Stratford Square Mall; Bloomingdale, Illinois

Stratford Square Mall is a large, super-regional center serving west and northwest-suburban Chicagoland. Located in the village of Bloomingdale, the mall is about 30 miles from downtown Chicago. With 5 anchor slots and 1.3 million square feet of leasable space, Stratford Square is one of the larger malls in the Chicago region; however, the mall has faced recent struggles as it adapts to the economic downturn and general decline of large, enclosed malls nationwide. Opened on March 9, 1981, Stratford Square Mall was the end result of a planning strategy from one of suburban Chicago’s oldest settlements. Bloomingdale, which was located on maps as far back as the 1840s, is so old that the origin of its name is a mystery. The early settlers were German farmers, and Church services were held in German in the village as late as the 1960s.

Stratford Square Mall is a large, super-regional center serving west and northwest-suburban Chicagoland.  Located in the village of Bloomingdale, the mall is about 30 miles from downtown Chicago.  With 5 anchor slots and 1.3 million square feet of leasable space, Stratford Square is one of the larger malls in the Chicago region; however, the mall has faced recent struggles as it adapts to the economic downturn and general decline of large, enclosed malls nationwide.

Opened on March 9, 1981, Stratford Square Mall was the end result of a planning strategy from one of suburban Chicago’s oldest settlements. Bloomingdale, which was located on maps as far back as the 1840s, is so old that the origin of its name is a mystery.  The early settlers were German farmers, and Church services were held in German in the village as late as the 1960s.

Here’san ad from Stratford’s opening, from the Bloomingdale library:

Things changed dramatically for Bloomingdale and northern DuPage County in the 1970s.  The building boom around Chicagoland was in full swing, and Bloomingdale sat directly in the path of growth moving westward.  As the original German pioneers established the small village core of Bloomingdale some 100 years earlier, suburban pioneers fleeing the city of Chicago began to move westward in the 1960s and 1970s.  The core of the old village was very small, and located along Lake Street (U.S. Highway 20) at Bloomingdale Road.  Suburban Chicago began to envelop the small village, and the residential suburbs of Glendale Heights, Roselle, Addison, and Carol Stream sprang up around it.

By the late 1970s, Bloomingdale wished to capitalize on all this growth and make itself a regional hub for suburban-style retail.  The center of this hub was to be a super-regional mall, located on the west side of the village at the intersection of Gary Avenue and Schick Road, just north of Army Trail Road.  In building Stratford Square, developers sought to fill in this retail hole in the western suburbs, between the malls in Lombard and Aurora to the south, Oakbrook and the city of Chicago to the east, and Woodfield to the north.

Stratford Square opened to instant success, and became the anchor it was intended to be for a massive retail corridor on the west side of Bloomingdale.  After Stratford Square opened, many big box-anchored strip malls opened in the coming years to complement the mall, mostly along Army Trail Road and Gary Avenue.

Here’s a photo taken of Stratford Square in all its glory, not long after it opened, also from the Bloomingdale library website.  This is center court.  Note the columns and high ceilings, which are still present today.  Sadly, the trees and stepped fountains are not:

Unfortunately, though, this retail synergy between the mall and its retail environs peaked sometime in the 1990s.  Beginning in the 2000s, Stratford Square and its retail corridor began to slide, punctuated by the departure of original anchor Wards in early 2001.  The slide was precipitated by competition, access, and national trends, and during the balance of the 2000s Stratford Square developed more vacancies and began a slide toward obsolescence.

Let’s explore the impetus for Stratford Square’s decline, beginning in the 1990s with the arrival of fiercer competition and moving towards changing trends in retailing in the 2000s, with a separate focus on Stratford’s locational analysis.

First, Woodfield Mall completed an overhaul and expansion in 1996, adding many new stores and a new two-level wing.  Following this expansion, Woodfield’s market dominance has continued to today.  Woodfield’s dominance can also be attributed to a centralized location in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, located near the intersection of Interstates 90 and 290.

In contrast, Stratford Square’s location is slightly maligned.  Like some other struggling Chicago-area super-regional malls (Randhurst, Charlestowne) Stratford Square is not located directly on any expressway or interstate highway.  The closest major routes to Stratford Square are U.S. 20, a slow surface road with many lights, located a couple miles away, and I-355, a major north-south thoroughfare through Chicago’s western suburbs, located about 4 miles to the east.

Also, national trends beginning in the 90s and 2000s rallied against super-regional malls, especially those that aren’t the top of their game like Woodfield, Oakbrook, Old Orchard, Orland Mall, and Fox Valley Center.  During the seemingly unending growth during the same period, too, many new strip malls and Lifestyle centers were constructed in the region, causing an overbuilding of convenience and leaving many of the older centers in and around the Stratford area to develop vacancies.

All of these processes created a perfect storm for decline at Stratford.  Basically, Stratford has become a regional center in the husk of a super-regional mall.  While parts of the mall are still successful and contain many popular national stores, other areas of the mall contain vacancies and many lower rent local and temporary stores.  This is especially true of the Burlington Coat Factory/Carson’s wing of the mall, though it’s also visible in the Marshall Field’s wing.  The center of the mall, which houses a popular food court, new mega-theater, and access to anchors Sears and Kohl’s, seems to be faring better.

Many anchor changes and additions have taken place since Stratford Square opened 30 years ago. Wards was replaced in 2001 by Burlington Coat Factory, while another original anchor, Wieboldt’s, departed Stratford Square in 1987 but was quickly replaced by JCPenney.  Also, Sears was added as the sixth anchor to Stratford Square in 1990, and during the 1980s a Main Street store was added to the mall, which became Kohl’s in 1989. Original anchors Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott have remained, though Marshall Field’s became Macy’s in 2006.  A Steve and Barry’s also operated at the mall from about 2006 until 2009, until that chain folded as well.

Stratford Square was most recently sold in 2005 to Feldman Properties, who immediately embarked on repositioning the aging center. They bought the mall for just over $93 million, and at the time the mall’s occupancy rate was 90%.

In 2006, Feldman purchased the mall’s JCPenney anchor for $46 per square foot, leasing it to JCPenney. The mall was renovated, and the existing 4-screen movie theater was quadrupled in size to a mega-sized all digital 16-screen experience, featuring a cappucino bar, marble flooring, and stadium seating.  The theater opened July 4, 2007.

In addition to the theater, Feldman hoped to transform some of the exterior entrances into clusters of popular restaurants, much like The District on France, a strategically-positioned cluster of destinational restaurants at Southdale Center in suburban Minneapolis.

Unfortunately, though, the envisioned clustering never fully materialized; however, several restaurants have opened, like Orchid (Asian), Ballydoyle (Irish Pub), and Red Robin (Burgers).

Also rather unfortunate is the economic downturn of 2007 and beyond, which robbed Feldman of access to capital and put it in some real trouble.  In 2008, Feldman attempted to dump Stratford Square, as well as several other malls in their portfolio, to a company called Inland American.  In early 2009, however, the deal fell through, and Feldman ultimately kept Stratford Square as well as a mall in Ohio, until it was put into receivership.  Today, Feldman still owns Stratford Square as the only property in its portfolio.

Feldman also operates an outdated leasing website for Stratford Square, including a slide show featuring the completed movie theater and some of the proposed changes; however, many of the touted “high-profile” tenants have since left the mall under Feldman’s tenure, including Abercrombie and Fitch, Forever 21, Gap, Disney, and American Eagle.

One slide in their presentation (fast forward a few slides, it’s a Flash page) does strike a chord with potential viability, though.  It outlines the hub and spoke structure of Stratford compared with its environs, outlining the incomes, population, and traffic counts in the area.  It also labels all of the strip malls and big box anchors along Gary Avenue and Army Trail Road near the mall.  Strikingly, the household income in the area is around $100,000, and the 5-mile radius population is 263,000.  At 5 miles, these residents are far closer to Stratford Square than any other retail center, so the center should be able to easily capture these residents and thrive as a regional mall.  The only problem with this is that Stratford is built to be a super-regional center, and draw shoppers from 10+ miles.  While the 10 mile radius population is over 850,000, many of these residents are closer to Woodfield, Yorktown, Geneva Commons, and other options.

A possible solution, when the economy allows for it, would be to complete Feldman’s idea of creating destinational restaurants, and possibly adding more entertainment venues.  I know the Ballydoyle here has popular musical acts and is open late, sometimes even featuring American Idol alum Gina Glocksen.

We’ve visited Stratford Square several times over the years, and have also noted the slow decline in popular national brands.  And while this mall is far from defeat, we’re a bit saddened at the lack of focus for its renaissance.  While it’s true that Stratford isn’t that close to expressway/interstate access, it is the center of a densely populated, relatively wealthy suburban region.  A little TLC can go a long way in these cases, and once the economy perks up I fully expect Stratford to rise from the retail ashes.  Hopefully Feldman, or whoever owns it at that point, can find more capital to perk the place up, and diversify its offerings to get people in the door.  I have every confidence that it’s possible.

I captured these photos of Stratford Square Mall in Fall 2010, except for the three older ones I took from the Bloomingdale library’s site.  Feel free to leave your own comments and thoughts on the mall.






Village Square Mall; Effingham, Illinois

The third cluster of retail in Effingham is located along US 45/Banker Street to the south of downtown. This area is the least convenient to the interstates, and is not as successful as the strip around Exit 160. It serves locals in and around Effingham, and has also seen the most turnover and vacancy in the area. This cluster is anchored by a small enclosed mall, Village Square Mall.

Effingham, Illinois is located at the intersection of two Interstates (70 and 57), in the east central region of the state, about 3.5 hours south of Chicago.  With a population slightly over 12,000, Effingham’s economy is currently rooted in its presence at these crossroads.  As such, the town bills itself as the “Crossroads of Opportunity”.

Effingham is home to a famous cross of another kind, too.  A 198-foot cross was erected along I-57/70 by The Effingham Cross Foundation in 2001, promoting “the values of faith and family”, along with a ten commandments display.  The cross is billed as one of the largest in the world, and is also Effingham’s biggest tourist attraction.

Effingham has also been a pop culture topic of ridicule, immortalized by the Ben Folds song “Effington”, which was inspired by a drive through Effingham, and by a parody on the nationally syndicated Bob and Tom radio show.  These references probably bring a lot of effing ire to local residents.

Because of its location at an interstate crossroads, Effingham has a plethora of retail, hotel and fast food options for a city of its size.  Another reason for a relative abundance of offerings is Effingham’s distance from larger cities.  The nearest major city, St. Louis, is 100 miles away, and the nearest major mall is in Terre Haute, Indiana, over 60 miles away.

Effingham’s retail exists in several clusters.  The area surrounding Exit 160 from the interstates is the largest and newest area, and offers big box stores like Big K, Menards, Super Wal-Mart, and Kohls, with additional strip malls like Crossroads Plaza.

Downtown Effingham, located a couple miles off the interstates, offers around 25 local shops and services in an intimate, typical midwestern small-town atmosphere.

The third cluster of retail in Effingham is located along US 45/Banker Street to the south of downtown.  This area is the least convenient to the interstates, and is not as successful as the strip around Exit 160.  It serves locals in and around Effingham, and has also seen the most turnover and vacancy in the area.  This cluster is anchored by a small enclosed mall, Village Square Mall.

