The story of a forgotten America.

The Decline of Shopping Malls

The American retail landscape is changing. The love affair with the enclosed shopping center peaked over a decade ago and has been waning as consumers seek out revitalized urban centers, mixed-use retail, office and residential developments, and online storefronts.

Between 1956 and 2005, approximately 1,500 indoor malls were constructed. Aided in part thanks to the Interstate Highway Act that allowed for the development of 54,000 miles of interstate highways, residents began moving from rural settlements and dense, urban cities to suburban tracts. Whereas shopping was once done in downtowns and neighborhood business districts, large shopping centers took their place. Customers could now drive their automobiles to a sea of asphalt and fit their vehicles within generously-sized parking spaces and then spend their time within an artificial and heated (or cooled) concourse.

Few traditional malls have been constructed in the 21st century, though. The rise of Internet shopping has been partly to blame, as the convenience of one-click ordering made it easier to acquire hard-to-acquire items, but a palpable shift also occurred. Suburban mixed-use developments that incorporated retail, office, and residential components became favored, such as Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, or Crocker Park near Cleveland, Ohio. To an extent, urban projects, such as Pullman Square in Huntington, West Virginia, have siphoned some of the glitz and attention away from traditional malls. There is also direct competition with newer malls that have caused older facilities to languish and be forgotten, too.

Randall Park Mall is one of those malls. When it was completed during the mall boom of the 1970s, it boasted its motto, “Much More Than Everything.” It boasted five anchors and more than 100 inline stores and was surrounded physically with other department stores, restaurants, and hotels. Randall Park, a rural settlement turned suburban powerhouse, even put an image of a shopping bag into its municipal seal.

But newer developments in newer suburbs began to siphon away business. One by one, retailers left, and ownership changed until the mall closed in March 2009. After being in a state of abandonment, demolition began in December 2014. It is to be replaced with an industrial park, arguably more sustainable and tax-producing than a mall, but only time will tell if it will be a success.

Even my hometown was not spared. When Cedar Knoll Galleria opened in 1989 on the outskirts of Ashland, Kentucky, it’s developers boasted that it would become a compelling regional shopping destination. It was a risk that was not well received: Ashland Town Center opened shortly before near downtown.

Cedar Knoll Galleria, never boasting an occupancy above 69%, featured Sears, Elder-Beerman, K-Mart, and Phar-Mor as its anchors. Still, in 2002, Phar-Mor closed all of its stores in the southern United States, including the Cedar Knoll location. K-Mart also pulled out later in the year and was replaced by Artrip’s Market and a flea market in late 2004. Inline stores began leaving, and in 2014, Sears left. Elder-Beerman is the only major tenant remaining, other than a movie theater that relocated in the former Phar-Mor.

There is no redevelopment proposal for Cedar Knoll, though. It’s languishing with a scattering of offices inside, some moribund retailers, and some eateries, and while it’s not entirely devoid of activity, it will never be fully appreciated at what it was once destined. Far better uses of the building and land could surely be found.

The American retail landscape is changing, and thankfully it is no longer favoring just enclosed shopping malls.

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