Oakland Mall; Troy, Michigan

Oakland Mall opened in 1968, flanking the northwest corner of 14 Mile Rd. and John R. Rd., adjacent to Interstate 75, which was completed just prior to the mall’s construction. The mall was built on the southern edge of the city of Troy, a large northern suburb of Detroit located in Oakland County, the mall’s ostensible namesake. Troy is located 15 miles north of downtown Detroit, and has a population of 80,000 as of 2010. Troy is home to numerous corporations and white collar jobs that have been purged out of the city over the past fifty years or so.

Our latest post takes us to Detroit, a city marked by a history of innovation, a currency of blight, and a future painted with question marks.  As one of the country’s most auto-centric large cities, the Detroit area relied heavily upon a model of development favoring shopping malls and suburban sprawl from the very beginning.  This isn’t surprising, considering the city invented the modern automobile production process; it seems very fitting the development patterns would favor cars and lower-density development.  Even the city itself, as derelict as it is today, is unlike other eastern cities in that it is not at all dense away from its downtown core, owing to the automobile mantra of its development: numerous small single family homes for blue collar auto workers, and a good network of inter-urban freeways connecting them to their jobs via automobile.  This all happened even before the suburban explosion changed the way Detroit was forever.

The Detroit metropolitan area became dramatically over-retailed as socioeconomic processes such as White Flight dovetailed with the region’s auto manufacturing success following World War II, establishing booming suburban areas, mostly in Macomb and Oakland counties to the north of the city, and in west suburban Wayne County, the county containing Detroit.

As time went on, Detroit went fallow as investments neglected the city while the suburbs blossomed and flourished.  Whites moved up and out of the city to better suburbs, as impoverished blacks had to remain in the city while its infrastructure crumbled.  These processes began to act on metro Detroit so early and with such fervor that few large-scale retail developments were ever even constructed in the city itself.  There is certainly nothing resembling a traditional mall in Detroit, and the few retail developments that do exist are mostly along Telegraph Road in the far northwest part of the city, or along the southern half of 8 Mile Road, which marks the northern border of the city.  Nearly all of the large-scale retail development has occurred in the suburbs.

It’s fascinating to me how segregated the Detroit metropolitan area is, with an economic racial disparity to boot.  The two counties representing north suburban Detroit, Oakland and Macomb, are ten percent and three percent black, respectively, while the city of Detroit is 83 percent black.  The per capita income in the city of Detroit is $14,000 while the per capita incomes in Oakland and Macomb Counties average $28,000.  Hugely similar disparities exist in similar ways for crime, access to education, access to jobs, etc.  I realize this is a retail blog, but a socioeconomic history is always visible in the built landscape over time, and it informs the way retail sites behave too.

In keeping with its auto-centric theme, and similar to how many suburbs nationwide were constructed, most of Detroit’s suburbs were built with automobile commuting in mind.  However, as growth in the region slowed due to economic factors and competition in the auto industry, so too did the demand for retail in the region. In the past ten years or so, metro Detroit has lost at least four major regional or super-regional shopping malls, in addition to at least as many enclosed neighborhood centers.  As a whole, metro Detroit is shrinking, having lost 3.5% of its population since 2000, one of only five of the fifty largest U.S. metropolitan areas to shrink during that time period (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, and New Orleans were the others).  However, most of these losses occurred in the city of Detroit; all other counties in the Detroit region have reported gains in population.

Whether you happen to mourn the loss of these shopping malls or celebrate their demise in the eyes of progress, I think most people can agree that these places provided a solid foundation for memories and community-building for at least a couple generations of Detroiters.  After all, they were/are the de-facto downtowns that most of these suburbs lack.  For this post, we’re going to stray from the failures in the market for once and instead focus on a success: Oakland Mall.

Oakland Mall opened in 1968, flanking the northwest corner of 14 Mile Rd. and John R. Rd., adjacent to Interstate 75, which was completed just prior to the mall’s construction.  The mall was built on the southern edge of the city of Troy, a large northern suburb of Detroit located in Oakland County, the mall’s ostensible namesake.  Troy is located 15 miles north of downtown Detroit, and has a population of 80,000 as of 2010.  Troy is home to numerous corporations and white collar jobs that have been purged out of the city over the past fifty years or so.

Oakland Mall originally opened as a smaller dumbbell shaped mall, anchored by Detroit-based stalwart Hudson’s on the western end, and Sears on the eastern end.  A Detroit-based S.S. Kresge store was in there somewhere too.  Sears actually pre-dates the mall, having opened in 1965 as a standalone store.  Developers must have seen the centralized location and recent opening of I-75 as a no-brainer.  In addition, Wrigley Supermarket flanked the north side of the mall in between the two anchors.

One year later, in 1969, a small upscale mall called Somerset Mall opened about 5 miles away, also located in Troy.  Anchored by an existing Saks Fifth Avenue store which opened in 1967, the small mall was also anchored by Bonwit Teller.  This mall and Oakland Mall have both thrived in Troy ever since, despite massive expansion efforts on the part of both centers.