In 1971, local developer Gene Mayhood bought 30 acres of farmland on the south edge of town with the intention of building a regional shopping center.  According to a 2008 article in the Effingham paper, a livestock sale barn was used as the base structure for retail outlets G.C. Murphy and Eisner’s, which were the first stores to open in the development in 1972.  Really?  Did this really happen?

The article then goes on to state that “The opening of 26 other stores led Mayhood to purchase another 50 acres.”  Was this part of, or prior to, the construction of the existing mall structure?

JCPenney, the mall’s south anchor, opened in 1977, and an adjacent building, the Lincoln Land Center, was operated as an amusement park through the 1980s before it was converted into an office/retail center.

Throughout the years, Village Square Mall has had some rocky spells and is currently at a visible low point when compared to the past.  It currently lacks even a simple website, but this site operated by Effingham’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has a blurb that lists it as “ultra-modern and growing” – hmm…what the eff, Effingham?  Seriously?

Anchor stores Stage and Rural King, a regional farm and home goods supply box store, have left the mall, and it is in dire need of a renovation.  Village Square received a renovation in 1994 under a new ownership, and it’s time for another update.   In recent years, apparel chain stores Glik’s and Deb have also departed, as well as other stores.  There have only been minor updates to the mall in recent years, including a new cursive logo to replace the western block font and a mural near the main entrance with the same new logo displayed.

Several factors have worked against Village Square Mall’s success.  First, Village Square is not easily accessible to the interstates – the retail district by Exit 160 is booming due to the accessibility and visibility the interstates provide.  Second, the mall was, for years, poorly managed by non-local ownership interests who bought and sold the property frequently and didn’t seem that committed to the investment.

While the first item, proximity to interstates, cannot be fixed, proactive management of the mall could possibly bring it up to par.  In 2008, the mall was again sold to a New York-based investor, Mike Kohan, who cited experience managing distressed properties and turning them around.  We hope that’s true, and I’m sure the residents of Effingham do as well, so they don’t have to drive an hour or more for a mall.

We visited Village Square Mall in May 2001, and again in April 2010.  The differences between the visits indicate a stark downhill spiral that we hope turns around real effing soon.

May 2001:

April 2010:

Ford City Mall; Chicago, Illinois

Ford City Mall is Chicago’s last remaining in-city regional mall. Located on the far southwest side of the city at 76th Street and Cicero Avenue in the West Lawn neighborhood, just south of Midway Airport, Ford City has a storied past. The site where Ford City Mall now stands was originally a defense plant, constructed during World War II. During the height of the war, a total of 10 buildings were constructed – the largest, Building 4, was over 62 acres in size. The entire site was 432 acres, and was used to make aircraft engines for the war effort, including those for the B-29 Bomber. The northern part of the former factory site remained industrial, and the southern section of Building 4 was partially demolished and refashioned into two separate retail buildings, both of which opened for business in 1965 as Ford City Mall. The north retail building, North Mall, was made into a strip mall, anchored by a Jewel Supermarket, a bowling facility, toy shop, and a small cinema.

Ford City Mall is Chicago’s last remaining in-city regional mall.  Located on the far southwest side of the city at 76th Street and Cicero Avenue in the West Lawn neighborhood, just south of Midway Airport, Ford City has a storied past.

The site where Ford City Mall now stands was originally a defense plant, constructed during World War II.  During the height of the war, a total of 10 buildings were constructed – the largest, Building 4, was over 62 acres in size.  The entire site was 432 acres, and was used to make aircraft engines for the war effort, including those for the B-29 Bomber.

At the end of the war the buildings were no longer necessary for defense production and were largely abandoned in 1945.  In 1947, the former engine production facility was transformed into an auto manufacturing plant when it was purchased by the Preston Tucker car company.  Tucker used the facility to make its Tucker Torpedo, which was billed as the first “modern automobile” in the industry at the time.  However, due to competition from the “Big Three” and fraud allegations by the SEC, Tucker went out of business not long after, and the factory was once again abandoned.

In 1950, Ford Motor Company purchased the site and once again put it to use for airplane engine construction during the Korean War.  Ford ended up using the plant well after that war, until 1959, when it was idled once again.

In 1961, a group of local investors purchased the site, judging that it would be a perfect spot for large-scale retail.  Chicago only had a handful of regional shopping centers at the time, as their advent was relatively new, and being on the growing edge of the second largest city in the country had immense benefits.

The northern part of the former factory site remained industrial, and the southern section of Building 4 was partially demolished and refashioned into two separate retail buildings, both of which opened for business in 1965 as Ford City Mall.  The north retail building, North Mall, was made into a strip mall, anchored by a supermarket (Kroger, then Jewel?), a bowling facility, toy shop, and a small two-screen cinema.

The south building, across the parking lot from the strip center, was fashioned into an enclosed mall, much larger than the strip mall.  It was anchored by a one-level, 156,000 square-foot Chicag0-based Wieboldt’s department store and a one-level 182,000 square-foot JCPenney, with an enclosed corridor of stores connecting them.  Also present in the enclosed mall was junior-anchor Woolworth’s, a Lerner, and Harvest House Cafeteria.

Connecting the strip center on the north end of the complex to the enclosed mall on the south end was, and is today, a subterranean corridor.  When the mall opened, it was called Peacock Alley, and it directly connected the North Mall strip center with the middle of the enclosed mall.  Located under the parking lot, Peacock Alley was accessible from the Jewel (now Sears) entryway, from a station in the parking lot, and from the center court of the enclosed mall.  It was an interesting setup, and it still exists today.

After Ford City opened in 1965, competition came when Evergreen Plaza, an open-air mall located 5 miles away in Evergreen Park, enclosed and expanded.  In 1975, the large two-level North Riverside Park Mall opened 10 miles away in North Riverside, and in 1981, the sprawling one-level Chicago Ridge Mall opened 4 miles away in Chicago Ridge.  Despite the competition, however, Ford City Mall remained the closest mall to its core market on the south side of the city.   Changes did occur, though, due to this competition taking away Ford City’s suburban market.

A demographic shift in the years following Ford City’s mid-1960s debut also changed the face of the stores and, unfortunately, its reputation.  Many African-Americans came to live on Chicago’s south side in the latter half of the 20th century, and many neighborhoods changed to be predominantly black.  In addition, many Hispanics have also come to live in the areas around Midway airport and in some of the suburbs nearby, including the neighborhood of West Lawn, where the mall resides.  The stores at Ford City slowly began to change to serve this demographic.

Around the same time the demographic changed, the mall began to earn the reputation for being home to a criminal element.  Sadly, the reputation has merit, as numerous murders have occurred on mall property, including a 2006 shooting of a teenage boy who was trying to break up a fight at the movie theater and a 2001 carjacking where a mother was murdered in front of her two children.  This crime is not limited to the recent decade, as evidenced by a gangland incident in the 1970s that forced the renaming and retenanting of subterranean Peacock Alley, which had become a seedy environment full of head shops and drug selling, to The Connection.  For the record, I’ve been to Ford City at least 10 times and have never been pestered by anybody other than the cell-phone hawkers at their kiosks…

In 1983, the first and only expansion took place at Ford City, when a one-level, 172,000 square-foot Montgomery Ward was added to the south side of the mall.  In 1987, Wieboldt’s closed when that chain folded, and in 1989 the former Wieboldt’s space was replaced with Carson Pirie Scott.  Meanwhile, in 1988, the entire mall was renovated and a food court, Food City, was added along the corridor connecting Montgomery Ward with the rest of the mall.

The 1990s and 2000s were a mostly static time for Ford City, with the biggest event being the departure of Montgomery Ward in 2001 and a large explosion in 2005.  Unfortunately, Wards has not been retenanted as of 2010, but in 2008 General Growth took over management of the mall and promised a renovation and expansion of the mall in general.  Around the same time, General Growth declared bankruptcy and the economy had a meltdown, though, so no progress on these fronts has been made.  The problems have been exacerbated with the March 2010 annoucement of Sears’ departure, which is slated to close by July.

In 2005, an underground gas line exploded under Ford City’s parking lot, causing significant damage to buildings, overturning cars, and closing the mall for several days.  The explosion also injured 10 people.

Today, Ford City Mall soldiers on.  The renovation and expansion would be appreciated, as there are relatively few vacancies in the mall itself due to the large population it serves, despite many of the stores being local.  The renovation would also prop up the mall’s image and reputation, as was the case with Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.  In addition, the Chicago Transit Authority is also extending its Orange Line “L” train to Ford City Mall from its current terminus two miles north at Midway Airport, with service by 2016, which could also pull together enough support for a renovation and much greater potential for the site.

The two portions of the mall also still exist today.  North Mall, the strip center, is now tenanted by Conway, Old Navy, Marshalls, Anna’s Linens, Office Depot, and other stores.  The main mall is still anchored by Carson Pirie Scott and JCPenney, and still has the late-80s look to it.  Fortunately, the large fountains at center court are still there, giving the mall a retro verve.  We hope they keep them in the upcoming renovation, if it happens.  In addition, the subterranean level, The Connection, is still there, and sparsely tenanted with smaller shops including jewelry stores, a Chinese gift shop, and a 99 cent store.

We last visited Ford City in June 2010 and took the pictures featured here.  Feel free to leave your comments here if you have anything to add.

Brickyard Mall; Chicago, Illinois

Brickyard Mall, which opened in March 1977 on Chicago’s northwest side, was one of two regional, suburban-style shopping malls constructed in the city – the other was Ford City Mall on Chicago’s south side, which opened in 1965. Three other regional malls are, however, literally within a stone’s throw of the city limits – Lincolnwood Town Center, Harlem-Irving Plaza, and Evergreen Plaza all are located either directly across the street from the city or just blocks from it. Brickyard Mall enjoyed a modicum of success through the 1980s, but in the 1990s its viability met opposition as neighborhood demographics changed and competition from other malls outmoded it.

More than 8 years ago I walked through Chicago’s troubled Brickyard Mall with my first digital camera, taking tons of pictures in anticipation they’d someday be the only surviving documentation of the mall – and then I promptly lost them.  Very recently, though, when consolidating some old photo CDs onto a larger hard drive, I rediscovered these great “vintage” shots of retail history that is now gone forever.  I hope you enjoy seeing them and reading Brickyard’s story as much as I enjoyed finding the pictures and reliving the memories.

Brickyard Mall, which opened in March 1977 on Chicago’s northwest side, was one of two regional, suburban-style shopping malls constructed in the city – the other was Ford City Mall on Chicago’s south side, which opened in 1965. Three other regional malls are, however, literally within a stone’s throw of the city limits – Lincolnwood Town Center, Harlem-Irving Plaza, and Evergreen Plaza all are located either directly across the street from the city or just blocks from it.  Brickyard Mall enjoyed a modicum of success through the 1980s, but in the 1990s its viability met opposition as neighborhood demographics changed and competition from other malls outmoded it.

The late 1970s was the middle of a great enclosed mall building boom across the United States.  The overbuilding of these hulking behemoths was often done without extensive foresight and with little abandon.  Brickyard Mall was built with two major goals in mind, neither of which would ultimately guarantee its permanency.

The first and main goal of Brickyard Mall was to give local residents a regional shopping center.  Belmont-Cragin, the neighborhood which Brickyard Mall anchors, was mostly built out by World War II with a modest housing stock of bungalows, cape cods and two-flats, which were intended to house Polish immigrant factory workers.  Over time, the factories which originally brought these immigrants to the far northwest side of Chicago closed, the original population left, and incomes have dropped.  The Polish influence on the neighborhood is still visible today, but has declined significantly in recent decades, as an influx of Hispanic immigrants has come to the area.  As of 2000, the neighborhood is 65% Hispanic, and this number is almost certainly higher today.

