Saving Southdale

Let's hope America's first mall gets its groove back.

Southdale Center
Stephanie Colgan
YOU CAN'T GROW UP MINNESOTAN without knowing a thing or two about shopping centers. Our state is not only home to the biggest mall in America, it’s also the birthplace of the enclosed mall. Yellowed newspaper clippings recount the fateful day in October 1956 when 75,000 people, including reporters from top publications around the country, flocked to Edina to witness the opening of Southdale Center.
The Apple store at Southdale CenterApple always seems to be packed. Michael Kors at Southdale CenterMichael Kors is a recent arrival to Southdale. Herberger's at Southdale CenterThe new Herberger's store radiates energy.

Our claim to the first enclosed mall is a point of distinction, albeit diminishing pride. Southdale has the highest vacancy rate among the Twin Cities’ regional malls. Its layout and appearance are dated. And so the original American mall, long a premier shopping destination, is now in the unexpected position of struggling to catch up to more agile centers. This, at a time when even the strongest malls face unyielding pressure to compete with an ever-increasing number of shopping alternatives.

History can be a burden, which may explain why Southdale has done so little preservation. Southdale’s 50th anniversary came and went without fanfare. There are just two visible remnants of the mall’s original décor: a clock that hangs above what is now H&M and a brass tree sculpture, obscured by a pretzel stand. No sign commemorates either relic.

But locals remember. Anyone old enough to have shopped at Dayton’s can recall a time when every occasion, from the start of the school year to a wedding proposal, would prompt a trip to Southdale. Nostalgic shoppers can still hear echoes of the birds that used to chirp in center court, as if to say every day is springtime at Southdale.

The management office at Southdale receives more “suggestions” than other shopping centers owned by Simon Property Group. Over the past several years—since around the time Crate & Barrel moved across the street to Galleria—there have been the obvious requests for higher-caliber stores and more restaurants. Then there are pleas born of an emptiness not even Neiman Marcus or Chipotle could fill.

“People want the birdcages back,” says Southdale Center manager Laurie VanDalen with a halfhearted laugh.

Now that the mall has announced a renovation plan, the calls to management have diminished. The first phase of improvements includes a new food court, better access to the JCPenney wing, and a children’s play area. The work, which is happening behind walls and late at night, is expected to be complete by the holidays.

These updates are part of a broader blueprint, not yet entirely revealed or funded. VanDalen hints that lease negotiations are underway with several high-profile retailers. She says entrances will be remodeled, as will the center court elevator. The gray and teal décor will be entirely replaced with natural wood—not unlike Southdale’s original design. But VanDalen makes it clear that it is not her company’s intent to go back.

“We’re happy for the people who are nostalgic. The mall has been what it’s been. But this is a different time, and we are taking that into consideration.”

Which is to say, the birdcages won't be back.