600,000 square-foot retail center on the site. The new center, which will not be enclosed, will feature some sort of strip mall-looking thing, a lone 100,000 square-foot anchor building, and a 48,000 square-foot theatre complex.
The current decor at Universal Mall is archaeic: the cross-like design of the mall’s concourses, with each concourse culminating in an anchor (or movie theatre), is relatively simple, but the floor tiles, walls, and rows of windows near the ceiling are delightfully retro. Whatever updates or rehab was done in 1999 must have been simple and very cosmetic (ie. a coat of paint, repairing broken things and cracks), as most of the structure looks quite a bit more dated, aside from the western wing which was added in the late 1980s.
As of May 27, 2008, one of the western entrances to the mall was shuttered for redevelopment, and it looked like most of the handful of stores in the mall were also going out of business that week. Some stores, including the mini-anchors and the theatres, had no such notice of closing anytime soon. Also, the northern portion of the mall hallway after A.J. Wright to the former Wards was closed permanently for redevelopment. Indeed the mall must be closing soon, as this photoset from December 2007, just six months ago, shows an operational food court and chairs set up for diners. Today, the food court is completely empty and looks like it’s been prepared for pre-demolition.
The pictures featured here were taken on May 25, 2008. If anyone has any information about the redevelopment (I couldn’t find any current articles on the internet) or when the bulk of the mall is actually closing, feel free to drop a line here. In addition, you can check out a few digicam videos we made which are posted on YouTube. And, as always, feel free to leave your own comments, personal experiences, or memories that have to do with the mall in the comments section as well.