The second goal of Brickyard Mall was both political and fad-oriented.  A plaque used to hang on the wall in Brickyard Mall, indicating that Brickyard was “Chicago’s first in-city regional mall.”  It was signed by then-mayor Richard J. Daley, who put his name on practically every civic project the city invested in.  Malls were popular in the 1970s, so putting one in the city certainly helped promote him politically.  This plaque confuses me a little though, because Ford City Mall is also in the city of Chicago and opened in 1965 – 12 years before Brickyard.  Wouldn’t Ford City have been first?  Either way, Chicago wanted to get on the mall-building bandwagon, and selected a former brickyard at the corner of Diversey and Narragansett for this infill development.  The brickyard was also, for a short time in the early 1970s, the city of Chicago’s first ski hill – anyone who has been to Chicago and seen how flat it is knows how much of a mistake that was.  The site is located in a less-dense suburban area of Chicago, about 10 miles northwest of downtown, and was intended to supplant north and northwest side Chicago residents’ trips to suburban malls such as Woodfield, Randhurst, Golf Mill, and the nearest competitor, Harlem-Irving Plaza.

Brickyard Mall opened in two phases, starting in 1977.  The first phase was anchored by Kmart and Chicago-based grocer Jewel-Osco, and was connected by an enclosed plaza with stores on one side and a wall of windows facing the parking lot on the other.  A two-level Montgomery Ward was also placed behind the enclosed section of the mall, to the south of it, a full level above the rest of the structure.  As such, an escalator ran from the middle of the enclosed portion of the plaza-mall up to Wards’ first level entrance.  The grade separation at the site was a necessity because the site was formerly an artificial ski hill, so it was easy to just build the mall into the hill rather than to dismantle the hill and start over from a flat surface – plus, it gave the mall a very unique design.

Due to the confusing floorplan, I threw together a sketch of the mall by labelling satellite imagery.  You can see in red where the escalator was, connecting the lower Convenience Level of the mall with second and third levels of the main mall through Wards.  The sections labeled in yellow are a full level beneath the sections in blue.  Essentially think of this layout as a bigger mall with two anchors spooning a little plaza mall, also with two anchors and located under it.

A major expansion at Brickyard took place over the next two years, as a huge two-level mall structure was added from Wards southward, ending at a 209,000 square-foot two-level JCPenney, which opened July 1979.  The result was a weirdly-sewn-together frankenmall with a very interesting floorplan.  The original phase of the mall, featuring Kmart and Jewel-Osco and facing Diversey Parkway, was rebranded the Convenience Level, and was connected to the rest of the mall by Wards.  Shoppers using the Convenience Level could access Wards by ascending an escalator, located in the middle of the Convenience Level, which went up to a first level entrance of Wards.  By going through Wards, they could then access the rest of the mall.  This was a rather interesting and fun layout, giving Brickyard three separate levels, one (the Convenience Level) being completely disparate to the other two.  Also, while many malls are split by an anchor, Brickyard was split by both an anchor and an entire level.  Due to the confusing nature of this setup, there was ample signage throughout all parts of the mall advertising how to get between the main mall and the Convenience Level stores.

The brand-new Brickyard roared into the 1980s with success, as shoppers came from not only the surrounding neighborhoods, but from as far away as Edgewater and Lincoln Park via bus.  Brickyard was the closest mall to much of the north half of the city, and also to wealthier suburbs such as Oak Park, River Forest, and Elmwood Park.  However, this influence wasn’t maintained due to changing demographics in Brickyard’s immediate area during the 1990s.

In the 1990s, the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, a pre-war area of modest, mostly single-family dwellings, lost its economic  foothold as the manufacturing jobs that established the neighborhood floated away.  The workers, mostly Poles who helped establish the neighborhood in the beginning, moved with the jobs, to other parts of the city or the suburbs.  The immigrant group replacing these original settlers were predominantly Hispanics of lower income.  As these demographic changes took place, store turnover at Brickyard replaced national, mid-level stores with discounters and urban-wear stores.  And, with the demographic shift also came a perception of crime.  Whether real or not, as evidenced by these reviews on, patrons no longer felt safe here and began driving out to the suburban malls and skipping Brickyard.  Also, at the end of the decade, JCPenney also downgraded their store to an outlet, an ominous predictor of what was to come in the 2000s.

As the 2000s reared, Brickyard was no longer a viable regional mall.  With a reduced selection of stores, a perception of crime, and changed demographics, Brickyard was demoted to a neighborhood center living in the husk of a regional mall.  Bus trips were no longer bringing in throngs of city residents from across town, and Brickyard began bleeding stores.  Over the course of a year, Brickyard lost all of its anchors except for Jewel-Osco.  Kmart was the first to close in Summer 2000, followed by Wards in March 2001, and JCPenney Outlet was the last to leave in mid-2001.  Wards’ closure wasn’t actually Brickyard’s fault, but a case of bad luck, as that entire chain folded; nonetheless, their departure was critical to accelerated demise at Brickyard, because their store bisected the two parts of the mall and connected them.  After Wards closed, it became necessary to walk outside and along the side of the store in order to access the rest of the mall from the Convenience Level.

Like a ship without sails, Brickyard didn’t go very far for very long without anchors – a year and a half passed between the last of the anchors closing at Brickyard in 2001 and the announcement of redevelopment in late 2002.  Not surprisingly, nothing was saved in the redevelopment, which commenced in May 2003 with the mall’s closing and immediate demolition.  Jewel-Osco hung on for a few more months, operating out of its original building, while a new store was constructed a block south, opening in 2004.

Securing fast and easy credit for the redevelopment, including a nice chunk of change from the city of Chicago, owner Goldman Sachs worked quickly to transform the Brickyard site.  Although the mall was a failure as a regional enclosed mall, it was seen as a potential gold mine as a neighborhood power center.  Because the city of Chicago and its near-suburbs are almost completely built out, space for big box power centers and new strip malls is at a scarce premium, and usually results from the redevelopment of former uses like industrial sites.  Knowing they had a captive audience, Goldman Sachs jumped on this opportunity to be able to develop a brand new, large-scale suburban-style power center right in the city.

In late 2004, most of the power center opened.  Anchored by big box stores Target, Marshalls and Lowe’s, The Brickyard, as it has been rebranded, is home to over 40 small stores as well.  In fact, many of the stores that were in the Brickyard Mall at the end have reopened here, including multiple shoe stores, the Super China Buffet, Radio Shack, and Jewel-Osco.  In addition, The Brickyard was home to the first midwestern location of Pollo Campero, a cult-popular Guatemalan chicken chain.

Here are a couple outside photos I snapped while driving by in May 2000.  The first shot is the pylon along Diversey, and the second shot is the Convenience Stores section at the north end of the mall.  Kmart would close a couple months after this was taken:

Some people have criticized the new Brickyard development for lacking verve as well as its rather generic layout.  I found this comment in Labelscar’s archives from user Allan:

“I dunno about you, but coming from briefly shopping at the lifestyle center that replaced Brickyard Mall(of Chicago) earlier today, there’s no doubt in my mind that the former Brickyard Mall was a much denser development, and was many times better than the lifestyle center that was built in its place. Not to mention, it’s unappealing as heck having to drive from store to store, rather than having the much more pleasurable experience of parking your car in one place, and shopping in an environment that you know won’t be too cold or too warm.”

In addition, there’s even a Facebook group decrying the mall’s renovation as not being up to snuff.  Maybe if they would have shopped there when it was viable…

I visited Brickyard Mall several times between 1999 and 2001, and have only been back once since renovation, when I visited Pollo Campero a couple years ago.  Other than that, there’s not much reason to go here unless you live in the area.  Overall, though, I think this repositioning was successful.  Sure, Brickyard is no longer that interesting to me, or anyone, and that’s a little sad; but I think if you look at the bigger picture, Brickyard is fulfilling its role as a neighborhood center.

If I renovated the mall, I wouldn’t have totally removed the two-level enclosed mall; instead, I would have renovated it with modern, bright flooring to replace the dark brick, adding comfy seating and bright colors on the walls.  The natural light from the skylights would flood the center, and it would feel vervey again.  I think people would come to the renovated mall, especially considering the density of the city, and although it would be a neighborhood center rather than a regional mall, it would still thrive.  I would have used Target and Lowe’s to replace JCPenney and Wards, and put Marshalls and other big box stores along the main mallway somewhere.  I probably would have removed the Convenience Center portion of the mall, though, since that portion of the mall was the most outdated of all.

What would you have done with Brickyard Mall?  How do you feel about the renovation?  Leave your own memories and thoughts on our comment page.

Here are the photos I recently found, which I took on November 17, 2001:

Also, here are some photos I dug up on the ol’ Interwebs.  They were taken by an impressive photographer named Chuck Janda, and featured on his site.  Be sure to check it out if you’re interested in sets of other abandoned and older buildings in the Chicago area.  These were taken in Summer 2003, during Brickyard Mall’s demolition:

UPDATE 4/7/10: I went down to Chicago the other day and swung by the “new” Brickyard development, and here it is!

College Hills Mall (The Shoppes at College Hills); Normal, Illinois

In the mall-crazy late 1970s, a developer decided that one mall wasn’t enough for little Bloomington-Normal, and made plans to build a second enclosed mall on the same strip. Located just a mile north of Eastland Mall along Veterans Parkway/Old Route 66, the College Hills Mall opened in August 1980 with anchor Carson Pirie Scott and a single-level T-shaped corridor of stores. The second anchor, Montgomery Ward, opened about a month later, also in 1980, and a third anchor, Target, opened in 1982.

Illinois’ twin cities of Bloomington and Normal (which is technically not a city, but a town.  Discuss…) comprise a relatively small metropolitan area in Central Illinois, about 2 hours south of Chicago and 2.5 hours north of St. Louis, Missouri.  Together, the cities have around 125,000 residents, with 50,000 in Normal and 75,000 in Bloomington.    Bloomington and Normal are also immediately adjacent to one another, with no gap in between them, and thus effectively function as one city.  In fact, they are almost always referred to together, as Bloomington-Normal, B-N, or even the Twin Cities.  Home to State Farm Insurance and two educational institutions, Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University, which together have over 22,000 students, Bloomington-Normal has a more white collar, professional persona than many other Central Illinois cities. 

Bloomington-Normal was an important stop along Route 66 during its heyday, and as the famous highway grew in popularity it became congested – especially through cities and towns where local and cross-country traffic mixed.  Even before the interstate system debuted, which would largely supplant Route 66, many bypasses were constructed around the cities and towns Route 66 passed.  One such bypass, known as Beltline Road (later renamed Veterans Parkway), circumnavigated around Bloomington-Normal to the east, and opened in the 1950s, a full decade before Interstates 55 and 74 were built around the cities to the west. 

As Route 66 became obsolete for cross-country trips, supplanted by Interstate 55 and subsequently removed in this area by the late 1970s, it became a mostly local thoroughfare and Bloomington-Normal’s dominant retail strip.  In 1967, the Eastland Mall opened along this strip at the corner of Route 66 and IL 9.  Expanded through the years, Eastland Mall is the biggest and only enclosed mall in Bloomington-Normal, but this wasn’t always the case.   

