Saving Southdale

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

Southdale Center
Stephanie Colgan

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.”