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Sink or Swim: How Some “Dying” Suburban Malls Are Finding New Life

Photo by Sunyu Kim on Unsplash

Indoor malls had been struggling long before the pandemic. But the pandemic certainly didn’t help, as retail’s continued evolution was temporarily frozen and progress remains sluggish. Online goods, of course, have soared in popularity even further.

Retail isn’t gone forever though, even if it increasingly doesn’t look the way it once did. Some suburban malls carry on, but others are finding second lives with a modernizing facelift. After all, they are often built on massive footprints, in advantageous locations near highways, and with an abundance of parking, characteristics that would suit many commercial or residential property types well. Three projects in the north suburbs illustrate the exciting possibilities for legacy malls.

Take Mount Prospect’s Randhurst Mall. At opening in 1962, it was the largest single indoor shopping center in America, and beat out Oak Brook and Schaumburg as the first modern shopping mall in the suburbs. Enormous initial popularity faded, and even 1990s entertainment and big box additions such as Home Depot, Borders, and a movie theater lost their novelty after some time. So next came a transformation in Randhurst Village, an open-air, Main Street style shopping district, opened in 2011. This project looks to have been even slightly ahead of its time, as more malls continue to go this direction.

The nearby Northbrook Court is a 1976-vintage mall that had lost some of its luster. While attractive anchor tenants were once seen as a hallmark of the successful mall, ironically it is the removal of the Macy’s space that will send Northbrook Court into a new era. With the help of tax increment financing (TIF) from the village, a developer plans 315 residential units, new retail space surrounding a lawn, and a 70,000 square foot grocery store. While the project was criticized for its lack of any on-site affordable housing units, an urgent need to keep the mall area relevant seemed to be a critical motivator behind its approval.

Meanwhile, Deerbrook Shopping Center in nearby Deerfield also got the green light for a similar enhancement last summer. 186 apartments, mostly one-bedrooms, will be surrounded by 60 townhomes, mostly three-bedrooms, and 18 units will be rented at affordable rates. This mix of accommodations for families and both younger and older professionals provides a major win for the shopping center, which will have an inherent customer base just steps away. The developers will also be building a walkway to the Lake Cook Road Metra station, which is within a couple minute’s walk.

With e-commerce as prevalent as ever, the “malls are dying” narrative has never been louder. However, as three projects indicate, perhaps the more accurate term is “malls are evolving”, even if they no longer look like “malls” and even if some malls make the leap more successfully than others. Looks like a little creative thinking with market trends can keep malls as thriving destinations, or even places of residence, for years to come.

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