In the mall-crazy late 1970s, a developer decided that one mall wasn’t enough for little Bloomington-Normal, and made plans to build a second enclosed mall on the same strip.  Located just a mile north of Eastland Mall along Veterans Parkway/Old Route 66, the College Hills Mall opened in August 1980 with anchor Carson Pirie Scott and a single-level T-shaped corridor of stores. The second anchor, Montgomery Ward, opened about a month later, also in 1980, and a third anchor, Target, opened in 1982. 

Only about 60 percent the size of Eastland Mall, College Hills Mall never had the same cachet of stores, but it served as a successful ancillary to it for a number of years.  An anchor change occurred at College Hills Mall in 1989 when Peoria-based Bergner’s purchased Chicago-based Carson Pirie Scott.  Because Bergner’s did not want to operate two adjacent stores in such a small market, the Carson’s at College Hills was closed in favor of the extant, larger Bergner’s at Eastland.

Following the departure of Carson’s at College Hills Mall, management quickly found a replacement for the space – Davenport, Iowa-based upscale department store Von Maur.  For those unfamiliar with Von Maur, it is considered in the same class and quality as Nordstrom and Lord and Taylor, a step up from Carson’s/Bergner’s.  A weird fit for an ancillary mall, it gave College Hills an upscale cachet that management thought might translate into greater success. 

Unfortunately, though, the location of Von Maur at College Hills Mall did very little to upscale the mix of stores there.  In fact, during the 1990s, the mall began a slow period of decline, and finished the decade in extremely poor shape.  In the early 90s, College Hills Mall had a decent mix of stores, including MC Sports, Kay-Bee Toys, Waldenbooks, Spencers, The Buckle, Foot Locker, and Champs Sports.  But the loss of a department store anchor and a change of ownership in 1997 brought an irreversible decline from which College Hills would not recover.   

In 1997, Montgomery Ward exited the mall amid a round of closures and in 1999, a Hobby Lobby crafts store was brought in to replace it.  Discounter Stein Mart moved into the middle of the mall, taking a few dead store spaces in 1997, but this move turned out to be an unprofitable mistake for the chain and it closed in 2000.  Meanwhile, many of the aforementioned national chains closed and were not replaced due to lacadaisical remote management by the Chicago-based owner of the mall.

By the 2000s, College Hills Mall was in serious decline with many vacancies as in-line stores closed and weren’t replaced.  Many of the stores relocated down the street to the larger, more successful Eastland Mall, which completed an expansion in 1999, adding a Famous-Barr anchor.   By mid-2004, only 11 tenants remained at College Hills Mall, including the three anchors, Target, Von Maur, and Hobby Lobby, with Radio Shack, Payless Shoes, Bath & Body Works, GNC, Christopher & Banks, Diamond Dave’s Mexican Restaurant, and some local stores among the remaining that were left. 

In 2004, ownership changed again and the College Hills Mall was purchased by Peoria-based Cullinan Properties, who had recently developed the successful Shoppes at Grand Prairie outdoor mall in Peoria in 2003.  Given the sad state of College Hills, Cullinan decided to demolish the existing mall and develop another lifestyle center.  The enclosed mall’s last day was June 30, 2004, when the interior corridors were sealed until demolition began a short time later.  The anchors – Target, Hobby Lobby, and Von Maur – remained open and continue to operate today in their original buildings. 

Almost immediately, demolition work began on College Hills Mall, in order to transform it into The Shoppes at College Hills.  The extra ‘e’ in Shoppes apparently confers an ‘upscale for ladies’ vibe – there’s no doubt that your mom or girlfriend would enjoy shopping here.  All of her favorite stores are present – J Jill, Chico’s, Ann Taylor Loft, Coldwater Creek, Lane Bryant, Yankee Candle, and Bath and Body Works.  These, combined with Von Maur, Target, Gordman’s, Starbucks, The Childrens Place, Hobby Lobby, and a make-your-own-stir-fry chain restaurant, will keep mom and all her girlfriends busy all day.  In fact, there’s even a Hampton Inn in case they get too tired after all that shopping.

I don’t mean to hate on The Shoppes at College Hills – it’s not terrible or anything, just kind of poorly executed in light of the image and vibe they are trying to sell.  I mean, it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll certainly concede that it’s better than the hulking dead mall that was there before.  I can’t help but wonder, though, did the enclosed mall fail due to mismanagement?  It was pretty dark and dated inside, so couldn’t they have just renovated it and put all these stores in there?  Clearly there was a market for a retail center here, and I wonder how many people really want to walk around in the cold, rain, snow, and excessive heat – Central Illinois is a land of extremes, after all.  This isn’t the Sun Belt, and ‘perfect’ days are rare.  It’s kind of a moot point, anyway, because no one is realistically going to walk around here all day either – it’s not that pedestrian friendly and really set up more like a strip mall than anything else, where you can park near the door of your favorite stores.  Want to visit another store?  Get in your car, drive over there, and park there, too.   

My biggest problem with this place is that the type of branding they’re selling is really a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  All they really did was demolish the interior of a dead mall and replace it with a few, much smaller buildings, and a sea of parking lots.  There are no definitive pedestrian corridors that encourage people to use them, except the sidewalk in front of some of the stores – which is how any strip mall is set up – and there’s no cohesion bringing the center together.  Target and Hobby Lobby don’t even have entrances facing the rest of the development. 

And yet they are selling a brand, a lifestyle even.  Whatever that means.  Whose lifestyle?  Doesn’t a lifestyle center really need to have some non-retail components such as entertainment options, or more than one restaurant?  Some even argue that a true lifestyle concept needs housing as well. 

According to the mall’s website, which also states that the Shoppes are “where outside is in style”,  “The Shoppes at College Hills has a stylish fountain in the midst of our outdoor lifestyle center in a beautiful, relaxing setting.  The fountain is the base for a sculpture entitled “Adventure” by Jim Davidson.  The fountain and sculpture pair encourages the shopper to rest or meet friends near the soothing sound of its waterfall.”  This is nice, don’t get me wrong.  But they fail to note that the fountain is really located in the corner of one of the parking lot seas, and that the whole setup of this place really lacks cohesion and encourages driving between the stores, not meeting at a fountain in a far corner of the parking lot.  When you go to a strip mall or big box center, do you often walk to the far edge of the parking lot to meet?  I don’t.  There’s absolutely no reason to.

There are definitely good ‘lifestyle’ centers that pass muster, with legitimately cohesive plans and a density that allows for well-placed pedestrian concourses that will actually be used.  This just isn’t one of them.  Many of them have pedestrian-only corridors, like Easton Town Center in Columbus, or if the corridors allow cars the focal point is not hindered by automobile traffic but rather a dense, urban-like streetscape, like Victoria Gardens in southern California.  Lacking encouragement for people to walk around and linger, a lot of the stores miss out from foot traffic walk-by sales.  On a different level, without people walking around and staying a while there is less of a community feel.  Plus, it doesn’t look as nice aesthetically, either.  By the way, Cullinan’s outdoor mall in Peoria is a pretty good example of what a lifestyle center should be, so that makes this even more perplexing. 

I visited College Hills Mall in May 2001 and June 2004, just a couple days before the mall closed forever.  Feel free to leave your own experiences on the comments page.

Photos from May 2001:

Photos from June 2004, days before the mall closed forever:

Lincoln Mall; Matteson, Illinois

lincoln-mall-matteson-10Recently I’ve been following coverage of some pretty extensive renovations taking place at Lincoln Mall, a long-beleagured super-regional mall in south suburban Chicagoland. Initially I was excited at the prospect of even a modicum of success here, especially considering I’ve never seen the mall even close to its potential. I first visited Lincoln Mall about a decade ago, after it fell in the toilet but before it drowned. I recently re-visited for the first time after some of the renovations have materialized, and was extremely dismayed – both by the progress of the renovations and also by a personal, not-so-fun experience I had there.


Recently I’ve been following coverage of some pretty extensive renovations taking place at Lincoln Mall, a long-beleagured super-regional mall in south suburban Chicagoland.  Initially I was excited at the prospect of even a modicum of success here, especially considering I’ve never seen the mall even close to its potential.  I first visited Lincoln Mall about a decade ago, after it fell in the toilet but before it drowned.  I recently re-visited for the first time after some of the renovations have materialized, and was extremely dismayed – both by the progress of the renovations and also by a personal, not-so-fun experience I had there.

Matteson, Illinois (pronounced matt-uh-son) is a diverse suburb of Chicago, located about 30 miles south of downtown.  With a population of about 17,000, Matteson is economically middle class, squeezed in between poverty-stricken Chicago Heights to the east, and wealthy Frankfort to its west.

lincoln-mall-matteson-10Within Chicagoland, Matteson is part of – and centrally located within – a larger economic region known as “Chicago’s Southland” – a regional economic development and tourism consortium comprised of nearly all of the suburbs south and southwest of Chicago.  Made up of 86 communities with a population of nearly 2.5 million people, the region is simultaneously diverse yet allied by common goals.  Much of the region, specifically the suburbs directly south of the City of Chicago and east of I-57, has been negatively impacted by the loss of heavy industry during the latter part of the 20th century.  In an attempt to promote the region’s shift from a manufacturing to a service based economy, the consortium advertises the region’s proximity to Chicago, the transportation network – numerous rail lines as well as 5 interstates converge here – and the region’s affordability in comparison to the western and northern suburbs.

Suburban blight, crime, and poverty have become significant problems in the Southland region, with some good examples in postwar suburbs Harvey and Chicago Heights.  In fact, one of the most famous dead malls in the country is located in Harvey, and – as of late 2009 – is still standing after being abandoned for almost 25 years. However, this traditionally blue collar region is by no means lacking in riches; some of the Chicago area’s wealthiest zip codes are in Frankfort, Orland Park, Palos Heights, Olympia Fields and other areas within the region.

Matteson is home to a concentration of numerous strip malls and big box stores, mostly located along Route 30 and Cicero Avenue (Route 50).  It’s one of several areas in the south suburbs of Chicago with a high concentration of retail strip, and also home to one of the south/southwest suburbs’ first super-regional malls, Lincoln Mall.

Lincoln Mall opened in 1973 on the southeast corner of the intersection between Route 30 (Lincoln Highway) and Route 50 (Cicero Avenue), just east of I-57.  When it opened, the mall contained nearly 1 million square-feet of retail space shared between 4 anchors – Carson Pirie Scott, Wieboldt’s, JCPenney, and Montgomery Ward – and two levels of mall space connecting the anchors.  The original design of the mall was very similar to Yorktown Mall in Chicago’s western suburbs, which is still open and successful, and the former Lakehurst Mall in north-suburban Waukegan, which closed in 2001.

lincoln-mall-matteson-11Lincoln Mall was an instant success, predating Orland Square by three years and the enclosure of River Oaks Mall by two decades.  In fact, it wasn’t really until the late 1990s when things began to dramatically go south, despite the closure and 8 year vacancy of the Wieboldt’s store when that chain folded in 1987.  In fact, the mall was refurbished with a major remodel and update in 1993, and Sears moved into Wieboldt’s old location from nearby Park Forest Plaza – an outdoor center that predated Lincoln Mall and died due to its competition – in 1995.