During the 1970s, little changed at Oakland Mall as other centers were built in and around metro Detroit.  Wrigley Supermarket closed and was converted to a JCPenney in the late 1970s, and the mall remained a simple dumbbell.  Meanwhile, the massive Lakeside Mall opened in 1976 just 12 miles northeast of Oakland Mall in neighboring Sterling Heights.

In 1980, amid pressure from competition and ample growing demands, Oakland Mall embarked on a massive expansion.  The extant JCPenney/former supermarket was demolished for a new northern wing.  Unlike the original one-level mall, the expansion was two stories and featured a new JCPenney as well as a movie theater.  This made for a rather unique setup, as the two-level expansion wing seems to miraculously sprout from the original one-level mall.

During the 1990s, competition from other centers could have put a strain on Oakland Mall, but didn’t.  In 1996, Somerset Mall embarked on a massive expansion project, adding a new three level building across the street from the original mall, more than quadrupling the center’s size.  It was renamed Somerset Collection, and became the most upscale mall in the state.  This repositioning didn’t hurt Oakland Mall as much as it could have, considering the two malls are only five miles apart, because Oakland Mall is positioned to be more mid-range.  Instead, the malls have continued to complement one another.

In 1998, major competition also came with the opening of Great Lakes Crossing, a mostly off-price/outlet mall that opened in Auburn Hills.  Fortunately for Oakland Mall, Great Lakes Crossing was both far enough away and not as much of a hit as expected.

Oakland Mall’s more recent history is mostly one of anchor changes and minor updates, as the mall has continued to enjoy success amid fierce competition.  In 1987, Kresge closed, and in the late 1990s a food court was added where a former Burger King and Godfather’s Pizza stood.

In 2000, the movie theater closed, and was later converted to Steve and Barry’s, which itself closed in 2009 only to be replaced recently by Michigan’s first Famous Labels, a similar off-price discounter.

In 2001, Hudson’s became Marshall Field’s, as Target Corporation rebranded all of its main line department stores after its most famous Chicago nameplate.  That became moot, however, in 2006, when Macy’s acquired Marshall Field’s and rebranded them as Macy’s.

Also interesting to note is that in 2004 Lord and Taylor was interested in adding an anchor store at Oakland Mall, but lost interest pretty quickly in the process.  This would have been an interesting addition to the mall, as L&T is significantly higher end than most of the stores here, and also curious because they already had a store at Lakeside Mall.  And, at the time, there was also one at Fairlane Town Center, which closed in 2006.

I first visited Oakland Mall in 1992, on a family trip to Michigan.  I remember seeing the old massive pylon, before it was toned down to muted modern standards later on, and I remember being fascinated that the third wing of the mall sprouted from one to two levels somewhat spontaneously from the original mall corridor.  While the mall has received a few cosmetic updates, it’s been pretty much the same for over thirty years.  It’s still successful, and provides a mid-market complement to the massively upscale Somerset Collection located just 5 miles away.  It’s also held its own against other developments in Oakland County, and will continue to be a major player on the scene as long as it remains current.

I took the pictures featured here in June 2011.



Orchards Mall; Benton Charter Township, Michigan

The Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor, Michigan opened in October 1979. The mall was built on the site of a former apple orchard, giving it its name. The location of The Orchards Mall is less than a mile from Interstate 94. In 1979, when the mall opened, most of the area surrounding the mall was vacant or farmland. Benton Harbor is located next to the city of St. Joseph, Benton Harbor’s twin city, home of The Whirlpool Corporation.

The following submission came to us from Michael Winford of Michigan.  If you have any questions about his submission or wish to contact him, please email him here.

The Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor, Michigan opened in October 1979. The mall was built on the site of a former apple orchard, giving it its name. The location of The Orchards Mall is less than a mile from Interstate 94. In 1979, when the mall opened, most of the area surrounding the mall was vacant or farmland. Benton Harbor is located next to the city of St. Joseph, Benton Harbor’s twin city, home of The Whirlpool Corporation.

Prior to the opening of The Orchards Mall, locals from Benton Harbor and St. Joseph shopped at Fairplain Plaza. The plaza was located less than a mile away from The Orchards Mall. Fairplain Plaza was the usual open air plaza of the 60’s/70’s era. When The Orchards Mall opened the Plaza was still doing decent, but past its prime. The plaza featured a Woolworth, Goldblatts, as well as a Kroger grocery store, Rite Aid Drug store, a five screen cinema, and a Big Boy restaurant. A good handful of merchants made the move from the plaza to the mall. Other merchants would continue to move from the plaza to the mall in the years to come, leaving the plaza to become a ghost town by the late 1980’s.

When Orchards Mall opened it featured three anchor stores: J.C. Penney, Sears and Walgreen’s. J.C. Penney and Sears both moved from their downtown Benton Harbor locations. Downtown Benton Harbor had been seeing some large economic decline for some time. Also located in the mall was York Steakhouse along with approximately 10 food outlets in the food court. Adjacent to the food court was an arcade.

