The goal was to improve visibility from center court, so the JC Penney wing would feel less like No Man's Land. It didn't work. They would have been better off creating a new path from the Herberger's end, through to JC Penney so shoppers could make a complete circle rather than backtracking. What's crazier than that? The fact that there used to be a through-way there, and the brains behind the mall closed it off years ago, creating a wing to nowhere.
Making the walk down the bigger, brighter new corridor even more painful: there's not yet one store open along the way on the first floor. But if you follow the light, you will emerge at Southdale's new play area. Finally, a place for parents to let their toddlers burn off some energy. Southdale did some smart things: A bathroom right next to the play area (reassuring to any parent who frequents the Ridgedale play area and has had to sprint through Sears with a half potty trained child on the verge). Southdale also installed a phone charging station in the play area, so parents can juice up while waiting.
I wish the new play area was brighter—it feels like the basement. And I wish it was next to the new food court, rather than below it. At least there are a few tables just beyond the play equipment where adults could, conceivably, eat with frolicking kids in view. As for the play structures themselves, my 4-year-old gave it a big thumbs up . . . with the caveat that Eden Prairie Center's play area, with slides and more to climb, is still a little better.
Just up the escalator, on the second floor outside of JC Penney, is the new Southdale Dining Pavilion. The mall spent a pretty penny to put in skylights and give the new area a contemporary feel. But make no mistake: it's a food court. Even though it is a vast improvement from the old abandoned third floor food court, it's still a food court, with Subway and Panda Express and the like. Southdale wanted to create a place where families, or area workers could grab a quick bite, but I just wonder—in the age of Chipotle and Noodles & Co.—how many people want to dine in a food court? It feels a bit passe, even before all of the food chains have opened. Great Steak and Dairy Queen/Orange Julius are coming soon. Three more spots have yet to be leased.
More inviting is the Qdoba Mexican Grill, with its brick trim and in-store seating. It will soon be joined by Smashburger, which might help to liven the mood. Because unless you park at JC Penney, this wing still feels out of the way and disconnected from the rest of the mall. More stores might help. Shoe Department Encore—similar to a DSW—has leased a large space across from the play area on the first floor. The other new stores that have been announced, Brighton Collectibles and See's Candies, are in center court, where any smart retailer would want to be.