The 1990s saw the beginning of the end for Lincoln Mall.  In 1993-94, nearby River Oaks Center was enclosed and up-sized.  In response, Lincoln Mall remodeled and filled in the dead Wieboldt’s anchor with Sears, but in the end it wasn’t enough.   The unsurpassed growth of the 90s moved the almighty dollars westward, and cities in the Orland Park and Frankfort corridor saw the most growth and the best incomes in the Southland.  Thus, the retail strip surrounding and including Orland Square, along 159th Street and Route 45 got the best stores.  This is still true today.  Lincoln Mall’s retail portfolio began to slowly disintegrate, as middle tier and popular national chains began to leave and were replaced by local stores and vacancies.  The core demographic of the mall’s clientele changed too, slowly yet surely, from racially diverse to predominantly African-American by 2000 or so, and the stores began to reflect this.

In 1999, Montgomery Ward closed up shop at Lincoln Mall, about two years before their nationwide shuttering, and in 2000 JCPenney left during a round of closings in a lousy period for that chain.  These two blows left only Sears and Carson’s at the helm of a sinking ship.  During the early 2000s stores began to leave in droves, and the mall was put on life support.

In 2005, a commercial realty partnership from Texas, Realty America Group, was contacted by the mall’s owner to sell the mall.  The owner apparently wanted to cut their losses and get out, but Realty America said “Wait just a dog gone minute!” – I’m paraphrasing now – and decided that Lincoln Mall was more of an asset of opportunity than a dead mall that should be left for – well, dead.

lincoln-mall-matteson-05So, after completing due diligence, Realty America went to the Village of Matteson and apparently made a stellar presentation for redevelopment, because they were awarded $45 million for the project in April 2005.  Groundbreaking took place in August of that year, with the construction of a new four-lane road behind the mall connecting Route 30 and Cicero.  The theory behind this was that prospective new tenants wouldn’t want to be at the “back” of the mall with restrictive visibility and access.  The new road essentially eliminates the idea of the “back” of the mall altogether, providing – in theory – the same level of access on all four sides of the mall.

Renovation proceeded with some pretty grandiose plans, including the demolition of both dead anchors, complete renovation of the interior space, structural updates, outside facade updates including a new entrance, and a cherry on top.  A cornerstone of the entire renovation project is the Promenade at Lincoln Mall, a non-enclosed district comprised of retail boxes, other shops, restaurants, and entertainment taking the space of the anchors that were demolished as well as along the new four-lane road.  The new open-air space would comprise between 400,000 and 500,000 of new retail space, restaurants, and a planned movie theatre, bringing the total square-footage back to the original size of the enclosed mall – about 1 million square feet.  The end idea, according to Lincoln Mall’s general manager, was to create a “best of both worlds” scenario, complete with an enclosed mall for people who want a climate controlled environment in the harsh climate of the upper midwest, along with an outdoor area for big box stores and other tenants who don’t want to be in the enclosed part of the concept,  as well as to indulge the somewhat-nonsensical fad of outdoor shopping for outdoor shopping’s sake.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?

In Summer 2007, the new road behind the mall was complete, just in time for Target to open their new 126,000 square foot store on a parcel south of the mall, south of the new road.  Then, in Fall 2007, JCPenney opened a 106,000 square foot store southeast of the mall, also south of the new road.  Then the project kind of stopped.  Whoops.

lincoln-mall-matteson-30In October 2008, the village of Matteson threw another $10 million at the project, to get the next phase running  – the filling in of the demolished anchor pads, the exterior/interior renovations of the remaining enclosed mall, addition of other tenants, etc.  About the same time, in September 2008, the Texas partnership of Realty America, who owns the mall, apparently stopped making mortgage payments on it, according to their lender, Texans Commercial.  Not so, said the manager of the partnership, Rives Castleman (what a name); instead, he claims that the lender is forcing them into default by playing dirty tricks and instead owes them $20 million; they have filed counter suit.  This is all from court documents, as both Castleman and his lawyer, Eugene Geekie (another name!) have refused to comment to reporters. Texans had agreed, in 2004 – when this entire project began – to finance the initial stages of the redevelopment, in addition to the $45 million received from the village at the get go.  The loan had an outstanding balance of over $37 million at the time of the foreclosure.

The court case began in January 2009, and has apparently screeched the renovations to a halt.  As of October 2009, the enclosed mall looks like a weird retail Frankenmonster (hey, it’s Halloween) – there are gross, visible concrete seams and an unappealing mess where the dead anchors were torn off and demolished, and a temporary fence sits along the half of the mall where the demolition took place.  They, at least, cleaned up (most of) the rubble, and the JCPenney and Target are operating in separate buildings south of the new road they constructed.  It honestly looks like a terrible mess, and if I were a resident of Matteson I’d be really embarrassed of this eyesore.

Here’s an obvious question – why didn’t they just put Target and JCPenney in the mall?  They had two vacant anchors, and one of them even WAS JCPenney, and they had 2 anchors to put into place.  Seems like simple math to me.  The mall would have definitely been reinvigorated by having two brand new anchors, including the ever-popular Target, so how is putting them outside and essentially across the street going to ever help the interior part of the mall that they wanted to keep?  We’re really scratching our heads here.  Unless it really comes together into something cohesive and pedestrian-oriented, linking Target and JCPenney and funneling people into the mall, the Promenade at Lincoln Mall is nothing innovative nor remotely beneficial to the mall structure.  It’s been done before – ever see businesses on a mall’s ring road?

lincoln-mall-matteson-13The interior portion of the mall today is kind of sad.  There are some popular national retailers, like Old Navy, Bath and Body works and Express, but there are seemingly more vacancies and local stores.  You know your mall is unwell when Dollar Plus is listed under the food ‘catagory’ (sp) on the directory map.  Also, they converted an old Sbarro into a place that advertises a combination of Mexican and Italian food.  Furthermore, the center court area has been sectioned off with cages where you can pet live tigers, and a temporary stage is set up near one of the demolished anchors where magic shows are held nightly, performed by a mullet-clad man named Joe Exotic.  The show itself costs no money to the mall, and Joe even suggests on his website that his shows are great for dead or dying malls. This is a unique and possibly innovative idea, but obviously temporary and not a real solution.

We visited the mall in October 2009, on a weekday night, and walked around and took pictures of the mall as usual, when we noticed we were being mysteriously followed by someone who appeared to be an employee of the mall – a janitor?  He had a walkie talkie or a cell phone, but we weren’t sure; the mall wasn’t that crowded, and this person was definitely following us.  It appeared to be time to leave, due to this turn of events, but as we were leaving a security guard by the name of C. Mack popped out from somewhere on the 2nd floor of the mall and approached us with fervor.

Uh oh.  Here it comes, the “we caught you photographing in the mall” spiel.  We’ve heard it before, and it’s never pleasant, but what actually transpired here was unexpected and sort of shocking, but ultimately kind of hilarious.  He got out a little notebook – the kind real police officers use to take statements – and got out a writing utensil and kept up with our pace (we didn’t stop to indulge him), all pretty intently.

“I have reports that you were soliciting.”


“There have been reports based on your description that you were soliciting in the mall.”

“Well, I haven’t opened my mouth or talked to a single person since I entered the mall, so no.”

“Well, the description I was given was definitely you.”

“Again, no.”

At this point, I was admittedly a little freaked out, and a few thoughts whizzed around in my head.  Why was I being accused of soliciting when I honestly hadn’t spoken to anyone, at all, since I entered the mall?  I had only been there maybe 10 minutes at this point.  I was taking pictures, the ones featured with this post, but that’s not soliciting.  Did someone not know what soliciting means?

At any rate, after I denied soliciting a few times he immediately backed off and started walking the other way.  I wasn’t kicked out of the mall, and nothing else happened.  I did leave immediately, as planned, and maybe this was their intent, but it’s still kind of puzzling.

I have a few questions to pose to y’all:  Is this mall a case of biting off more than one can chew, resultant of the current state of the economy combine with the greed and mismanagement of non-local entities looking to make a few bucks?  Or is it just a case of bad luck and some honest tries?  Maybe it’s a combination of all of these factors.  Or maybe we’re completely off the mark here.  Leave comments and let us know!

The Malls of Downtown Chicago, Illinois

chicago-night-largeWe thought we’d switch it up a bit with the mall postings and fire off a whole bunch of them at once, in an urban setting: downtown Chicago.

The following six malls are the largest, and most prominent, cohesive retail centers in downtown Chicago, which we’re defining as extending beyond the Loop and including the neighborhoods River North and Streeterville because, well, they’re downtown for all practical purposes.

We thought we’d switch it up a bit with the mall postings and fire off a whole bunch of them at once, in an urban setting: downtown Chicago.

The following six malls are the largest and most cohesive retail centers in downtown Chicago, which we’re defining as extending beyond the Loop and including the neighborhoods of River North and Streeterville because, well, they’re downtown for all practical purposes.

There are other enclosed retail sMalls – clusters of enclosed shops – in downtown Chicago, and they’re too numerous to note, such as the shops inside and along the Chicago Pedway, an underground system of walkways connecting many downtown buildings, and sMalls also exist in the atriums of downtown office buildings.   We typically set a threshhold of at least 100,000 square-feet for these to “count” – occasionally something pops out that is smaller than this – and it’s not a set-in-stone rule (I know at least somebody is going to comment or e-mail me and say something like, “You didn’t include Xxxx, it’s a mall!).  So, with that in mind we’ll proceed into the depths of the urban jungle.

Block 37 – State Street is Chicago’s historic downtown shopping street.  However, just as Frank Sinatra ingrained ‘State Street, that great street’ into America’s pop psyche, Michigan Avenue replaced State Street as Chicago’s most important shopping street.  State Street became a secondary – yet still viable – destination.  Nestled in the heart of downtown, and housing the flagship stores of both Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Field’s, State Street retained its old-fashioned image of utility, while Michigan Avenue stole all the glitz and glamour.

atrium-mall-chicago-1Atrium Mall – This is the smallest mall we’re choosing to include, and the only one technically in the Loop – at least for now.  The Atrium Mall consists of the first three levels of the James R. Thompson Center, a government building housing the offices of the State of Illinois.  It was built in 1985, and the 17-story building looks more like a Postmodernist museum rather than an office building housing government facilities.  The building was named for former governor Jim Thompson in 1993, after being called State of Illinois Center until then.  No clue why that creative name would ever get scrapped.

The enclosed space inside the James Thompson Center is really an impressive sight to behold.  An atrium exposes all 17 stories up to the top of the all-glass center, and it is said to be one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world.  The building takes up an entire city block, at 100 W. Randolph, and the basement connects to the lesser-known Chicago Pedway, an underground system of walkways connecting many downtown buildings, and the CTA Subway/El system.

atrium-mall-chicago-2The Atrium Mall consists of 40 stores, restaurants, and services, catering mostly to the downtown working crowd, with about 140,000 square-feet of leasable space.  There are no retail anchors to speak of, and the entire thing is closed after 6 on weekdays and all weekend, too, so the connection to the office crowd is the only reason this thing exists.  The food choices are the largest component, and feature nothing too exciting, unless you consider the fact that there are two Dunkin Donuts exciting.  And we admit, we kind of do.

