Future of malls: Reinvention or closed doors

A few years back, Rushon Brooks was walking through the Owings Mills Mall when he started counting shuttered store fronts.

“I got as high as 22,” said the Catonsville resident, a local chauffeur eating an early lunch at the beleaguered mall this week. “Then I stopped counting.”

This week was the first time all year Brooks, who said he used to come to the Owings Mills Mall regularly, visited the mall. He looked around the food court, where only four businesses were open. He was the only one dining.

The rest of the 1 million square foot mall doesn’t look much different. For every retailer that remains open, there are at least three that are closed. A cluster of children’s rides sits unused in the food court.

“It died,” Brooks said. “It’s really bad.”

His theory: The mall was overrun with teenagers some years back, driving other customers away when they got into fights and caused other disturbances.

Keith Scott, the president and CEO of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, has another theory. 

Shoppers aren’t looking for the traditional mall of the 1980s and 1990s, with a collection of stores, a food court and a movie theater.

If malls want to thrive, “they have to do things to drive people in and make it an experience,” Scott said.

Over the years, owners and operators of some local malls have invested millions into the properties to turn them around. After the Hunt Valley Mall closed in the 1990s, owner Greenberg Gibbons spent $52 million to revitalize the property and turn it into the Hunt Valley Towne Centre, an outdoor shopping complex anchored by Wegmans.

The owners of Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie are also attempting a renaissance. General Manager John Hess declined to put a number on the amount management group, The Woodmont Co., is planning to spend on upgrades to the mall over the next three years, but said it’s “considerable.”

“This mission we have is to stay relevant,” Hess said.  

There may be hope for Owings Mills. In 2011, owner General Growth Properties announced it was teaming up with Kimco Reality to redevelop the mall. The plan is to tear down the existing mall and replace it with an outdoor shopping mall, officials said at the time. 

READ MORE: Owings Mills Mall to be redeveloped

No new indoor malls have been built in the United States since 2012, said Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

There are around 1,500 of these types of malls in the country, a number that has held relatively steady over the last five years, Tron said. He disputed the notion that traditional indoor malls are a dying breed.   

“Just because they’re not being built doesn’t mean they’re not viable,” Tron said.

He said service providers, in addition to stores and restaurants, are going to be an integral part of a successful mall.   

“What people want is the convenience of online shopping coupled with the experience of in-store shopping,” Tron said.

Mark Millman, the president and CEO of Millman Search Group, a shopping center and retail consulting firm, predicted there will be no more enclosed malls built in the Baltimore market in his lifetime.

Marley Station was the last enclosed mall built in the area, and that was in the late 1980s.

Millman said maintenance costs and other expenses associated with indoor malls force owners to raise the rents for tenants, who then have trouble turning a profit.  

"They're just not as profitable as they used to be," Millman said. 

A lifestyle center

Scott said Hunt Valley is an example of a mall that successfully turned itself around.

The Hunt Valley Towne Centre was the first place in Maryland to get a Wegmans grocery store. It’s also home to more than 50 stores and restaurants, plus a movie theater. The town centre also hosts regular events, such as free concerts on Friday nights in the summer and story hour for children.

“It’s a lifestyle center,” Scott said.

Other malls in the area remain robust, he said. The Towson Town Center added a luxury wing several years ago. The White Marsh Mall has also done well, partially because of its proximity to the mixed-use The Avenue at White Marsh, Scott said.

“I don’t think there are a lot of malls anymore that are dying,” he said. “They’ve either re-invented themselves, or closed down.”   

The Woodmont Co. took over operations at Marley Station last year, after former owners The Simon Property Group allowed its loan on the mall to go into foreclosure. 

Hess said the mall had its challenges. In 2008, Boscov’s, one of the mall’s main anchors, shut down after the business went bankrupt. That space is home to a data center now. 

“It was an older mall that needed some tender loving care,” he said.

He said that included buying new Christmas and Easter decorations, upgrading the children’s play area, fixing the aging air conditioning and heating system and painting the inside of the mall.

Hess said all of the mall’s national tenants, who make up around 70 percent of the mall, have renewed their leases for the next year. The mall also has

plans to open a new first-run movie theater with eight screens and 3D capacity.   

He said the mall is a neighborhood mall that’s not trying to compete with Anne Arundel County’s flashier regional malls, such as Westfield Annapolis Mall or Arundel Mills Mall.

“We pull from a 10-mile radius,” Hess said of the mall’s customer base.

Owings Mills’ future

Officials with Kimco Realty didn’t return a call seeking comment this week. But media reports have indicated Kimco and General Growth Properties plan to spend about $65 million to turn the mall into a pedestrian-friendly shopping center similar to Hunt Valley.

A few people who were walking through Owings Mills Mall this week said they were hopeful the mall could be transformed like Hunt Valley was.

It was once a nice place to shop, said one man, who declined to give his name. He said he’s an avid mall walker who remembers the excitement when the mall opened in the 1980s with Saks Fifth Avenue as one of its main anchors.

Owings Mills’ Saks location closed in the mid-1990s. The man theorized that area residents simply didn’t have time to patronize the mall.

“There were all these huge houses being built in this area, and both the husband and wife worked to pay for these houses,” the man said.

Like chauffeur Rushon Brooks, the man said he also counts the stores while he’s walking the length of the mall.

The last time he counted, there were 17 stores open.

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