Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Room to Run at Brookdale Mall

Dateline: 11:17 pm March 4, 2010 Filed under:

I took my son up to Brookdale Mall the other day. As it is still winter, it is nice to find a new indoor place for Ellis, a three-year-old, to expend some energy. With Brookdale Mall at 60% vacant (at least), there is plenty of room to run.

Retail is a fickle industry, and Brookdale is like dozens of malls across the country that sit largely vacant. It just happens to be the most prominent example in the Twin Cities. The food court has just one restaurant left. All the anchors (Macy’s and Mervyn’s) are gone except Sears, which sits out there alone facing the parking lot, as if it doesn’t care if the mall exists at all.

The mall corridors contain a few scattered tenants including Foot Locker, Radio Shack and the ubiquitous GNC – stores that seem to exist in a vacuum. It is as if they didn’t get the memo or bother to notice that their neighbors are gone. It reminded me of a hilarious article in The Onion about Radio Shack. I’m sure their lease terms are pretty good and there isn’t any competition!

There were three groups of people at Brookdale: a smattering of shoppers puttering about; those with business professional attire or scrubs (a nurse) and tennis shoes getting their lunchtime miles in with laps around the perimeter of the corridors; and the group of four retired men gathered at a food court table with travel mugs full of weak coffee from home – there is no place to buy coffee in the mall, and they didn’t seem the type to spend $4 on a skinny latte anyway! These guys probably built their first home 50 or 60 years ago nearby when Brokklyn Center was a brand new suburb. And there was my son and I, urban spelunkers exploring a dying mall.

The main atrium was quite pleasant, if a little too quiet. Although no stores surround it, the atrium still has chairs and benches with potted palm trees. In the diffuse sunlight of the opaque glass roof, one could sit all day and contemplate. It felt like an empty church sanctuary minus the stained glass. The play area was blocked off with yellow caution tape. It wasn’t much of a play area – a strip of astroturf with a fat fake plastic tree with two slides but no ladder. Three buckets sat on the turf, strategically placed to catch the water dripping at various intervals from the leaky roof above.

The vacant former Macy’s (born in the 1960s as Dayton’s) department store loomed in the darkness at the end of the atrium, the original blonde brick facade still there. In the silence I could envision the shoppers that once came and went – formally dressed women with dark plastic eyeglasses and beehive hair of the 1960s.

Ellis and I played a new game – “Name the former tenant of that vacant space.” He didn’t do so well, but I had no problem identifying the former Barnes & Noble or former jewelers. Ellis had fun climbing on the toy cars that shake, make noise and blink their lights when you add money. We had no change, and besides, I don’t think the old Corvette was going to work anyway, as its windshield was smashed and only one headlight worked. One former tenant space had a sign in the window that read “If interested in cabinets, please call (763) 555-xxxx,” in an effort by the business owner to sell their store cabinets.

Brookdale went on the acution block at a sheriff’s foreclosure sale last week, with just one bid by the mall’s lenders. The bid of $12.5 million is staggering considering the owners of the mall still owe $51 million!

What happened to Brookdale? When it opened in the 1960s, it was the primary shopping center for the northwest suburbs of the Twin Cities, and remained so for the next couple decades. By the 1990s, the mall and surrounding area was no longer new. The original homeowners were empty nesters now. Shopping habits changed, stores moved on, and growth farther to the northwest was luring newer, trendier shopping options to the next tier of suburb, out in Maple Grove. Couple that with the trend away from enclosed malls – they just aren’t cool anymore.

The underlying story is of race and class. As the white, more upper-middle class population has aged and perhaps left the city, a younger, more diverse and less affluent population has moved in to the area. As this demographic shift in area households has occurred, I suspect the mall ownership has had trouble balancing which market to target with their tenant mix, marketing and events.

So what are the options? Bayshore Mall in suburban Milwaukee was faced with similar straits a few years ago and has been successfully redeveloped as Bayshore Town Center, a new urbanist favorite. At the same time, Northridge Mall not too far away closed entirely, but recently was propsed to reopen as a mall targeted entirely to the Chinese population of the area. Perhaps that idea could bear fruit.

Ten years ago, I was on a consulting team working with the Metropolitan Council to gauge market demand for a mixed-use development, as it was one of several targeted smart growth opportunity sites around the metro area. Unfortunately nothing has come of that. Market conditions are a challenge, but opportunties exist for a variety of options at Brookdale – it could well remain a mall or it could be redeveloped. What is required is a clear vision on behalf of the owner/developer and elected leaders, as well as financial help from not only the city but probably other government entities.

It is easy and cliche to say “take lemons and make lemonade,” but there is indeed room to run with Brookdale Mall.

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