Saving Southdale

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

Southdale Center
Photos by Stephanie Colgan

You can't grow up a 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.

What Women Want

Every suburban area in the country has its own Southdale—one virtually indistinguishable from the next. Two levels of stores. Three or four anchors. A food court. A couple of sit-down restaurants.

Most American malls are more than 25 years old. The last time a new enclosed mall opened was 2009, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. There is just one mall under construction today.

“In other parts of the world, they have the luxury of looking, processing, updating. We have gotten to the stage where we’re renovating rather than inventing,” says Paco Underhill, founder of New York retail consulting firm Envirosell and author of several books that explore the psychology of selling, including his most recent, What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping.

Birdcages at Southdale CenterGrocery store at Southdale CenterDayton's at Southdale CenterDayton's at Southdale CenterFrom Top: When Southdale opened in 1956, it had a grocery store, center court birdcages, and two anchors, Dayton’s and Donaldson’s.

Women have always been the primary targets of shopping malls. But while women’s roles in society have changed dramatically since the 1950s, malls have not.

“Think of the shopping trip of the ’50s,” Underhill says. “It was a woman escaping her home, her kids, her husband. She was given permission to go into the marketplace and be who she was as an individual.”

Southdale’s architect, Victor Gruen, designed the mall to encourage browsing. There was no direct access to the department stores, so that shoppers would have to pass dozens of smaller shops in order to reach the main attraction.

Department stores are no longer magnets, and women don’t have time to wander. But they do earn their own money—and, increasingly, they spend it online.

“In every job we do, we ask the question: What makes this female-friendly?” Underhill says. His list of essentials includes convenient and well-marked entrances, so that customers can park near the stores most relevant to them. Malls need clean, modern, desirable amenities, Underhill says, “so a woman can feel good about feeding her kids there.”

It’s no coincidence that Southdale’s top priorities include a play area and a new food court in the JCPenney wing. New skylights are being installed; outdoor seating will be added. The food court is intended to extend a shopper’s visit by making meals easy and appealing. The old food court was relegated to the third floor. It’s usually empty. Just two dining options remain: Subway and Great Steak and Potato Co.

“We’ve been missing the lunch rush,” Southdale’s VanDalen says.

Done right, fast casual food could be a new reason to go to the mall. Edina’s daytime population is second only to downtown Minneapolis, according to Stefanie Meyer, a senior vice president and principal with Mid-America Real Estate Group.

The mall is considering new pathways from the surrounding streets to the food court entrance. Easy access and fast service could leave diners with time to shop, too.

From Upscale to Empty

As it stands now, Southdale is a study in contradictions. The center court features upscale traffic drivers such as Apple, J.Crew, Coach, and Banana Republic. The Macy’s offers designer brands that are no longer available at other Twin Cities locations, even downtown Minneapolis. Herberger’s, too, stepped up its assortment for Southdale. Meanwhile, chains looking to downsize have been quick to flee: Abercrombie & Fitch, The Body Shop, and The Children’s Place among them. Storefronts once occupied by fine jewelers and better boutiques now host a revolving stream of no-name markets selling scarves and silver-plated jewelry. While the better restaurants and movie theater draw crowds, their street-facing design has failed to drive traffic to the rest of the mall. Tacked-on additions created dead ends and bad visibility. As a result, the third floor and JCPenney wings are ghost towns.

There was a time when Southdale was, hands down, the first place any retailer would consider setting up shop in the Twin Cities. That it remains one of the first places, according to leasing experts, is a testament to good geography, desirable demographics, and, in no small part, habit.

“People here grew up with it,” says Meyer, a commercial leasing expert. “They may live in Maple Grove now, but all their life they’ve shopped at Southdale.”

Edina remains a thriving trade area. It has everything a retailer could want, says Meyer: high income, density, and good access to highways. Edina’s population is aging, but the city also boasts considerable growth among young families, Meyer says. At both ends of the spectrum, these groups are more likely to shop moderate stores than luxury, says VanDalen, suggesting that the arrival of mid-tier department store Herberger’s was intentional, not a consolation prize because the mall couldn’t lure a luxury store like Neiman Marcus.

“Everyone wants us to be a high-end center,” VanDalen laments, pointing in the direction of Galleria, which is home to Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton. “Galleria is a great partner. We want to be middle to upper end.”

Mall vs. Mall

Mall of America, just four miles down Interstate 494, is not the threat to Southdale that some might assume—as evidenced by Michael Kors’s recent decision to enter the Twin Cities market with two stores, at MOA and Southdale.

“Mall of America is a different world,” Meyer says. Opening at MOA is about branding and exposure. Twin Cities residents go there for an all-day experience, but when they need to grab a new pair of jeans, studies have shown regional malls are still the first stop. Meyer says retailers that want to reach the local market have to consider the top three trade areas: Rosedale Center in Roseville, Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka, and Southdale.

