America is not unique in having desolate shopping malls, but the sheer number of underperforming, closed, and abandoned malls should give cause for alarm, including Century III Mall near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
First appearing en mass in the middle of the 20th century, enclosed malls helped define development patterns in the United States for over six decades with sprawling suburban tracts taking root over dense cities. Land was plentiful and cheap, luring not only residents but commercial developers who saw potential with indoor malls surrounded by acres of free parking. The airy and stylish centers offered air-conditioned comfort and amenities that were not found in downtowns that were increasingly seen as downtrodden and outdated. For decades, these malls were refreshed, rebranded, rebuilt, and replaced at a furious pace, with nearly every metropolitan area ringed with one or more malls, killing off retailing in the center city.
These malls were expensive to operate and featured a lot of non-leasable space. Concourses were typically tall, which expended energy to cool and heat, and wide, of which the center had low-rent tenants, such as Piercing Pagodas, new automobile displays, and Bath Fitter bathtubs.
But something happened towards the beginning of the 21st century—indoor malls became unfashionable. Construction of new enclosed centers slowed as outdoor shopping centers and downtown revitalization began to take root across America. Many outdoor malls were patterned after their indoor companions with a traditional layout, consisting of the same mix of mid-range stores and anchors, while others were more elaborate and included shops, apartments and condominiums, offices, and entertainment venues and bars.
These new centers had no concourses to cool and heat and fewer low-rent tenants. They often incorporated elaborate landscaping and water features and boasted high sales per square feet. In more urban areas, parking garages replaced parking lots, which led to more developable space.
The retail landscape also changed since the heyday of indoor shopping centers. Malls once depended upon former bellwethers such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, Service Merchandise, and Best, but many of those chains have either disappeared by declaring bankruptcy or merging with a more profitable company, or are heading towards that path. Other once-prominent retailers, like Macy’s and Barnes & Noble, are closing stores at a rapid rate, being replaced by boutique stores and internet retail, among a variety of other reasons. These big-box stores are being left empty with few alternatives to fill the void.
The rise of the city center has also had a profound impact on shopping. Independent retailers and chains have taken hold in many urban areas that were once barren of shopping for decades, lured in by 18-to-35-year-olds that have repopulated neighborhoods once forgotten and left behind for suburbia. What was once concentrated to the largest cities in America, like New York and San Fransisco has spread to areas in the rust-belt and sun-belt, like Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Birmingham.
These factors have all played into the demise of Century III Mall.
One of the original department stores, Horne’s was acquired by Federated Department Stores, becoming a part of the Lazarus division and then Kauffman’s. The store eventually became a Kauffman’s Furniture Gallery and then Macy’s Furniture Gallery when the Kauffman’s name was retired by Federated.
The Kauffman’s department store, a local chain, became a Macy’s for the same reason, a move that was much resented.
Gimbels, another original anchor, closed in 1986 due to the chain’s slow decline. It was replaced by a succession of chains, including T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, Wickes Furniture, Steve & Barry’s, and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Of those, Steve & Barry’s was closed due to bankruptcy; others, like T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s, closed due to underperformance.
Sears was the last department store to open at Century III and the latest anchor to flee Century III. What was once one of the nation’s most prominent and successful chains has become a farce and under-performer in nearly every measurable aspect and is on its way to eventual liquidation.
Without successful, stable anchors, the concourse becomes highly dependent on its inline retailers, which began shuttering stores in the early 21st century. Most stores were never replaced or were replaced with non-traditional stores.
New mixed-use developments opened closer to downtown, including The Waterfront in Homestead and in South Side Works in the trendy South Side Flats neighborhood. Some of the new developments were purposefully built anchorless, depending more upon its residences to drive retailing, dining, and entertainment options, while others only included one anchor as to not be dependent on a rapidly changing retail landscape.
More recently, Century III was sold to Moonbeam Capital Investments for a mere $10.5 million. What happens to the increasingly ailing mall remains to be seen.