The Orchards Mall has always been a mid scale mall, nothing too fancy. No fountains or marble and only one story. The mall used to have quite a bit of live plants and trees indoors, but over the years they have all disappeared, most likely due to cost cutting measures. There are four entrances that lead directly into the mall, with about 60 to 70 retail spaces. The Orchards Mall has always featured a food court, something that didn’t become common in malls until the 1980’s. The mall’s color scheme was the typical 70’s/80’s brown and orange.  I remember my parents taking my brother and I there quite often, especially during back to school time and Christmas. I remember the shiny brown tile on the floor and the orange fabric on the benches. There was also something like a dugout in front of J.C. Penney. This was always a fun place to play as a kid. This dugout area was where they would have special events such as Santa at Christmas time.

The mall remained quite busy throughout the 1980’s. The closest malls are the University Park Mall in Mishawaka, IN located about 40 miles southwest and Crossroads Mall located in Portage, MI about 47 miles east of Benton Harbor. With both malls being so far away, they were not too much of a threat to Orchards. By the late 1980’s the poverty and crime from downtown Benton Harbor started to carry over into the area of the mall. It didn’t become a major problem until the mid to late 1990’s when things really started to take a turn for the worst.

Over the years the mall featured many stores including Gap,County Seat, The Hang Up, Baker Shoes, Fox Jewelers, Carlton Cards, Glamour Shots, Card America, Hallmark, Chess King, Kinney Shoe store, Famous Foot ware, So Fro Fabrics, Jean Nicole, Lerner New York, Banner Books, Foot Locker, Spencer’s, Recordtown, Camelot, FYE, Imperial Sports, Hickory Farms, K B Toys, Gordon’s Jewelry Store, The Original Cookie, Sherman’s Ice Cream, Afterthoughts, Command Performance, Regis, Candy Candy, Foxmoore, Richman’s, Gem Dandy’s,Casual Corner, Shoe Sensation, Factory Brand Shoes, Thom McAn Shoes, The Buckle, Radio Shack, The Great Steak and Potato Company, and Subway.

York Steakhouse went out of business in the mid to late 1980’s. That location sat empty until around 1990 when Bonanza filled that spot. A year or two later Bonanza changed it’s name to Ponderosa Steakhouse. Ponderosa stuck around until the mid 1990’s when they closed their doors. Walgreen’s moved out of the mall in the early 90’s when they built a bigger location about a 1/4 mile down the road from the mall. The former Walgreen’s location remained vacant for quite a few years. In the early 1990’s a few empty store fronts became visible, but the mall was still running at least at a 70/80 percent occupancy rate.

A little hope for The Orchards Mall came when Elder Beerman, a department store from Dayton, Ohio, announced plans to build a store connecting to the mall. Some said Elder Beerman was a bit too upscale for the mall, while others were happy to see a third anchor store moving in. The Elder Beerman store opened in the fall of 1992. The store was much nicer than the J.C. Penney and Sears at Orchards Mall as well as a little bit pricier than the two other anchor stores. Prior to the opening of the Elder Beerman store the mall underwent a major renovation. The mall was completely re tiled in white, mauve, and teal flooring. The dugout areas were filled in to be made level with the rest of the mall’s surface. All the orange fabric benches were removed, and were replaced with oak benches. Palm trees were placed throughout the mall and new tables and chairs were put in the food court. With the remodel complete and 3 anchor stores in the mall it seemed the Orchards Mall was making a bit of a come back, which unfortunately only lasted for a few years.

By the mid to late 1990’s the crime and poverty from downtown made its way into the area of the mall. Robberies in surrounding businesses drove away customers. The Aldi store located on an outlot near the mall was robbed at gun point, and the manager at a Red Lobster located in an outlot right in front of J.C. Penney was murdered. Shortly after the murder at Red Lobster, Darden, the parent company of Red Lobster, chose to close this location, leaving the building empty. All of this was not good business for the mall, and many shoppers started driving to the two other malls which were a ways away but were in better areas, with more stores to offer. There were also a few reports of muggings of mall shoppers in the parking lot. The 3 anchor stores remained through the 1990’s, but many of the smaller stores in the mall closed their doors.

By 2000, the mall was only running at about a 50% occupancy rate, and most of the national chains within the mall had closed their doors for good. One exception was Bath and Body Works, which opened in the mall around the mid 2000’s. In the late 2000’s Jo Ann fabrics moved into the mall, filling the former Walgreen’s space and overflowing into a few of the neighboring vacant stores. It took the mall nearly 15 to 20 years to fill the former Walgreen’s location. For a brief time, The Orchards Mall boasted 4 anchor stores, although many of the stores in the mall remained vacant.

In 2009 Sears announced they would not be renewing their lease and closed their doors, leaving the mall with only 3 anchor stores. The owner of the Sears building was a different owner than the rest of the mall. The owner of the former Sears building decided to donate the building to a local church. The owners of the mall tried to fight it, but they lost the fight and the building was awarded to the church. Because of this situation, there is no hope for the mall to attract another anchor store to that location. The Sears optical and driving school still remain but they moved into empty stores in the mall near J.C. Penney.

The Buckle closed their doors in January 2010 as well as B. Dalton bookstore. As of February 2011 the 3 anchor stores still remain. J.C. Penney is in desperate need of updating, dirty carpet that looks worn out in spots, mismatched linoleum that looks like it has been there since the early 1990’s.