Before Mall of America opened—20 years ago this August—Southdale and Rosedale beefed up their defenses, building larger stores for Dayton’s at both malls in exchange for a guarantee that the hometown department store would not go into the megamall. It worked for a while, says Dave Brennan, co-director of the Center for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas. Ten years later, Southdale scored another big win by adding a 16-screen Cineplex and bringing in the Twin Cities’ only Cheesecake Factory—just one in a row of national restaurants that had every shopping destination in town salivating. Maggiano’s has since closed at Southdale, and the space remains dark. Another locally owned restaurant morphed into beauty store Ulta. Dining destinations P.F. Chang’s and The Cheesecake Factory still have hour-plus waits most nights, but the mall hasn’t since made a major improvement.

Meanwhile, the MOA, Brennan says, has become adept at drawing high-profile tenants and improving its look—particularly, he says, since the Ghermezians took over again. (Simon Property Group owned MOA for a time and lost it in a court battle before buying Southdale.)

But even Southdale management will admit: The MOA hasn’t hurt Southdale nearly as much as Southdale has hurt itself. Since 1997, Southdale has been bought and sold four times. Inconsistent management was blamed for the loss of Crate & Barrel and the lack of updates to the center itself. When Simon, the nation’s largest shopping mall company, bought Southdale in 2007, it was with an appreciation for its place in history and the intention to restore it to its former glory. But then the recession hit—and hit malls especially hard. Simon’s assets were also tied up for a time in trying to take over one of its rivals.

Southdale Center's original center courtBob Barker at Southdale CenterSouthdale's center court todayFrom Top: Southdale's original center was intended as a park-like gathering place; in 1957, Bob Barker telecast Truth or Consequences from Southdale; today's center court is more about retail.

“Simon is an extremely savvy company,” says Paula Mueller, president of the Minnesota Shopping Center Association. “They were fiscally responsible during the recession and didn’t rush to do a renovation. But they’ve had Southdale on their list.”

Underhill goes a step further: “Simon has the power to change the face of American shopping if it makes the right choices.”

Creating Community

Despite its perceived power and resources, Simon has requested $5.3 million from the city of Edina to assist in the renovation of Southdale, beyond the play area and food court. If granted, it would be the first such funding package in Edina’s history, city manager Scott Neal says. But it’s not without precedent: Eden Prairie kicked in funds to renovate Eden Prairie Center. The city of Bloomington chipped in to get the Radisson Blu hotel built at Mall of America.

“Edina’s identity is, in many respects, connected with Southdale’s retail presence,” Neal says. “We definitely have a public interest in working with them, encouraging them to make it a pleasing place to be.”

A vote is on the horizon and there appears to be a consensus among council members to approve a financial assistance package for Simon. “One that comes with benefits back to the city as well,” Neal says.

Asphalt is one of a shopping center’s most valuable assets today. Regional malls such as Southdale tend to be situated at prime intersections in dense areas, surrounded by acres of pavement.

The city of Edina sees potential for a new water treatment plant or a metro transit facility on Southdale grounds. Council members like the idea of being able to use Southdale for public events.

“There is a lot of non-retail space in that building,” Neal says. “We think there is a role for that space in building community, whether that is arts and culture, music, or athletic events. Southdale had that role in the beginning and, in some ways, lost it for a couple of decades.”

Back to the Future

If Southdale were to achieve more of a town square effect, it would get back to Gruen’s original vision—which included apartments, offices, a medical center, and a school connected to Southdale.

Those birds in center court were no afterthought for Gruen. Southdale’s architect intended the enclosed court to be a place of beauty, with exotic trees and sculptures. A place where the community wanted to gather, even after store hours.

Over the years, the birdcages were replaced by massage chairs ($10 for 10 minutes!) and kiosks selling anything from calendars to wireless phones to $5 lattes.

Progress over preservation. The mall mindset prompted Gruen, in the late 1970s, to denounce the shopping center he is credited with creating. He became horrified by the sprawling “ugliness” around malls throughout the country and the singular focus on commerce at the expense of community.

Yet, even in the age of amazon.com, we continue to gather at shopping malls. “We as a species need to look at other people,” Underhill says. “The mall is one of the ways we get to experience some sense of community.

“The mall is not going to die,” he adds. “Too many of us grew up in a mall to basically walk away. But our needs have changed.”

Today’s most forward-thinking malls are overseas. In Dubai, malls are connected to hotels, cultural arts centers, and even indoor ski slopes. In Stockholm, there’s a mall with a church in it.

“We need a more comprehensive meeting of public and private interests,” Underhill says. He points to New York’s Shops at Columbus Circle as a shining example of a well-planned, multi-use development with a hotel, condominiums, office tower, concert hall, restaurants, bars, more than 40 stores, and a Whole Foods all under one roof.

It’s not all that different from the master plan Gruen mapped out for Southdale more than half a century ago.