We also find it amusing that the tiny Atrium Mall has its own Myspace page – erm, excuse me, her own Myspace page.  She notes on it that she doesn’t watch too much TV, and doesn’t care for politics, but she does read one of our favorite authors – Paco Underhill.  And why should she not?  She’s a mall, after all…

merchandise-mart-01Shops at the Mart – The Merchandise Mart, constructed by Marshall Field and Company in 1930, occupies two entire city blocks in the River North neighborhood of downtown Chicago, bounded by Wells Street on the east, Kinzie on the north, Orleans and Franklin on the west, and the Chicago River on the south.  With 4.2 million square feet of retail space on 25 stories, the Merchandise Mart is one of the largest commercial buildings in the world, and one of the most fascinating buildings in Chicago’s impressive store of architecture.

Oh, and the first two levels are a mall.

The Merchandise Mart building itself is an homage to trading partners of Chicago’s past, present, and the site’s history as a Native American trading post –  56 terra cotta Indian chiefs circled the tower’s crown; however, they were barely visible from street level and intended to be viewed from nearby skyscrapers in River North, most of which were never constructed.  Thus, the Indian chiefs were removed in 1961 as part of a larger renovation project at the Mart.  Other architectural features included department store windows sans department store – the Mart was, after all, a vision of department store magnate Marshall Field – and an elaborate interior featuring eight marble piers, storefronts embossed in bronze trim, and green and orange terazzo floors.

merchandise-mart-09As if all this wasn’t enough, the artwork inside the Mart essentially serves as a museum of retail.  Famed Chicago artist Jules Guerin’s frieze of murals are the focal feature of the Mart’s lobby, and depict commerce throughout the world, focusing on the countries of origin for items sold in the building.  In addition, along the Chicago River facing the Mart are eight bronze busts of retail magnates such as John Wanamaker, Marshall Field, Edward Filene, and Aaron Montgomery Ward.

But what businesses actually operate at the Mart?

Over the past 80 years the Mart has been home to radio stations, television station WMAQ, corporate offices, an el platform, and even a post office.  Most of the space at the Mart, however, has been historically devoted to wholesale showrooms – mainly for interior design.  Today, entire usable rooms are set up as showrooms, mostly for wholesalers and not open to the general public.    In addition, the Mart is home to the world’s largest design expo and trade show, and also hosts Art Chicago’s international art fair.  Also, the corporate offices of the Chicago Sun-Times relocated here in 2004when their old building was torn down for Trump Tower, and the corporate offices of Potbelly Sandwich Works – a fast-casual national chain – are located here as well.

merchandise-mart-12In addition to the above tenants, the Mart became home to a two-level shopping mall in 1991.  Called Shops at the Mart, the shopping mall gave the Mart a wider visibility to the public, featuring a variety of shops and services.  It was to be anchored by Chicago-based department store Carson Pirie Scott (did this ever open?  If so, how long was it open?), and had a lot of apparel shops and traditional mall stores when it first debuted.  The Limited opened a 23,000 square-foot space and divided it among its subsidiaries.  Over the years, however, most of the traditional chain fodder found in suburban malls found its way out, and the mall began to focus on the downtown office crowd.  The eclectic mix of stores today also suggests this. Most of the apparel stores, including The Limited, no longer operate at The Mart.

The mall exists on the first two levels of the behemoth 25-story Mart, and although the mall doesn’t feature anything you’d go out of your way for as a visitor, the various food stalls, the food court, and the services here serve the downtown office crowd well.

north-bridge-01The Shops at North Bridge – Opened in 2000, this is not only the newest mall in downtown Chicago, but also the newest enclosed mall in the entire Chicagoland area.  Located in the 500 block of North Michigan Avenue, The Shops at North Bridge is anchored by the midwest Nordstrom flagship – which is actually a block west, past Rush Street – and features a five-level enclosed concourse of upscale shops, connecting Nordstrom to Michigan Avenue at street level.

The site where North Bridge currently stands was, for over 70 years, the McGraw Hill Building – an art deco style construction, which opened in 1928.  In 1997, the City of Chicago got wind of the impending redevelopment of this historic, iconic building, and quicky declared it a designated historical landmark so they couldn’t totally decimate it.  So, when redevelopment time came, the developers had no choice but to incorporate large portions of the building into their new design.  After the McGraw Hill Building’s insides were torn down, its front facade facing Michigan Avenue was saved and grafted onto the new retail mall.

north-bridge-06The design and layout here are interesting, mostly out of the necessity of space restrictions in an urban downtown, but also due to Chicago’s history.  Because of the great Chicago fire of 1871, much of downtown Chicago – including the “street level” of Michigan Avenue outside of the mall – was rebuilt one or more levels above the actual ground.  However, some of the side streets to the west of the mall are actually located at actual ground level, a level beneath Michigan Avenue.  These include Grand Avenue, which becomes an underpass under Michigan Avenue, and Rush Street where Nordstrom sits.

The mall itself is a four-level structure which curves between the Michigan Avenue entrance, which is actually on a bridge over Grand Avenue, and the entrance to Nordstrom, which is actually located on a bridge over Rush Street.  The entrance on Michigan Avenue is, like Water Tower Place, an elaborate lobby.  Guests must go up at least one level on an escalator to reach “Level 1” of the mall, and they may ascend via escalator to the other levels from there as well.  The lobby also contains huge artistic sculptures, and windows on all sides featuring breathtaking urban views.  Confused yet?  Just visualize a mall, on a bridge, because that’s pretty much what it is.

The Shops at North Bridge’s tenants are mostly mid-range to upscale, including Kenneth Cole, Armani Exchange, and Louis Vuitton, and there’s a food court on the 4th level featuring nonstandard food court fare.  Don’t expect McDonald’s and Sbarro here; instead, the offerings are mostly local and cater to upscale fast-casual dining.

north-bridge-04The mall is also part of the larger North Bridge complex, which spans several blocks, from Michigan all the way over to State Street, and from Ohio down to Illinois.  Other businesses in the complex have street frontage and aren’t connected to the mall structure, and include restaurants like Weber Grill, PF Chang, and California Pizza Kitchen, as well as furniture store Room and Board, who presumably moved here from the failed Chicago Place mall up the street (see below).  There are also a few hotels in the complex:  Conrad Hilton, Homewood Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, and the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile.  Say that one without running out of breath.

North Bridge has changed ownership a couple times since opening in 2000.  In 2003, Westfield America gained an interest from original developer John Buck, and rebranded the mall Westfield Shoppingtown North Bridge, dropping the “Shoppingtown” moniker in 2005.  Then, in 2008, Macerich acquired the mall from Westfield, and Macerich put back the original name to The Shops at North Bridge.  North Bridge is Macerich’s first property in the Chicago area.

North Bridge has been successful because of its sheer, stunning beauty, design, and the popularity of anchor Nordstrom.  Putting Nordstrom at the back, a block away, and funneling shoppers from Michigan Avenue to it has proved to be a good idea.

chicago-place-02Chicago Place – A few blocks north of The Shops at North Bridge along Michigan Avenue brings us to the next stop on our downtown Chicago mall tour, Chicago Place.  In contrast with the nuanced success of North Bridge, Chicago Place is a mostly-failed dead mall, sitting right in the middle of downtown Chicago on its most famous shopping street.  What gives?

Most of the center is currently closed, save for the food court and one store (as of 2009), and plans are underway to transform most of the mall into office space – save for the Mag Mile frontage along Michigan Avenue, which will remain retail.

Chicago Place opened in 1990 as a 600-foot, 49-story behemoth, located at 700 N. Michigan Avenue, between Huron and Superior Streets.  The bottom 8 floors of the tower consisted, until 2009, of a vertical mall, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue, which also opened as part of this development (it moved from across the street).  The rest of the floors are condos.

chicago-place-03Shortly after debuting in 1990, Chicago Place – while experiencing a modicum of success and lease rates around  70 percent during the 1990s – fell dramatically short of expectations.  After all, it was on Michigan Avenue – one of the toniest shopping streets in the entire country.  Some stores, mainly on upper floors, never filled or had trouble filling, and the whole center certainly never felt as cohesive as Water Tower Place, just a few blocks north.

Despite being located on one of the nation’s premier shopping avenues, Chicago Place met its end through competition and poor design.  The awkwardly small, jagged floors of the vertical mall allowed for awkward placement of the handful of stores on each level, and the escalators, hemmed into the tightest space imaginable, gave people vertigo.  Also, the zig zag design had the unanticipated – and certainly unwanted – effect of alienating shoppers from the storefronts, pushing them away and past them.  In addition, anchor Saks is hemmed in at the back corner of the center, and casts a cold, unwelcoming pall upon it; it’s not an obvious focal point of the mall, drawing shoppers through the mall and into it like the 900 North Michigan or North Bridge malls do.

chicago-place-14An express elevator near the rear of the mall, next to the Rush Street entrance, whisks people to and from the food court – the only truly inviting space in the mall – allowing them to pass the 7 stories between it and the ground level.  Ostensibly, this was done to allow the food court to thrive on lunch patrons who didn’t have time to ascend each level or use the slower elevators in the middle of the mall’s atrium.  It was a good idea, because the food court did indeed thrive, and is, rather oddly – as of late Summer 2009 – the only part of the mall still open for business.  The food court is also, unlike the rest of the mall, a nice, refreshing open space full of huge windows with sweeping views of Michigan Avenue, downtown, and the lakefront to the north.

By the 2000s, Chicago Place’s days became clearly numbered.  In 2004, a group of New York investors bought the mall for the price of $39 million – a steal.  Or so they thought.  Longtime tenants Ann Taylor and Room and Board had recently closed, as well as the tenants who brought life to the ground levels – Bockwinkel’s, an upscale grocer, a gourmet coffee place, and a flower shop.

chicago-place-18It became painfully clear toward the middle of the 2000s that Chicago Place could simply not keep up.  It had neither the cachet of tourist-popular Water Tower Place, the upscale luxury of 900 N. Michigan Shops, nor the nuanced open floorplan of North Bridge.  In January of 2009, the Talbots store finally closed, leaving only a Tall Girl shop on the third floor, and the food court as the only remaining tenants.  According to Tall Girl’s website, the store is still open as of September 19, 2009 – is this true?  Probably not for long.

Long term plans are for the upper floors of Chicago Place to be gutted, but we’re not sure if this includes the food court or not.  The food court, while still technically open, is now having vacancy issues of its own – McDonald’s couldn’t even survive here – and the hike up to he 8th floor is probably a bit of a time-waster for people in a lunch crunch.  The street-level facade will be converted into a Zara store, and Saks will remain as well.  A Best Buy was to come in as well, but that apparently fell through as Best Buy recently opened up in the John Hancock Center four blocks north.

So long, Chicago Place.  You were a neat idea, if poorly executed.

water-tower-place-02Water Tower Place – Three blocks north of Chicago Place, and across the street, lies Water Tower Place – a Chicago shopping institution since 1975.  The 8-level, 750,000 square-foot mall lies at the base of an 859-foot, 74-story skyscraper housing a Ritz Carlton Hotel, condominiums, and one of Chicago’s most famous residents – Oprah Winfrey; however, rumors are constantly afoot that she may be leaving – or maybe not.  Keep us on our toes, O.

Brushes with fame aside, Water Tower Place single-handedly changed retail patterns in Chicago after it opened in the 1970s, bringing accessibility as well as shifting Chicago’s retail center of gravity.  Water Tower’s 100 stores weren’t – and still aren’t today – the exclusive, upscale boutiques seen on Michigan Avenue and nearby Oak Street. Instead, the stores at Water Tower Place are those found in successful, A-Tier suburban malls, such as Hollister, American Eagle, Chico’s, and Ann Taylor.