Also, the decor in the mall continues to show its age with a bland color scheme from the 1990’s. All of the live plants are gone, and some of the oak benches look like they have seen better days. The Orchards Mall has not seen any updating in almost two decades. The food court is a very sad site with only one food outlet remaining – a small independent Mexican restaurant and some vending machines placed in front of the former Sherman’s ice cream location. Most of the tables and chairs have been removed, since they are no longer needed.

Beyond the 3 remaining anchor stores the national chains that are still currently located inside the mall are AT&T, GNC, Payless ShoeSource, The Finish Line, Bath and Body Works, Rainbow Fashions, Claire’s, Deb, Zales, and Man Alive. I believe this mall was one of the first locations for The Man Alive mens store chain. That most likely explains why they are still open at this location. Most of the mall storefronts are empty and a handful of the empty locations are now spaces for non for profit organizations to raise awareness for their cause. There are also a few independent retailers in the mall such as a travel agency, a nail boutique, a store called This N That, a store called Odds and Ends, and a cowboy/leather store called Off the Edge, just to give you an idea of what type of interesting independent stores this mall has to offer.

I very rarely go to this mall anymore due to the lack of what they have to offer. I drive about 47 miles in the opposite direction to The Crossroads Mall located in Portage, Michigan. I did, however, make a trip to the Orchards Mall yesterday and that is when the current pictures were taken. It’s sad to see this mall die such a slow and painful death.  I wish there was some type of redevelopment plan in the works, but, no word of that. The future of the mall doesn’t look too bright, with the poverty and crime levels still somewhat high for the Benton Harbor area. Michigan also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. I figure they will just let the mall continue to die with its empty store fronts and 1990’s decor.  As for J.C. Penney, Elder Beerman, and Jo Ann Fabrics, I don’t see them putting much money into these stores in the near future. On the same token, if it wasn’t for these 3 anchor stores I believe this mall would have closed a long time ago. Lucky for the mall, these 3 anchor stores still remain, but who knows for how long?

I have included some pictures of The Orchards Mall, some from the past and some from the present day. I apologize for the glare on a few of the pics but I had to take a picture of pictures of the mall’s past. If anyone has any more info or pics of the mall I’d love to hear from you. I was born in 1981 so I was just a child in the 1980’s. I tried to do some research about this mall but wasn’t able to find much on the Internet. Most of what I have written had to come from memory and from family and friends who were around before the mall’s opening.

Prangeway: I’ve also been to this mall several times.  The first time was over ten years ago when Caldor and I visited together, and we were amazed, even then, at the lackluster offerings.  I haven’t been back in recent years, but from the looks of it the mall has gone downhill fast.  Now that Sears has departed, I fear that the situation here is grim.  One comment on Yelp regarding this mall sums it up pretty succinctly:

“Sorry to be so harsh, but this is the worst mall I’ve ever seen. Only about 40% of the stores are actually occupied, there are shady characters constantly roaming around, and the last time I was there there was a petting zoo with animals peeing all over the floors. Honestly, I will never go back if I can help it.”

What’s most interesting to me about this area are the demographics and the sharp juxtaposition between Benton Harbor and its twin city, St. Joseph.  The two cities are similar in size and located next to one another, on either side of the St. Joseph River, yet otherwise they’re completely different.  St. Joseph is 90% white, and has a vibrant downtown commercial district with many shops and restaurants, and is popular with tourists.  Benton Harbor is 90% black, and while the downtown has experienced a nascent renaissance of sorts, it’s not yet to the level of St. Joseph.  Furthermore, Benton Harbor has been frought with socioeconomic problems and blight.  For such a small city, Benton Harbor has been dealt a fiercely hard blow, especially as the economy of Michigan at large suffers with stagnation and unemployment at a pace greater than the national level.

While The Orchards Mall and its surrounding retail corridor is commonly thought to be in Benton Harbor, it is actually in Benton Charter Township, not in the city itself.  Benton Charter Township is an incorporated township with home-rule advantages, making it as separate from the city of Benton Harbor as can be.  The demographics of Benton Charter Township indicate a 50/50 split between blacks and whites, and the income levels are more favorable.  In addition to the large retail district around the mall, Whirlpool Corporation is also within the township.  If these entities were within Benton Harbor itself, the addition to the tax base would probably help the city recover greatly.

As far as other retail competition, there are the two better malls Michael indicated, both located about 40 miles away near Kalamazoo and South Bend, Indiana.  There’s also another mall in Michigan City, Indiana, also about 40 miles away, but that mall isn’t anything anyone would drive that distance for, and we’ve featured it here.  Michigan City also has a popular outlet mall, though, and both Grand Rapids and Chicago are located an hour to an hour and a half away.  In addition, downtown St. Joseph also has many popular shops and restaurants that attract both locals and tourists alike.

The Orchards Mall also suffers from a small trade area, serving only Berrien County.  With a population of 160,000, Berrien County isn’t large enough to sustain a regional mall anymore, especially as it’s hemmed in on two sides by better malls just 40 minutes away.  Even though super-regional malls like the ones in South Bend and Kalamazoo continue to have success, smaller malls like this one have fallen out of favor on a national level.

