Located 10 miles southwest of downtown Dallas, at the interchange between US 67 and Interstate 20, Southwest Center Mall is both an anachronism and an eyesore. But what an amazing eyesore it is. One needs only to take a look at the photos to understand what a unique specimen this is, in terms of design, decor, and blatant inadequacy. But let’s dig a little deeper and try to figure out what happened.
It wasn’t always this way. Opened over 30 years ago in 1975, Southwest Center Mall opened to the masses with a different set of principles, and a different name – Red Bird Mall. The DeBartolo Group developed this two level mall with a simple layout, and Red Bird Mall was anchored by four stores – one on each end of the mall and two flanking center court. Sears anchored the east end of the mall, JCPenney the west, with Dallas based stores flanking the mall’s center court – Sanger-Harris on the north, and Titche’s on the south. Red Bird Mall enjoyed instant success as south Dallas’ only enclosed mall, inspired by a proud neighborhood and a good location.
Several anchor changes took place at Red Bird Mall throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1979, Titche’s became San Antonio-based Joske’s, and in 1987 two changes took place – Joske’s became Dillard’s, and Sanger-Harris became Houston-based Foley’s. Also, at some point a large Montgomery Ward was constructed at the southeast corner of the mall next to Sears.
As early as the mid-1980s, demographics began to change dramatically in the area surrounding Red Bird Mall, and at the same time a perception of crime began to brand the area – numerous car break-ins, vandalism, and robberies caused even loyal shoppers to begin taking their business elsewhere. And, in 1988, this became a lot easier, as a massive super-regional mall opened just 15 minutes from Red Bird Mall in Arlington. Called The Parks at Arlington, this new mega-mall would ciphon customers from Red Bird’s south Dallas consumer base more than any other, as most of its other competition is way up in north Dallas.
During the 1990s, Red Bird Mall continued its downward spiral. A man named John Wiley Price, a flamboyant Dallas politician, decided to make the mall and its woes part of his political platform, and staged protests outside the mall demanding retailers change their stock to reflect the black community, making statements it was ‘their’ mall. All the while, the mall got continuously worse, and DeBartolo, owners of the mall since it opened in 1975, unloaded it to NAAMCO Financial of California in 1997. At the time of the sale, the 1.12-million square-foot mall was only 65 percent leased.
In an attempt to disassociate the mall from its troubled environs and checkered recent past, NAAMCO gave the mall a small refurbishment and a new name – Southwest Center Mall – in 1997. A new food court, begun under the reign of DeBartolo, was finished and occupied in 1998 at the mall’s northwest entrance. With a price tag of $18 million, the food court took up the lion’s share of updates to the mall upon its change of hands and change of name. In addition, though, Dillard’s increased their store size from 100,000 to 150,000 square feet, and Sears renovated their entire store in 1998.
The new millenium brought more of the same problems for the newly named mall. In 2001, Montgomery Ward closed as that chain folded, but it was swiftly replaced by a Burlington Coat Factory which moved from a nearby box center. Also in 2001, JCPenney closed their store in Southwest Center Mall, which remains vacant today. In 2006 Foley’s became Macy’s, and Dillard’s left the mall in 2007 for a new development 10 miles further out – its store is also still vacant.
Also gaining speed in the early 2000s was a movement to bring more retail to Cedar Hill, a suburb of Dallas approximately 10 miles southwest of Southwest Center Mall along US 67. Cedar Hill, combined with surrounding communities such as DeSoto, Duncanville, and Lancaster – known locally as the Best Southwest – represent a portion of south Dallas with higher incomes and demographics expanding national chain stores like to see. In addition to a glot of big box centers and other retail which seemingly sprang up overnight, Cedar Hill is the home to the DFW Metroplex’s newest lifestyle center – Uptown Village at Cedar Hill – which opened in March 2008. This new urbanist-style shopping center is anchored by Dillard’s (the one that moved from Southwest Center), Dick’s Sporting Goods, Barnes and Noble, and features 725,000 square-feet of retail space – featuring stores found in better malls like Hollister, Chico’s, and Aveda. It’s an outdoor mall and features nicely landscaped courtyards between the modern-looking buildings contaning stores, and has a decidedly upscale feel not found in other centers in south Dallas. From the perspective of Southwest Center Mall, Uptown Village is not only a slap in the face, but a few more nails – possibly more than enough – in the coffin.
Perhaps another factor in Southwest Center Mall’s troubles is the lack of commitment from ownership. In the past eight years, the mall has had four owners, and its value on the tax rolls has decreased from $22 million in 2000 to just $6.25 million in 2008. In 2008, Southwest Center’s then-owner Thomas E. Morris – owner of other faily malls like Six Flags Mall in Arlington – declared bankruptcy, and in January 2009 the mall almost closed because the electricity was going to be shut off due to nonpayment. Whoops. An eleventh-hour save by a new owner – Madison Capital – who paid the bills, collected outstanding rent from some of the tenants, and even hired a professional security company. It’s no wonder the mall’s been in peril with such terrible past management problems, but Madison Capital is looking to sell the mall again to a more responsible owner. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
In June 2009, nine economic development experts from the Urban Land Institute, with briefing books in hand from the Dallas Economic Development Office, will descend on Southwest Center for an intense week of study. Hired by the city of Dallas, the Urban Land Institute – a non-profit education and research organization focusing on land use and urban planning – is being paid $150,000 to study the mall, inteview patrons and tenants, and tour the environs in order to offer suggestions on how to make it better. In addition, Dillards – which relocated to Cedar Hill in 2007 – is currently marketing its dark anchor store to interested suitors.
Despite all of these problem, however, there remains a niche of stores which are making it at Southwest Center Mall. Most of these stores cater exclusively to an African-American clientele, and feature clothing and knicknack shops which reportedly attract shoppers from a multi-state region. According to the article, these tenants also realize the mall’s in poor shape and wish there were typical mall stores like Bath and Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, and discount boxes like Marshalls and Ross. One tenant even wants the old name, Red Bird Mall, to be re-established. Also, others have expressed frustration and concern that while there is direct access from the US 67 freeway, there is no direct access from Interstate 20.
Whatever happens to Southwest Center Mall, one thing is for sure – something drastic needs to happen in order to change fortunes here. The reality may be that demographics have shifted and other centers have opened to ciphon consumer pennies away from this particular mall, but even today a dedicated group of tenants and local residents still want this property to succeed. The photos featured here were taken in Summer 2005 (images 1-13) and January 2009 (images 14+). As usual, feel free to leave your own comments, experiences, and opinions about the mall and its plight.