Here it is. The big kahuna. The head honcho. This is it, for the United States anyway. The 15-year-old Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota is one of the largest single-site retail themed complexes in the whole entire country. A few sites in America offer more retail, such as the King of Prussia Mall in metro Philadelphia, and even the Eastwood Mall in metro Youngstown, Ohio, but due to the Mall of America’s large theme park in the center of the complex, it is the largest overall. However, we’re all pretty much aware of this. The Mall of America is huge, and pretty much everybody and their grandmother knows that. What I’d like to interrogate and focus on is twofold: How does the mall and how has the mall operated within its own framework since the beginning; and secondly, how does the mall operate locally in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area?
The Mall of America was born not of necessity, but rather from notions of excessive grandeur. The Twin Cities already had malls, many of them, in fact, and even arguably the very first climate-controlled enclosed regional mall, Southdale Center, opened in 1956 about 10 minutes away from the present Mall of America. It all really began when the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins decided to leave their home at the Metropolitan Stadium, where they and various other professional teams played from 1956 to 1981, to new digs at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. The stadium was demolished in 1982, and everyone wondered what would become of the site. Unbeknownst to many, the Ghermezian Brothers, who developed the megamall West Edmonton Mall in Canada came a-calling, and by 1986 had signed an agreement with the City of Bloomington for rights to the site for a new megamall, an American version of what the Ghermezians brought to Canada. Various other groups got involved, including Teachers Insurance and Annuity and Melvin Simon & Associates, and each brought money and mall design expertise to the project. They broke ground in 1989, and in August 1992 the Mall of America opened with great fanfare.
The gross area inside the Mall of America is 4.2 million square feet; however, only 2.5 million square feet are available as retail space on four levels which are arranged in a roughly symmetrical rectangle connecting four anchors at its vertices. The four sides to the rectangle contain roughly 520 stores on three levels, and each side has its own distinct style in terms of decor. There are also two large food courts in the mall, one on each of the north and south side’s third levels. Due to the mall’s footprint being rather small, hemmed in on the space of the old stadium, parking was to be an issue. To solve this problem, they built two gigantic identical seven-level parking structures on the east and west sides of the mall, and the former Met Center was torn down in 1994 and is currently a gravel lot used for overflow parking. Each level in the parking structures is named after a state, to fit with the whole America theme. Also, despite being in one of the coldest parts of the country, the Mall of America is not heated. Instead, the giant structure is heated by patrons, employees, and the greenhouse effect during the day because the roof is made up of transparent windows, which also provide natural light to the Amusement Park during the day. In fact, air conditioning needs to be run at all times to maintain a comfortable climate within the mall, even during January.
As far as the retail spaces within the Mall of America, many inside the mall have changed while the anchors have not. The anchors when the mall opened in 1992 are the same as today: Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Sears, and Nordstrom. However, the offerings inside the mall have been transformed slightly over the past 15 years. Several junior anchors which graced the mall in its early days, such as Filene’s Basement, Linens ‘n Things, and Kids R Us, have gone away. The mall has also lost National American University, which offered college classes at the mall for many years. However, despite these retail changes, many components of the mall have remained, like the underwater aquarium, LEGO Imagination Center, many sit-down restaurants like Rainforest Cafe, an alternative High School, and even the Chapel of Love wedding chapel. The amusement park in the middle of the mall has also remained, even though it was rebranded The Park at MOA from Camp Snoopy following the breakdown of talks with Cedar Fair Amusement Company, thus ending the Peanuts characters branding.
