This blog is due for another photo montage, and while the subject this month is hardly original, it remains one of my favorite: the always fascinating dying mall. I’ve explored several examples in the past: two in Indianapolis and one outside of Detroit. But dying malls are hardly relegated to the Midwest—all across the country, a number of regional enclosed shopping centers have met their demise over the past twenty years. So now it’s time to focus the lens on one in the South. I’ve referenced the Cortana Mall at Baton Rouge obliquely through a previous post; this time I finally visited it with a carefully hidden camera.
Dedicated in 1976, the Cortana Mall (formerly Mall at Cortana) opened about 6 miles west of the Baton Rouge City Center, in a section from the old Cortana Plantation parcel, at the intersection of two arterials, Florida Avenue (U.S. 190) and Airline Highway (U.S. 61), indicated by the purple letter A on the map.
Originally nearly 1.4 million square feet, it was the largest mall in the state, and in 1981 it expanded by over 200,000 more square feet, when one of the early department stores added a second level. A more detailed history of the mall is available at Mall Hall of Fame.
The mall endured several battalions of new competitors over the ensuring two decades, but nothing unseated Cortana from its dominion as the pre-eminent mall of the Capital City region. However, in 1997, developer Jim Wilson and Associates opened the Mall of Louisiana to the southeast of the city center, along the mercilessly well-traveled Interstate 10 corridor, at its interchange with Bluebonnet Boulevard, indicated by the blue B on the map. Cortana Mall was dethroned.
Cortana didn’t die overnight; thirteen years after the unveiling of the Mall of Louisiana, it remains open. Within a year after the competitor stole the spotlight, Cortana Mall underwent a mild renovation and changed its name to Mall at Cortana; it returned to Cortana Mall last year. Truthfully, this Mall has persevered as the “other mall” in Baton Rouge metro for a remarkably long time. Aside from the Mall of Louisiana, other formidable competitors include the lifestyle center Towne Center at Cedar Lodge (2005, just a little over 2 miles away, the green letter C on the map), the Tanger Outlets in Gonzales (an outer suburb 21 miles to the southeast along I-10), and the recent lifestyle/apartment/office hybrid Perkins Rowe (2008, just a mile south of Mall of Louisiana, also on Bluebonnet Boulevard at the purple letter D on the map). It is no doubt a testament to the solid population growth of metro Baton Rouge that Cortana Mall has been able to endure this long. When I first visited in 2005 (which I briefly referenced a few months ago), I could tell that it was the downgraded mall—quite simply, it lacked the upscale stores such as Banana Republic, Brookstone, Talbots, and any of the other solidly upper-middle tier stores present at Mall of Louisiana. Nonetheless, it seemed generally bustling around Christmastime, with relatively low vacancy except in the wing of in-line stores that lead to the notorious Sears. But that was nearly five years ago. How does it look today?
It’s seriously hurting, with about 50% occupancy, I would guess, among the in-line stores. And in answer to the question posed by the title of this blog, they don’t really do mall rot that differently in the South than anywhere else, by my observation. Among the few tenants currently entering the mall are fourth-tier brands without any major advertising presence, like Famous Labels seen below:
This is precisely the sort of tenant that seeks a struggling retail outlet, because that caters to the lower income market that still shops here. The well-heeled of Baton Rouge stopped patronizing Cortana long ago, and now the foot traffic and ensuing sales per square foot are so low that the place cannot ask for high rents. Famous Labels is a discounter that feeds on the rejected space of former top brands; no doubt this space once held a Lane Bryant or New York and Company. Notice from the photo above how much of the space inside the store is vacant; the tenant doesn’t even need to stuff the premises with merchandise because rents are low. Stepping back several feet from the store’s entrance reveals its less-than-lucrative surroundings:
The tenant in the background of the photo below is a convenience store, with gas station merchandise. Would you ever see that in a successful mall?
Cortana hasn’t lost all of the big names; a few are hanging on. The neon is barely visible on the photo below, but the two tenants seen here are Pacific Sun and Journeys.
And two more mall mainstays, Hot Topic and Wet Seal:
The targeted demographic for these stores suggests that, at the very least, teenagers still frequent the mall. But how much are you willing to bet that not one of these will renew its lease when the term ends?
And then there’s Aeropostale, another bit of a surprise.
But for some reason, I’ve noticed Aeropostale hangs around dying malls longer than its perceived competitors. I’ve never shopped at the store, but I used to think it was comparable to American Eagle or The Gap; however, those two retailers tend to dart out of a mall at the first sign of failure, while Aeropostale does not. Most likely that means Aeropostale has cheaper merchandise. Bath and Body Works and Victoria’s Secret, both present in Cortana (though I did not take a photo), also hang around longer than one might expect. And shoe stores like Foot Locker are usually among the last big names to jump ship. I enjoy what the property managers of Cortana, creatively named Mall Properties, have decided to do with some of the vacant storefronts:
These TV screens advertise the remaining in-line stores still standing in the mall.
What about the department stores? At its peak, the mall boasted six anchor tenants, an incredible four of which were housed in two-story structures. Today, four occupied department stores remain: Sears, Macy’s, Dillard’s, and J.C. Penney. Mervyn’s closed a few years before the company went out of business in 2008, while Steve and Barry’s prevailed at the mall until near the end of the company’s life; it was defunct in 2009. But what about the surviving anchors? Since anchors typically pay little to no rent in a mall, they have less at stake and can often break even as long as they sell enough merchandise to pay their employees and cover basic operating expenses. But the Dillard’s at Cortana is clearly feeling the pinch. It’s housed in one of the two-story spaces, but the second floor seems to be receding.
The partitions are blocking about 1/3 of the gross leasable space on this level. A conversation with a clerk revealed that they were liquidating the central portion of that floor as well, seen below.
Before long, only the other 1/3 of that floor would remain open. Access to the second floor is already limited, as witnessed by this barricaded escalator.
How much longer before Dillard’s vacates its second floor altogether? And then, of course, how soon before it bids adieu to Cortana Mall?
Perhaps one of the clearest indicators that this mall is a goner is one of the smaller wings leading back to the parking lot.
The theme of this wing seems to be Public Sector.
It houses an Army Recruitment Center, Navy Recruitment, Air Force, and a US Postal Service Branch. No doubt these government agencies wouldn’t be paying the rent at Mall of Louisiana. While I hate to bring the specter of social class into this argument (and certainly don’t want to politicize it), the presence of all these recruiting centers can’t help but recall Michael Moore’s trip to an Army Recruiting Center in his hometown of Flint, Michigan in Fahrenheit 9/11. He recognized that the recruiting centers never appear on the “good” side of town, where the teenaged shoppers are most likely to have college aspirations.
So, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest and most successful, Cortana’s placement is probably about a four or a five. It’s not dead yet, a few strong tenants remain, and some recent news that a Sam’s Club proposes locating at an outparcel on the mall premises offers a whisper of good fortune in this bad economy. But the fact remains that any mall that sinks below about a 7 out of 10 is likely past the point of no return, and what this means for Baton Rouge is the confirmation that the growth patterns are veering further away from the eastern suburbs and more to the southeast, along the I-10 corridor. It makes sense, in a way: living closer to a limited access road such as I-10 (rather than a busy six lane highway like Florida Boulevard) helps the commuter. And Louisiana State University, the true heart of Baton Rouge, already lies to the south and southeast of the city center. But the housing around Cortana Mall—particularly to the immediate south—is still solidly middle class. How long will it remain that way if the families have a blighted mall presiding over them? Will they be able to sell?
The decline of Cortana is more remarkable because it remains a larger shopping center than the successful Mall of Louisiana, which is about 50,000 square feet shy of its predecessor in GLA. But it’s clear that the decentralizing forces in Baton Rouge have long favored the southeast. The northern section of Baton Rouge is overwhelmingly lower income minority. The western suburbs, across the Mississippi River, are mostly working class and growing slowly. The eastern suburbs comprised a middle class boomlet as recently as the early 1990s, but they haven’t been able to compete in desirability of the I-10 corridor. And since the Mall of Louisiana is the second biggest in the state, it has even become an attraction for folks in New Orleans over 70 miles away; it’s proximity to the interstate makes it far more accessible than the Cortana Mall ever was. But the poor folks in the north and west of Baton Rouge have always had a long hike to get to any major shopping; before long, even the sprawling suburbs of the east will have to travel much further to get to any major retail node. The death of Cortana Mall represents the culmination of some of the most lopsided decentralization patterns of any metro region I have seen. It is an apotheosis of Homer Hoyt’s sector theory, in which settlements expand in wedge shaped patterns along principal transportation routes. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but the problem with most urban growth theories is that few cities actually live up to any of the proposed patterns. But here’s one example that has followed it almost hook, line, and sinker. Maybe that’s just how they do it Down South?