The major anchor at Water Tower is Macy’s, which was, until 2006, a Marshall Field’s (wistful shout out to MF) – and a Lord and Taylor anchored the other side of the mall until it closed in 2007.  The L&T space is currently a huuuuge American Girl Place, in part, and the rest of it is being redeveloped for other retail uses.  Also, in addition to stores, there’s a Drury Lane Theater for live performances, and although there is no traditional food court, there are fast food and sit down dining establishments scattered throughout the levels, including California Pizza Kitchen, Wow Bao, and Foodlife – a food court-esque area on the mezzanine (first level above the lobby).

water-tower-place-09The design specs and layout of Water Tower Place also make it a unique place, unlike the awkwardly positioned space at failed Chicago Place, another vertical mall a few blocks south.  From the Michigan Avenue main entrance lobby, guests are presented with escalators ascending  upward featuring multiple tiers and a waterfall running beside them.  The lobby itself only features entrances to American Girl, Macy’s, and Wow Bao – a counter service pa-Asian restaurant.  Upon reaching the mezzanine level, guests are greeted with the Foodlife food court area, featuring multiple genres of cuisine in counter-service format, and a small market featuring fresh produce and other items.  From the mezzanine level, the 8-level mall begins, and one can choose to ascend floor-by-floor using the escalators along one side of the atrium, or the elevators in the middle.  The entire place is decked out in marble and shiny metal, and combined with the small space on each level, gives shoppers a frenetic urban vibe – that’s why they came to shop in downtown Chicago, I guess.

This accessible mix of stores brought other popular chains to Michigan Avenue, and helped Michigan Avenue replace State Street as Chicago’s all-purpose one-stop retail destination.  The upscale shops and boutiques still exist, and even have their own niche over on Oak Street and in the 900 N. Michigan mall, but they have become the exception rather than the rule, and Water Tower Place was the impetus for this change.

By the way, the name Water Tower Place comes from the famous water tower located across the street, one of the only structures in Chicago to survive the great fire of 1871.

900-north-michigan-05900 North Michigan Shops – In 1988, Urban Retail Properties, a Chicago-based developer, saw Water Tower Place’s immense success transforming the retail geography of Chicago and wanted a piece of the pie.  They apparently recogized they couldn’t compete head-to-head with Water Tower, but they realized that Water Tower squeezed out the previous monopoly upscale retailers had prior to its existence, so they developed a plan.  After signing Bloomingdale’s and junior anchor Henri Bendel (now clothing-box Mark Shale), they embarked on a massive, mixed-use development  plan, featuring 7 levels of upscale retail in a vertical mall – much like Water Tower Place – along with condos and a Four Seasons Hotel.

Much like neighboring vertical malls Chicago Place and Water Tower Place, the building the mall is in is also a megatall skyscraper.  At 871 feet tall, 900 North Michigan has 66 stories and is – as of September 11, 2001 – the tallest building in the U.S. housing a shopping mall.

The design and layout of 900 North Michigan Shops is similar to that of its sister, Water Tower Place.   T900-n-michigan-shops-02he 450,000 square-foot vertical mall is about half the size of Water Tower Place, and is accented with a mostly white facade on the inside.  The angles aren’t intrusive either, unlike Chicago Place, with its failed zig zag design.  900 North Michigan encourages shoppers to actually shop in the stores.  Anchor Bloomingdales is at the back (Rush Street side) of the center, and the anchor is a visible focal point upon entering from the Michigan Avenue main entrance.  In addition, the arrangement of the escalators in a parallel pattern funnels shoppers past the shops, and not into a confusing spiral of vertigo.

As noted above, the clientele 900 Norh Michigan wants is more indicative of Michigan Avenue’s historical place in Chicago’s retail history as an upscale shopping destination, rather than the current mish-mash of all different types of retailers represented in Water Tower Place and the environs.  Also, 900 North Michigan is also closer to the upscale boutique district along Oak and Walton Streets.  By capturing an upmarket niche and through an inviting design, they have been successful where Chicago Place failed.  Only about half of the mall’s roster of stores are national, recognizable chains, like Gucci; the other half are smaller-scale exclusive upmarket boutiques.

We walked around downtown Chicago and visited all of these landmarks during  an afternoon in Fall 2007.  As usual, feel free to leave comments.

Forest Park Mall; Forest Park, Illinois

forest-park-mall-04Forest Park Mall was a 400,000 square-foot enclosed mall located along Roosevelt Road just west of Harlem Avenue, and about a quarter of a mile south of I-290. Helmed by the same developer who created Ford City Mall on Chicago’s southwest side, Forest Park Mall – just like Ford City – was also a redevelopment project that converted an old factory into a shopping center – albeit on a smaller scale.


Forest Park, Illinois is an inner-ring suburb of Chicago, located about 10 miles directly west of downtown.  Most of the built environment in Forest Park is a result of the post-World War II building boom, and most of the housing stock is between 40-60 years old.  Forest Park is hemmed in by other inner-ring suburbs of similar age.  Oak Park, Maywood, River Forest, and Riverside are all neighbors of Forest Park, and other large suburbs like Berwyn and Cicero are nearby.  Because of this, Forest Park is done expanding – at least outwardly.  

The demographics in these post-war inner-ring western suburbs vary wildly.  Oak Park is known for its tony neighborhoods of stately mansions and its upmarket downtown; Maywood is almost 90 percent African-American; Berwyn and Cicero have transitioned from Italian to Mexican; Riverside is a quiet, suburban, mostly white enclave of upper middle class homes situated along curvy, tree lined streets.  Forest Park is more of a melting pot in terms of demographics, and more diverse than many of the other suburbs; in addition, it has a centralized location along the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290), giving it direct access to downtown Chicago as well as points west.

forest-park-mall-08The retail scene in Forest Park itself, however, is kind of lacking.  Downtown Oak Park has a myriad of options, including mall store chains like The Gap, but the nearest mall and a large concentration of box store options is located just a few blocks south of the city along Cermak Road and Harlem Avenue in the village of North Riverside.  This corridor also contains a large, regional two-level mall, North Riverside Park Mall, which opened in 1976 and features Carson Pirie Scott, JCPenney, and Sears.  It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a situation emerged giving Forest Park a chance to build a significant retail venture, the Forest Park Mall. 

Forest Park Mall was a 400,000 square-foot enclosed mall located along Roosevelt Road just west of Harlem Avenue, and about a quarter of a mile south of I-290.  Helmed by the same developer who created Ford City Mall on Chicago’s southwest side, Forest Park Mall – just like Ford City – was also a redevelopment project that converted an old factory into a shopping center – albeit on a smaller scale. 

The site that would become the mall originally operated as a Naval torpedo plant during World War II.  After the war, the site was used as a Naval training academy, and subsequently utilized by the U.S. Postal Service for a time after that.  Then, in the late 1970s, the then-abandoned building was purchased by the city of Forest Park. 

Not knowing what to do with the abandoned eyesore, which had been off the city’s tax rolls due to the fact that it was owned by the federal government for decades, several options emerged for the site, including retail and manufacturing operations.  It was quickly determined the best use for the site would be retail, as there was little interest from companies wishing to relocate here, and the revenue generated from retail would put more money into the city’s coffers; Forest Park’s tax base was already extremely restricted because there weren’t many businesses in the city, and much of the city’s land is cemeteries.  Win, win. 

forest-park-mall-03The city, who owned the site, then teamed up with the same developer who converted the Ford factory on Chicago’s southwest side into a successful regional mall in 1965.  Because of the space constraints of the building and the 1976 opening of North Riverside Park Mall, a large, regional mall just one mile to the south, it was determined that the retail development in Forest Park would be smaller, at least to begin with.

Forest Park Mall opened in 1983, anchored by a Venture discount store on the west end and a Courtesy Home Center home improvement store on the east end, complemented by an enclosed hallway of stores connecting the anchors, containing room for 70 stores.  Some early stores in the mall were Deb Shops, Perry’s Drugs, Tom Olesker’s Menswear, and Gift Horse.  In addition, a giant Child World children’s store/castle was built on the northwest corner of the mall’s lot.  The decor of the mall featured period-typical beige walls with wood paneling and multiple skylights throughout the interior walkway, providing ample natural light.  A small lower level also existed, but was mostly used for offices and restrooms rather than retail use. 

Forest Park Mall received its only expansion when a small food court was built near the Venture end of the mall, with its own dedicated entrance to the south of the mall.  The food court, much like the rest of the mall, was never fully tenanted. 

However, the mall never filled to capacity, so management brought in temporary stores and filled in smaller store spaces with larger stores.  Holidays brought Spencer’s Gifts and temporary store FIM, which sold Christmas merchandise during the winter, and TJMaxx was also brought on board.  Old Country Buffet also opened near the mall entrance closest to Venture in a former shoe store.

forest-park-mall-07Unfortunately, throughout the 1990s Forest Park Mall encountered many setbacks.  First, Venture decided to remodel their store, and in doing so, shut their entrance to the mall.  Whoops.  Courtesy Home Center closed their eastern anchor store a couple years later, and left with only TJMaxx as an anchor the stores began to leave in droves.  TJMaxx eventually closed also, leaving the mall somewhat anchorless, and the Forest Park library took up temporary residence in the mall’s lower level while a new facility was being built.  Meanwhile, the large Child World castle closed in the early part of the decade and was demolished for a Portillo’s Hotdogs location.

In 1998, anchor Venture went under as the whole chain went out of business, leaving another ominous hole in Forest Park Mall’s roster.  It was, however, miraculously filled rather swiftly with a K-Mart store which still operates as of 2009.

About the same time Venture discount store left Forest Park Mall, a new and unique venture moved into the former Courtesy Home Center on the other end of the mall – a church.  The Living Word Christian Center, Pastored by Bill Winston, opened up shop in the former home improvement anchor in 1998, and has since expanded throughout the entire mall.  Living Word now owns the entire mall and its outlots, including Portillos, and has expanded its church services into the mall.  According to Pastor Winston, the vision for the mall is a “one stop shop for the spirit, soul, and body.”  There’s also a business school in the mall, and a handful of other stores and services, including a clothier aimed at young black men.  At one point, a bank was even planned for the site. 

Today, a myriad of retail exists along with the church, including a large grocery store named Ultra Foods which has set up shop inside the former Courtesy Home anchor.

The transformation of this property, from Naval weapons facility to retail mall back to tax-exempt status as a church is quite the wild ride, and we’re glad to be able to properly document the journey.  The pictures featured here were taken in June 2000, and a more recent set exists here.  As always, feel free to leave some comments concerning the mall and its unique history.

Oakbrook Center; Oak Brook, Illinois

oakbrook-center-11 Oakbrook Center is, according to its website, the largest open-air mall in the entire country; and, at over 2 million square feet of leasable space, it’s a believable claim. It was, also according to the website, voted as the number one shopping destination in all of Illinois.


Retail trends of late have not only been soured across the board due to the economic recession, but they’ve also been especially unforgiving in regard to traditional enclosed malls – the number of which currently planned or under construction across the nation has (unfortunately?) dwindled to the low single digits.  Current development trends have favored the competitors of enclosed malls for various reasons, and one of the most popular  “replacements” of enclosed malls – either in redevelopment or new construction – is of a tidy, roofless, mixed-use type of development called a lifestyle center, which ideally combines retail, entertainment, offices, dining, and often residential components housed together.

These lifestyle center developments have a less-rigid set of standards than traditional enclosed malls – a tenet which most likely contributes to their success as a fad.  Where traditional enclosed malls are focused by large department store anchors, drawing shoppers between them via interior corridors lined with shops on all sides, lifestyle centers are not only less focused on anchors in general – indeed some have no discernable anchors at all – the anchors they do house tend to be of a variety of types, and range in genre from entertainment to box stores.  While some lifestyle centers feature pedestrian-only corridors, most feature strips of stores with driveable streets and accessible parking in front of or nearby every outlet featured.   In fact, many of these new developments have been criticized for not necessarily being a new idea at all, and instead are nothing more than touched-up strip malls.  In addition, lifestyle centers seem to speak to a narrowcast demographic, featuring women-only apparel stores, accesory shops, and women-geared services and amenities.  The few retail markets cornered by men – such as gaming – are often not present or grossly underrepresented in lifestyle developments.

oakbrook-center-20 oakbrook-center-23

Oakbrook Center, located in west-suburban Chicagoland about 20 miles directly west of downtown, is NOT a lifestyle center for several reasons, but it is a cousin – or perhaps a grandparent – of the lifestyle concept, and its success is often (mis)attributed to the proliferation and fad-like success of lifestyle centers popping up all over the country these days.  Oakbrook Center is, according to its website, the largest open-air mall in the entire country; and, at over 2 million square feet of leasable space, it’s a believable claim.  It was, also according to the website, voted as the number one shopping destination in all of Illinois.  This claim is a bit more dubious, as it’s also been reported that Woodfield Mall is the  #2 tourist destination in all of Illinois behind Navy Pier.

Semantics aside, Oakbrook Center is a huge mall with mostly upscale – but not ridiculously so – chain stores.  Its anchors include Bloomingdale’s Home, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Sears, and in addition it features oversized locations of your favorite chain upscale retailers – anyone need a 21,000 square-foot Express?  Or how about a 26,000 square-foot Pottery Barn?

But it wasn’t always this way.  Oakbrook Center started out plying to a wider demographic back in 1962, when it opened with Sears, Marshall Fields, and a Jewel Food Store.  Back then, Oakbrook was located on the fringe of the western suburbs, and most of DuPage County was still a largely rural landscape dotted with independent, mostly disconnected cities – which are now the behemoth suburbs of Lombard, Naperville, Wheaton, and so on.

oakbrook-center-14Within a decade after opening, though, Oakbrook Center began its transformation into an upscale destination-mall for the entire Chicagoland area.  This all occured in spite of competition 2 miles down the street in the form of an enclosed mall, Yorkown Center, which opened with 100 stores and three anchors in 1968.  However, unlike some instances of outdoor malls faced with enclosed mall competition throughout the past, Yorktown’s influence and competition did not cause Oakbrook to enclose, as it did for River Oaks Mall in southeast-suburban Calumet City, which enclosed in 1994 after decades as an outdoor mall.

In 1973, a Lord and Taylor was added to the south side of the mall, and upscale Bonwit Teller also opened.  Then, in 1981 an expansion to Oakbrook doubled the size of the mall with a new southeast court featuring upscale anchors I. Magnin, Saks, and Neiman Marcus, and the Jewel Food Store was kicked out.  Bonwit Teller and I. Magnin closed in 1990 and 1991, respectively, but their areas were quickly subdivided into larger-than-your-local-mall editions of Eddie Bauer and others – not to mention a Tiffany and Co. location, just for fun.  Also, in 1991, an expansion north of Sears gave Oakbrook the first Nordstrom location in the midwest, as well as a two-level mall expansion both totaling almost 500,000 square feet.

Throughout the rest of the 90s and into the 00s, Oakbrook Center continued it rapacious upscaling, solidifying its position into the destination mall it is today.  Saks closed their doors in 2002 amid a nationwide cutback, but the parent company quickly replaced its location with a Bloomie’s Home Store, which opened in 2003.  Finally, the Marshall Fields went the way of the dodo in 2006 when Macy’s bought them and unified all their nameplates under the Macy’s banner – we’re still kind of sore about that one.

oakbrook-center-30Today, Oakbrook Center is – together with Woodfield Mall in the northwest suburbs and Michigan Avenue downtown – part of a trifecta of uber-regional shopping destinations serving the Chicagoland area.  The upscale stores featured at the mall are a collection slightly beneath the boutique-style, exorbitant stores at malls such as South Coast Plaza in Orange County, California and the traditional mix of mall stores found at other larger malls like Woodfield and the Mall of America.  This mix of stores, combined with the mall’s sheer size and location – smack dab in the middle of the Chicagoland metropolitan area and at the crux of I-88, I-294, and I-290 -offers shoppers from the entire area and beyond easy access to the mall.

Once again, Oakbrook Center is not a lifestyle center; instead, it is a regional mall that happens to not have a roof.  Its pedestrian corridors don’t have cars or parking – instead, they contain beautifully landscaped gardens, trees, and fountains.  Its anchors are the traditional behemoths from years gone by.  No doubt, though, outdoor malls like Oakbrook have been an inspiration for the lifestyle centers of today.  Oakbrook does have an office tower, but it isn’t quite the mixed-use ‘community of tomorrow’ and also has no residential component, nor even much entertainment for that matter – a seven-screen movie theater closed in 2003 after 16 years of business.  Oakbrook does, however, have a relatively high number of destinational restaurants, something many traditional enclosed malls lack and many lifestyle centers focus on.

While Oakbrook is not a lifestyle center, it is, perhaps, an inspiration or model of what a successful lifestyle center should – or could – be, with its aesthetics as well as its selection of stores secured soundly in place.  In fact, many commenters on Yelp and other sites have noted they enjoy shopping in an environment with an established sense of place and community; however, interestingly some of them wish the mall was enclosed and one commenter even said she goes to Yorktown if the weather is bad.  If the fad of lifestyle centers is the result of merely imparting the convenience and open air aspect from established, successful centers like Oakbrook, then their focus is short sighted and ultimately misled.  Ultimately, successful modern developments like lifestyle centers must not cheaply take successful ideas from places like Oakbrook part-and-parcel, and will instead realize the lesson that architecture,  immaculate gardens, fountains, and trees are as much a part of a shopper’s experience as having a great selection of stores or the best parking spot.

Golf Mill Shopping Center; Niles, Illinois

Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles, IL 

Niles, Illinois is an inner-ring suburb of Chicago located about 15 miles from the Loop.  With nearly 30,000 residents, Niles is a typical inner-ring suburb with a large post-war housing stock and lots of mid-mod artifacts as well as the rather kitschy replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, built in 1934. 

The main commercial street in Niles is Milwaukee Avenue, (IL Route 21) which slices through middle of the village from northwest to southeast.  The anchor of this commercial strip is the 1 million square-foot Golf Mill Shopping Center, located at the north edge of the village at the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Golf Road.  

The story of Golf Mill Center goes all the way back to the 1950s.  In 1959, Milwaukee-Golf Development began construction on a project to bring a large-scale shopping center to 88 acres of farmland at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Golf Road.  The center opened in 1960, and was named, rather appropriately, after the intersection on which it sits.  A two-level, 213,000 square-foot Sears anchored the open-air shopping center with 400,000 square feet of retail space on both the north and south sides.  According to Mall Hall of Fame, some early stores included Hillman’s, Lytton’s, Walgreen Drug, Lamm Shoes, Richman Brothers, Lerner Shops, a Woolworth 5 and 10 and National supermarket.  There was also a single-screen movie theatre and a Sears Auto Center. 

Golf Mill Shopping Center Target in Niles, ILIn 1966, JCPenney tacked on a two-level, 190,000 square-foot store at the south end of Golf Mill Shopping Center.  More interestingly, at the north end of the mall a live theatre venue called the Mill Run Playhouse and Millionaire’s Lounge opened in 1965.  The Millionaire’s Lounge became a notorious gangster hangout throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  If only those walls could talk!

The open-air Golf Mill Center enjoyed success during the 1970s and into the 1980s, even as larger enclosed malls such as Woodfield and Randhurst operated nearby; meanwhile, the much larger nearby outdoor venue Old Orchard Center solidified a grasp on tenanting upscale and exclusive retailers for itself, attracting shoppers from across the region.  In order to differentiate itself from Old Orchard, and compete with the others, the owners of Golf Mill Center decided to fully enclose the mall in 1985.  During this renovation, the Mill Run Playhouse was demolished after closing in 1983, and an 11-stall food court opened near the front center of the mall along Milwaukee Avenue.  In addition, Chicago-based Mainstreet Stores was added as a third anchor to the north end of the mall where Mill Run Playhouse was; however, in 1989 this location was re-branded as Kohls because Kohls acquired Mainstreet in order to enter the Chicago market. 

Once the enclosed mall was built, the mall became a rather unique design anomaly – not just in the Chicago area, either, as Golf Mill is one of only a handful of malls we can think of where the in-line space is “bisected” by a large anchor – Sears.  In addition, the cylindrical Golf Mill office tower – designed to look like the surface of a giant golf ball – hinges on the mall in an interesting and unique fashion.  The elevators to access the office tower come out right into the mall, on a short side wing leading from the main mall to an entrance near the south end and JCPenney.  There are also some neat skylights where one can peer up at the office tower looming above from within the mall.  We can think of at least a few malls with attached office towers and bisecting anchors, but rarely are they together and as interesting as this mall. 

Throughout the past decade, numerous changes have taken place at Golf Mill Center in order to continue viability for the aging mall.  In 1998, a 100,000 square-foot one level Target store was added to the north end of Golf Mill Center, joining Kohls at that end and becoming a popular boon to the mall.  Then, in 2004, Rouse Company, the Maryland based owner of the mall, was acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, who continue to own and manage the mall as of 2008. 

Golf Mill Shopping Center directory in Niles, ILIn 2006, General Growth decided to embark upon an expansion and renovation of the 20 year old enclosed mall structure.  The first addition was a 40,000 square-foot Value City Furniture mini-anchor, which opened in the north half of the mall in early 2005.  Prior to the Value City opening, most of the north half of the mall was cleared of stores in order to prepare the space.  In addition, a Kerasotes 12 theatre multiplex at the back of the mall opened in November 2006, and throughout 2006 and 2007 the exterior and interior of Golf Mill Center received numerous upgrades.  Curiously, though, most of these $8 million upgrades have taken place in only half the mall, between Sears and JCPenney, where a brighter floor was installed and the older light posts were removed.  The north half of the mall, between Sears and Kohls/Target, wasn’t renovated at all and is currently completely dead aside from the anchors.  Also, a popular California-based sit-down chain restaurant Elephant Bar opened in the food court, and the childrens’ play area near JCPenney was removed and relocated to the theatre wing.   

For now, Golf Mill Shopping Center is a viable mall and despite competition and upgrades, it continues to serve a very important niche in the middle class near-north and near-northwest suburbs of Chicago.  Now that Randhurst has closed for redevelopment, the nearest malls providing competition are Old Orchard and Northbrook, which are upscale, and Woodfield, which is a considerable distance and serves a different niche altogether.  So, even if some rather harsh Yelpers disagree, Golf Mill will soldier on.

We visited Golf Mill Shopping Center over the years and took the pictures featured here.  The first set, from October 2001, features a randomly stumbled upon concert by pop-wonder Brooke Allison.  So, enjoy that, and as usual, feel free to leave your own comments and experiences with the mall.

October 2001:

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September 2008:

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November 2008:

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