Also of note are the mall’s third and fourth levels. The first two levels of the mall are typical of any super-regional mall, with many national retailers; however, the third and fourth levels at the Mall of America are a bit different. The food courts occupy most of the third level along the north and south corridor, but there are also many sit-down restaurants like California Cafe and Famous Dave’s on this level. Comprising the rest of the third level on the east and west sides there are many seemingly local stores that sell Minnesota knick-knacks, souvenirs, discounters and even one store which has been open since the mall opened that specializes in only farm toys. It seems the third level is undesirable for many competitive national retailers, save for some junior anchor holdouts like Nordstrom Rack, Marshalls, and Sports Authority on the third level which features a wall of faded pictures of people exercising from 1992. The fourth level, which only exists on the east and north sides of the mall, opened with an all-encompassing entertainment theme, and was comprised of several adult-themed night clubs and a 14-screen AMC Movie Theater. However, in 1999, one of the night clubs had problems with indecent exposure and other issues and closed. These problems were further complicated in 2004 when the City of Bloomington passed a citywide smoking ban in all establishments, and as a response all but one of the adult-themed clubs closed. As of today only Hooters and the movie theatre remain open on the fourth level.
Finally, I wanted to examine how the Mall of America functions locally in the Twin Cities area. When it opened in 1992, the Mall of America was controversial for many residents and local businesses, wondering how they would compete with this monster in the backyard. Surprisingly, though, the Mall of America did not kill every single other mall in the region. Drawing largely on tourists who come specifically for the mall from neighboring states, nationally, or even internationally, the local malls in the area still continue to be local. Many Twin Cities residents feel the Mall of America is too large for the typical shopping trip many people traditionally take to their local malls, spending an hour or two there, and continue to shop at places like Burnsville Center, Ridgedale Mall, Eden Prairie Center, Southdale Mall, and many others. Many who go to the Mall of America are out-of-towners, and this is implicit in the car license plates found in the mall’s behemoth parking structures. An inordinate amount are from the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, and other regional states. People in the Twin Cities metro have mostly continued to patronize their local malls, and even renovate them extensively. Even the malls which were damaged by the opening of the Mall of America have bounced back, like Eden Prairie Center which was partially demolished and rebuilt with a completely new theme and as an enclosed mall in 2002. Other malls have also been extensively renovated in recent years, like Rosedale Center, and more recently Ridgedale and Burnsville Center. Even the farther flung malls are reinventing, like Northtown Mall in Blaine, and two brand-new large lifestyle centers have even been recently constructed in east-suburban Woodbury and northwest-suburban Maple Grove. In addition, the retail in downtown Minneapolis has also continued to be a destination for locals. So, retail locations are not in short supply or hurting by any means in the Twin Cities area due to the presence of the Mall.
Furthering the importance of tourism to the Mall of America, Metro Transit’s inaugural Hiawatha Line connected the mall via light rail to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and downtown Minneapolis in June 2004. Since the hub airport is literally across I-494 from the Mall, the short five-minute train ride has allowed connecting travelers to visit the mall even on relatively short layovers. Also, Bloomington is centrally located within the Twin Cities area, between the hub cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and several miles south.
So what’s next for the Mall of America? A lot, actually, is in the works, including a major expansion many years in the making which will allow the Mall to reclaim its top spot. Mall of America Phase II, which is scheduled to begin construction later in 2007, will more than double the size of the mall. Included in the expansion are more upscale retailers, and a diversity of offerings including a 6,000 seat music theatre, new hotel, water park and non-department store anchors like Bass Pro Shops which will hinge off the current mall’s north end on the former site of the Met Center. In fact, a piece of Phase II already opened in 2004 with Ikea, which will be connected to the new development via skywalk. The new development is not without controversies, as many wonder how the Ghermezians will finance the project. They are currently asking the state of Minnesota to finance a new parking structure for Phase II and for tax-free building materials for the project. But, it appears they have cleared the first minor hurdle, as the City of Bloomington has already approved preliminary plans for the project. It will be very interesting to see how Phase II is integrated and all of its offerings, and whether it will open on schedule in 2011.
Here are some pictures of the outside of the mall, including the behemoth anchors and the parking structures:
Inside of the mall’s retail perimeter:
Inside the Park @ MOA: