The Story of the Mall that Committed Suicide

Southridge Mall, Des Moines, Iowa

Photo above by Iowa Highwayman.

Once upon a time, in the southern reaches of Des Moines, there stood an aging shopping mall. The Southridge Mall) opened for business in October 15, 1975 and featured a Younkers followed by a Sears and, after an expansion, a Montgomery Ward store.

It thrived as new malls do, draining shoppers from the downtown with promises of big stores and big deals. But, as the mall got older, the crowds slowly stopped coming. Other malls were in business, including the Merle Hay, and the fancy new Jordan Creek Town Centre at the southwest of town. Just as malls built from the 70s and the 80s across America seemed to be entering a death spiral -- driven there by aging and dated layouts and competition from newer power centres and resurging downtowns, the stores at the Southridge Mall started to stand empty. The mall tried to renovate its way to prosperity, adding a children's play area, free wi-fi in the food court, and remodelled rest rooms, but the crowds just wouldn't come back. By the end of 2009, half of the malls stores were empty.

So, in 2012, the owners of Southridge decided that something bolder needed to be done. No longer were they going to try to fill their empty storefronts with churches, offices or animal shelters (an approach that, incidentally, saved Kitchener's Market Square from irrelevance). Perhaps noting the success of the new power centres, or the new outdoor-facing retail malls of Texas and Florida, Southridge demolished 296,000 square feet of store space, demolished its food court and children's play area, completely rid the mall of indoor corridor space, and made every remaining store in the place have doors which opened to the outside.

The new look was fashionable. Bold, even. It recalled the promenades of the outdoor malls of hip Florida. And it completely ignored that Iowa is bitterly cold and windy during a good three or four months a year.

Returning to Southridge for the first time since the summer, the family stared in astonishment at the changes that had taken place. Where was the food court? Where was the children's playground? Where were the heated and not-bitterly-cold-and-windy interior corridors?

Gone, apparently. Along with our reason for shopping there ever again. And judging from the comments we heard from shoppers and store managers at the local Target, we were far from the only ones to give the mall a big thumbs down. The parking lot was next to empty.

Well, the final fate of the mall remains to be seen. In spite of the complete obliteration of the mall's indoor common areas, Southridge may have succeeded in attracting more people to the mall, as local news reports suggest that the Des Moines Community College is looking to open up a new campus in some of the vacant stores. The question remains, though: what will these community college students eat?

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