As always, feel free to leave your own comments about The Orchards Mall.

Elsewhere on the web:

Vintage photos of Orchards Mall (Taken as photos of photos in March 2011 by Michael Winford):

Photos from March 2011 (Taken by Michael Winford):


Universal Mall; Warren, Michigan

Universal Mall in Warren, MI 

Warren, Michigan, Detroit’s largest suburb by population, is located directly north of the city of Detroit in Macomb County.  As a result of the post-war industrial boom, Warren grew explosively from World War II into the 1970s, while the manufacturing industry around Detroit reached its peak.  People moved en masse from the city to these inner-core suburbs including Warren during this period as they got better jobs and made more money, and also because of white flight.  After the 1970s, however, Warren fell victim to suburban sprawl itself as even newer, more affluent communities developed to the north and west, and population has declined in Warren every decade since 1970.  Unlike Detroit, though, Warren has kept a steady, middle class base.  In fact, Warren is ranked first in the nation for resident longevity at 35.5 years, which has kept the community from falling into horrible disrepair like its ill-reputed cousin to the south.

Universal Mall directory in Warren, MIBy the mid-1960s, the suburban explosion had given Warren over 100,000 residents (compared with 22,000 in 1940) and the growth wasn’t about to stop, so retail developers eyed the city for a new, large-scale development to compete with other then-new Detroit metro malls like Northland, Eastland, and Macomb. Universal City, the mall which preceded Universal Mall, opened in 1965 at the corner of Dequindre and 12 mile Roads, in southwest Warren (the Oakland County community of Madison Heights is directly across Dequindre from the mall).  It opened anchored by Montgomery  Ward on the north end, and Detroit-based Federal Department store at its south end, with an enclosed section of shops linking the two anchors and a large Woolworths near the northern end as well.  In 1979, Federal closed its doors and became Crowley’s, another long-running Detroit-based chain.   

During the 1980s, even though growth had peaked in Warren about a decade earlier, an expansion was planned for Universal Mall to compete with existing area malls and newer centers which were emerging as category killers.  The new wing hinged off the mall’s center court to the west (toward Dequindre) and featured many stores culminating in a new anchor, Mervyn’s.  Following this addition, the mall was renamed and re-imaged (for the last time?) as Universal Mall in or around 1987. 

Universal Mall in Warren, MI

The 1990s were a period of steady decline for Universal Mall, culminating with an occupancy rate of less than 40 percent by the end of the decade as shoppers preferred Oakland Mall and other super-regional competitors to Universal Mall’s value-oriented and local retailers.  In 1997, Woolworths closed up shop nationwide, leaving a large vacancy in the northern part of the mall.  In 1999, the entire Crowley’s chain went under and the store, which was a Detroit mainstay for decades, was replaced with Value City in 2000.  In 1999 and 2000, mini-anchor stores A.J. Wright and Burlington Coat Factory opened in the mall as well, with Burlington replacing the dead Woolworths.  So far, so good. 

Universal Mall pylon in Warren, MI1999 also saw the mall’s ownership change hands, resulting in mild refurbishments to the three-decade-old facility while embarking on an intensive marketing campaign to let shoppers know of the updates.  By 2001, occupancy rose past 80 percent again and things seemed to be looking up for Universal Mall, as the new owners attempted to reinvent the indoor shopping mall’s concept – from mid-tier regional center to an off-price destinational and neighborhood mall.  The revival showed developers that the inner-core functional obsolescence of Universal Mall, and others like it, could be changed with a little tender loving care.  Once again, so far, so good, and the mall stayed buoyant.

However, the period of revival was all too brief, as 2001 was the beginning of several major, repeat blows to Universal Mall.  Long-time anchor Montgomery Ward shut their doors nationwide that year, including this store, which as of 2008 remains dark despite ruminations of renovation.  As a result, stores in this northern wing began closing, and in 2006 western anchor Mervyn’s departed the Detroit area, closing this store and causing vacancies in the western wing.  In March 2008, southern anchor Value City closed as that chain went through a round of bankruptcy closings, leaving Universal Mall without any of its traditional anchors (the theatres, A.J. Wright and Burlington Coat Factory are still open as of May 2008, but are located along the mall corridors).

Universal Mall in Warren, MI Universal Mall food court area in Warren, MI

It seems as though Universal’s days are numbered in its current state.  In fact, in June 2007 the state of Michigan OK’d a brownfield designation to the largely vacant mall, which will freeze the mall’s property taxes at current rates, so revenue gained from any redevelopment or renovation which betters the mall will go straight to the owners instead of through them to taxes.  These incentives should allow for the asbestos and lead removal at the site, demolition of the current structure and building of a new 600,000 square-foot retail center on the site.  The new center, which will not be enclosed, will feature some sort of strip mall-looking thing, a lone 100,000 square-foot anchor building, and a 48,000 square-foot theatre complex.

Universal Mall theatres in Warren, MIThe current decor at Universal Mall is archaeic: the cross-like design of the mall’s concourses, with each concourse culminating in an anchor (or movie theatre), is relatively simple, but the floor tiles, walls, and rows of windows near the ceiling are delightfully retro.  Whatever updates or rehab was done in 1999 must have been simple and very cosmetic (ie. a coat of paint, repairing broken things and cracks), as most of the structure looks quite a bit more dated, aside from the western wing which was added in the late 1980s. 

As of May 27, 2008, one of the western entrances to the mall was shuttered for redevelopment, and it looked like most of the handful of stores in the mall were also going out of business that week.  Some stores, including the mini-anchors and the theatres, had no such notice of closing anytime soon.  Also, the northern portion of the mall hallway after A.J. Wright to the former Wards was closed permanently for redevelopment.  Indeed the mall must be closing soon, as this photoset from December 2007, just six months ago, shows an operational food court and chairs set up for diners.  Today, the food court is completely empty and looks like it’s been prepared for pre-demolition. 

Universal Mall closing sign in Warren, MI  Universal Mall old Coney Island in Warren, MI

The pictures featured here were taken on May 25, 2008.  If anyone has any information about the redevelopment (I couldn’t find any current articles on the internet) or when the bulk of the mall is actually closing, feel free to drop a line here.  In addition, you can check out a few digicam videos we made which are posted on YouTube.  And, as always, feel free to leave your own comments, personal experiences, or memories that have to do with the mall in the comments section as well.

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Livonia Mall; Livonia, Michigan


In the suburbs of the Motor City, the mall reigns supreme.  So much so, in fact, that the retail hubs in the Detroit area are located completely within the suburban realm.  There are no major retail draws in the city of Detroit today, which isn’t surprising because Detroit is largely a vastly depressing urban wasteland.  Though urban revival attempts continue, much of the city of Detroit is the most horrific example of rust belt economics and white flight.  As factories moved out of the area, taking tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of jobs with them, the city went fallow.  Today, large swaths of Detroit remain completely abandoned.  Entire city blocks which once had houses and activity have essentially returned to nature as prairie grasses and wilderness has grown up through condemned structures, many of which were arsoned.  Poverty is also an issue in Detroit, as over one-quarter of the city is beneath the poverty line.  

Despite the condition of the city itself, there is a relatively healthy economy in the Detroit metro area suburbs.  In fact, a stark contrast exists as many areas of northern and western Oakland county, along with areas by the St. Clair shores such as the various Grosse Pointes have some of the highest per-capita incomes in the United States. 

Livonia, Michigan is a thoroughly blue collar, middle-class suburb directly west of the city of Detroit.  With a population of about 100,000, Livonia sprang up from the dust during the post-war building boom.  In fact, it ceased growing completely during the 1970s, and has been shrinking ever-so-slightly since as people move farther out to newer and “better” suburbs.

Livonia Mall former Child World/Children's Palace castle in Livonia, MILivonia was home to three enclosed malls until fairly recently.  Wonderland Mall, which was enclosed in 1985, closed in 2003 after a protracted period of failure and was finally demolished in 2006 for a Wal-Mart Supercenter.  Laurel Park Place, which trends upscale, opened in 1989 in far northwestern Livonia along I-275, and is very successful.  Livonia Mall, their third mall, opened in 1964 at 7 Mile Road and Middlebelt.  Anchored by Sears, Kresge and Kroger, the mall grew in pieces over the years and decades.  A southern wing was added anchored by Detroit-based Crowley’s in 1972.  Nine years later in 1981 Mervyn’s arrived with a new northern wing.  K-Mart closed Kresge in 1987 with the rest of the Kresge locations, and soon after a Child World/Children’s Palace opened up in the spot which lasted until the early to mid 1990s.  In 2000, the Crowley’s chain dissolved and became Crowley’s Value City, which is now just Value City and part of the Columbus, Ohio based chain.  In 2006, Mervyns left the north end of the mall as the chain pulled out of Michigan and other regions to focus on their core western and southern markets.  Today, only Sears and Value City remain, with a rather ragged roster of in-line tenants.

In terms of decor and design, Livonia Mall is very dark and outdated inside and out.  It hasn’t actually been remodeled since it opened, so there are many wooden store facades and ancient signage.  A favorite is the Koney Island location near one of the southern entrances, which is clearly a decades-old fixture in the mall and still in operation.  Also, the mall features a unique coffee shop-style restaurant right smack dab in the middle of the mall near the northern end.  The Child World/Children’s Palace distinctive castle design is also still present at the western end of the mall, which was most recently a paintball facility.  Another interesting feature is the way the mall corridor snakes around sears and exits beside it, making the mall significantly larger.  Also, several ancient fountains exist within the mall which are great throwbacks to a bygone era of retail aesthetics.

Livonia Mall directory 2006 in Livonia, MISo what’s killied Livonia Mall?  Aside from the decor issues and outdatedness, which definitely accounts significantly for the loss of traffic, the mall’s roster and offerings cannot compete with the newer mall across town at Laurel Park Place.  In addition, other nearby west suburban malls like Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn and Westland Center in Westland have updated and modernized continuously despite being decades old.  Shoppers continue to flock there, and the competition from all of these, as well as super-regional draws in Troy and Novi are sucking traffic away in droves.  Livonia Mall might sustain itself and avoid the sinking-ship phenomenon, but only if it repositions itself as a successful ancillary to the larger malls. 

In 2006, plans were announced to disenclose the outdated mall and build the ever-popular Lifestyle Center in its place, but they ultimately fell through because negotiations failed with the Sears anchor, which owns its space separate from the mall. 

As of May 2007, the mall is still in operation.  Many of the in-line stores are increasingly local stores and services, rather than traditional national tenants.  Livonia Mall is currently ailing, and our prediction is that the mall will go downhill significantly fast in the near future if rehab isn’t done.  We’ll put this one on death watch for now, but at least we can enjoy the pictures.  

UPDATE 5/27/08: It’s over; Livonia Mall is closing permanently on 5/31/08.  According to one report, most of the mall will be demolished during Summer 2008, aside from Jo-Ann Fabrics and Sears.  What’s to come is anyone’s guess, but we’ll keep you posted.

Livonia Mall in April 2001:

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Livonia Mall in July 2006:

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Maple Hill Mall; Kalamazoo, Michigan

Maple Hill Mall in Kalamazoo, Michigan

When Prangeway and I were taking a lot of road trips in 1998 and 1999, I was always trying to convince him (him being the, um, the one who owned a car) to go to the other malls in a lot of the random midwestern cities we visited. It seems that each time we tried, we hit pay dirt. Kalamazoo was a great example.

The Maple Hill Mall was located on route 43 on Kalamazoo’s west side, separate from the more successful and larger mall in Portage, on the south side. Built in 1971, Maple Hill Mall was the dominant mall in the Kalamazoo area for some time before the 1981 opening of Portage’s Crossroads Mall. The two malls coexisted for some time, but Maple Hill Mall went into decline in the 1990s. Apparently there was a plan around 2000 to try and revitalize the mall, but the loss of both Steketee’s and Montgomery Ward sealed its fate. Maple hill mall was also directly across the street from former Westmain Mall, about which little is known. Perhaps our readers can clue us in.

Maple Hill Mall in Kalamazoo, Michigan

For some reason, we found ourselves in Kalamazoo quite late in the evening, and visited Maple Hill Mall several hours after it closed for the evening. Since everything was closed, the place seemed eerie even then, even though it was reasonably well-tenanted at the time. The anchors then were still Montgomery Ward, Steketee’s, and Target, plus there was a very bizarre Office Max store whose footprint stepped obtrusively into the mall itself (check thefloorplan at the bottom of this page to see what I mean). We waltzed around the vacant mall for a good ten minutes or so before a bike cop (!) came wheeling out of nowhere around Office Max’s poison corner to tell us that the mall was closed (obviously) and that we should leave. This was early 1999.

It’s unsurprising that the Maple Hill Mall was demolished and replaced with a power center in 2004; it was obvious even seven years ago that the poor old place had become a weak player and that it had lost its prominence. We didn’t take any of our own pictures, but thanks to Labelscar reader and commenter Bobby, we have an eerie set of pictures taken before the whole thing was knocked down. The whole set of pictures from his visit is available on his site Forgotten Michigan, along with a more complete history of Maple Hill Mall.

Maple Hill Mall in Kalamazoo, Michigan

Dort Mall; Flint, Michigan


Sometimes instead of being redeveloped into strip malls and “Lifestyle Centers”, enclosed malls are simply forgotten, passed over like so much fruit cake in December. The reasons for this are varied, but mostly have to do with the fact that the area the mall lies in is no longer viable for retail, or at least the kind of retail that spawns big box and expansive strip malls.

Dort Mall, along Dort Highway on the south side of Flint, is one of these malls. Dort Mall opened as the Flint area’s first enclosed mall, in 1963, on the site of the former Dort Drive-In Theatre. In its earlier days, it was originally anchored by a Yankee store and possibly Cunningham’s and A&P. Yankee was later bought out by Zody’s, and after Zody’s disappeared it became Sears Outlet. The Sears Outlet closed somewhat recently and was split into Perani’s Hockey World, Bargain Hunterz thrift store, and a bingo hall. The north end of the mall currently houses a Big Lots which does not have access into the indoor portion of the mall. Also worth mention is the giant “Muffler man” type statue on the south end of the mall. Could this be Farmer Jack in a former Farmer Jack location?

The indoor part of Dort Mall isn’t spartan or barren by any means, like many dead malls. Today, the mall is filled with Americana like old gas station signs, advertisements and paraphernalia from General Motors products, and signs galore. However, only a couple shops exist within the mall which do not have outdoor entrances, notably one which exclusively sells T-shirts. Only a few people go inside Dort Mall today, and I don’t imagine all the old signs are that much of a draw. I took these pictures of Dort Mall in August 2005.

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Summit Place Mall; Waterford, Michigan

Summit Place Mall pylon in Waterford, MI

Dear readers, I’m back from my extended weekend in the Detroit area.  Why Detroit, you ask?  Well, the area has always fascinated me beyond belief.  The way the entire city is this fallow wasteland, seeming as though it is sleeping, like some sort of urban garden that hasn’t been watered in a while.  Juxtapose that with the booming, successful suburbs, which is where most of the commerce in the metro Detroit area takes place, and it makes for an interesting exploration.  Not to mention all the abandoned neighborhoods that have been converted to this eerie urban prairie of overgrown grasses, trees, and weeds.   And the malls.  Nearly all of the malls in the metro Detroit area have some interesting design features about them, whether they’re extremely dated, nearly dead, or remarkably amazing and successful.  Not surprisingly, Summit Place Mall in northwest suburban Waterford is no exception.

Summit Place Mall opened in 1962 along Telegraph Road in the midst of Oakland County’s suburban boom.  While the mall is technically located in Waterford Township, across Telegraph is the city of Pontiac.  Oakland county’s most urban city, Pontiac is definitely separate from the suburban millieu that sprawls across much of Oakland County; it is its own city, and grew up not only because of Detroit but in tandem with it as well.  It should also be mentioned here that Oakland County is the richest county in the state of Michigan, and aside from the Grosse Pointe areas along the shores of Lake St. Clair, it houses the cities with the highest per-capita income.  Essentially, when everything (and everyone) left the city of Detroit, it came to places like Oakland County, leaving behind massive swaths of wasteland in Detroit, but concurrently building up a sprawling infrastructure of suburbia: Interstate highways, subdivisions, commercial and industrial parks, and shopping malls.

When Summit Place Mall opened, it was much smaller than it is today.  It had two anchor stores: Hudson’s and Montgomery Ward, and a row of stores along an enclosed hallway between them.  In 1973, a Sears was attached to the north end of the mall; however, the mall portion was not extended to Sears.  Instead, Sears was essentially a standalone store tacked onto the north side of the mall.  Eventually, developers realized the potential with this burgeoning, successful property and opened a JCPenney store behind Wards on the west side of the mall in 1988.  Also during 1988, the mall was extended to JCPenney from Ward’s and again extended to the north to Sears, making it mall accessible for the first time after 15 years.  By 1990, the mall added a Mainstreet (later and currently Kohl’s) store between Wards and Sears and a new food court was built to accomodate trends and the massive shopping crowds.  A Service Merchandise was also added to the Hudson’s (Marshall Field’s) end of the mall.  During the 1990s, this mall was the place to be.  Several large strip malls were built on the outlots or just across from the mall, including a Sam’s Club, Target, HQ, Builders Square, Circuit City, major grocery, Sports Authority, and Best Buy, with space for even more.

The pinnacle of success was breached in about 1995, with the closure of HQ in the plaza on the north outlot of the mall.  Shockingly, and as a testament to the mall’s dramatically fast failure, the HQ stands vacant and preserved today.  However, the mall continued to prosper into the late 1990s until a deafening blow came with the opening of Great Lakes Crossing, a major, outlet/hybrid (think the Mills malls) enclosed mall in Auburn Hills, just a few miles away.  The grocery store (Farmer Jack) and Sports Authority closed up shop, leaving more vacancies in the outlots.  In 2001, the mall saw more changes and another blow as Montgomery Ward closed up shop.  Also in 2001, Hudson’s was rebranded Marshall Fields, though the store essentially remained the same aside from the name change.  Many national brand retailers left the mall for greener pastures (Great Lakes Crossing) and also stores in the outlots left as well.  From the late 90s to the early 2000s, the mall’s vacancy rate jumped from 20% to 50%.  The mall was sold.

abandoned HQ in Waterford, MI

Today, there are talks about what can be done with this giant center to make it profitable again.  In her Oakland Press article, Lara Mossa wrote that in November of 2005 there were plans to demolish approximately half of the center and replace it with housing, making the mall a mixed-use development.  She also reported that the new owner Namco also wanted to put a water park in the mall, but was unable to find the financing to do so.  The article also reports the dramatically fast downturn of the mall.  As recently as 1998, the mall employed 1800 people; today it employs 400.  Other reports from more unofficial sources have heard rumors that the entire mall will be torn down for a condo development.

The decor of Summit Place is also interesting.  Since many stores abruptly left since the late 1990s, many storefronts which are vacant are quite dated.  Some vacant storefronts have ads for other stores in the mall, notably for Marshall Field’s.  A large child’s play area sits on the concourse with the most stores, the original concourse between Marshall Field’s and dead Montgomery Ward.  Between Montgomery Ward and Sears the stores are sparse, and all the way down by the Kohl’s wing there is almost no activity whatsoever.  The food court has one lone pretzel vendor.  Between Montgomery Ward and Sears there is also a very strange display of plastic trees and stuffed animals that is almost disturbing.

What will become of Summit Place Mall?  Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: the 1.5 million square foot center is far too large for its current demand.  However sad the mall is, though, people still continue to shop there.  The Marshall Field’s is slated to become a Macy’s in mid-2006 and will not close, at least right away.  The Sears and Kohl’s at the mall do fine for themselves, it’s just the two dozen or so remaining tenants in the mall that are problematic.  If anyone has any more info, contributions are always welcome.  Pictures taken by me, July 2006.

2009 UPDATE:  After protracted suffering, Summit Place Mall officially closed in September 2009. 

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