The Sandusky Mall’s precipitous fall.

While this article treads across some familiar territory—dead and dying malls—it arrives through a different lens: the eyes of a friend and fellow devotee of interesting landscapes. I blogged many years ago about Sandusky—specifically an unusual Value City Furniture in the heart of downtown—but I spent very little time in the area that one would like call “the suburbs” (in quotes because Sandusky isn’t really big enough to have suburbs of its own). Back when I wrote in 2012, Sandusky couldn’t brag about a very lively downtown scene, but it wasn’t desolate or blighted, despite the broader Lake Erie conurbation in Ohio stretching from Toledo to Cleveland (with Sandusky smack in the middle) suffering from decades of deindustrialization and population loss.

Incidentally, a quick online visit to Sandusky—courtesy of Google Maps and Street View—indicates two critical findings: the Value City Furniture is still there in its same downtown location, and, not surprisingly, a number of new bars and restaurants have opened in the small city’s downtown, suggesting that it has enjoyed the same sort of reawakening common to downtowns of varying sizes all across the country. Good for Sandusky. Concomitant with downtown Sandusky’s revival, the Sandusky Mall—just 2 miles to the southeast—has plunged in popularity.IMG_0197

What’s particularly devastating about the Sandusky Mall decline is that it has not appeared to be gradual: less than three years ago, this 43-year-old mall had all four of its anchor tenants fully occupied. But in the spring of 2016, the long struggling department store Sears announced it was closing its location in Sandusky. Just six months later, the Macy’s announced its closure, which was undoubtedly more of a blow to the Cafaro Company, the developer that initially constructed the mall and has managed its throughout its life (an apparent rarity in the mall management biz). While Macy’s is hardly surging, it certainly hasn’t faced the same persistently abysmal track record as Sears Holdings Company. But then, in the spring of 2018, the Bon-Ton Stores, Inc. announced its bankruptcy and the liquidation of all 256 of its locations in the chain, which included other regional names beyond the Pennsylvania-centric Bon-Ton: Boston Store (centered around Kansas City), Carson’s (around Chicago), Younkers (from Des Moines), Herberger’s (Minnesota), and Elder-Beerman, the latter of which was widespread in Ohio—including a space at Sandusky Mall. It closed within weeks.

The Sandusky Mall of 2019 is still reeling from a one-two-three punch; only JCPenney survives among the anchor tenants. In its defense, the complex still boasts a reasonable number of national brands among its in-line tenants: American Eagle Outfitters, Spencer’s Gifts, Finish Line, Champs Sports, Bath and Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, and Journey’s, among others. It also features two quasi-anchors; though T.J. Maxx and Books-A-Million don’t carry the weight of a full-fledged department store, to the best of my knowledge, they are not struggling nationally. But I strongly suspect that the majority of these retail stalwarts are simply remaining at Sandusky Mall through the duration of their leases; it is inevitable that mall traffic has plunged, and the departure of these anchors (especially the Macy’s loss) suggests that Sandusky Mall’s sales-per-square-foot were subpar to begin with. Another clear indicator that this tenant exodus should have come as no surprise: most of the remaining tenants are locals.IMG_0184IMG_0185IMG_0189Personal care-based services—nails, hair, massage, eyebrow threads—are rarely an indicator of a shopping center with high leasing rates.IMG_0194IMG_0195

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And then there are tenants like Amazing Space, which appears to be an arcade combined with play area, to be rented for children’s parties.IMG_0193Multi-purpose spaces like these tend to involve a high-risk concept, and they rarely seek out the top-dollar real estate. They’re usually homegrown and cannot afford the prestigious stuff. The mall’s restaurants include only two national brands—Auntie Anne’s and Mrs. Fields—along with a handful of local casual establishments like these:IMG_0188IMG_0186IMG_0187The latter vaguely mimics the classic sitcom’s logo, but clearly only a locally run concept.

Not surprisingly, the JCPenney wing has the highest occupancy level, including most of the nationally known in-line tenants nearby, clinging to their parent like a bunch of baby opossums.IMG_0198The opposite end of the mall—presumably the side that hosted the chronically anemic Sears—already approaches “dead mall” classification.IMG_0191Sandusky Mall growing vacancyIncidentally, to show how much the mall management is struggling to catch up with the outflow, the mall map on display at the premises still shows Elder-Beerman, though it departed over a year ago.IMG_0192The mall’s website is at least more up-to-date. But the website also shows a number of tenants that are not physically attached to the mall facility, which includes outparcels like Cracker Barrel, Target, Planet Fitness, and Best Buy. While I suspect the Cafaro Company owns the entire grounds that host these outparcels, an adjacent strip mall, and the parking lot, it’s a bit misleading to list these as part of Sandusky Mall, since they are all physically unattached and not featured on the display map from the photo above. Additionally, the mall’s website references a Disney Store, even though it’s really just part of the “Disney Collection” inside the JCPenney store.

 

IMG_0196These photos provide ample evidence of Sandusky Mall’s struggles, and it’s impossible to conceive of a situation where management could stem the tide. Though Sandusky has confronted many of the deindustrialization challenges common to Rust Belt cities large and small, it boasts two critical advantages: a picturesque location right along Lake Erie, and, perched on a spit of land projecting into this great lake, is Cedar Point, the second oldest continuously operating amusement park in the country (since 1870) and a colossal magnet for tourists during the summer months. In 2019, this resoundingly successful attraction is more likely to stimulate interest in Sandusky’s downtown than an off-center, middling mall, much the same way a flourishing vacation town like Rehoboth Beach, Delaware can offer great retail on its main street, a variety of auto-oriented strip malls, as well as an enclosed mall forced to close down a few years ago due to lack of tenants. If these towns cannot support the mall typology, it’s hard to imagine how they’ll flourish in small cities without these intrinsic advantages. Yet Sandusky Mall undoubtedly seemed like it was prevailing against the encroaching retail apocalypse as recently as 2015.

I hate to be a cynic, but it’s hard to imagine a future where successful malls are the status quo; within five years, the right-sizing of the American mall may translate to only one real success story for every 500,000 people, meaning nearby Toledo will have about one mall and Cleveland only three. And that still may prove an optimistic forecast. All the better reason to support the businesses in a reasonably well-preserved downtown like Sandusky’s. A creative investor will repurpose those hulking, windowless retail behemoths someday.

 

All photo contributions courtesy of Tucker Handley.

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15 thoughts on “The Sandusky Mall’s precipitous fall.

  1. AvatarBrian M

    I have to admit I have always hated malls. Even as a young wee pre-planner lad, I used to look at photographs from the glory days of Downtown Fort Wayne and compare them to the banal reality of 1970s “Glenbrook Mall” and plaintively state “this was all a mistake”.

    Sandusky has some lovely gray stone historic buildings, I remember. I also, of course, remember Cedar Point. That and King’s Island were family vacation spots.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Never made it to Cedar Point growing up (Kings Island or Kentucky Kingdom were always the much closer destinations), but certainly heard its mystique. Only in the last five years or so would I say that the idea of shopping–often embodied by a beautiful glamorous woman toting around six elegant gift bags–started seeming banal and corny…worthy even of mockery. It’s amazing it took this long, and it’ll probably be at least a decade before it trips our nostalgia receptors and becomes a vintage, retro-chic pasttime. And by that point, who knows how many malls will be left?

      For many years, the south side of Fort Wayne had one of the best dead malls (Southtown), because even when it was 98% vacant, they left the place completely open. A tour of the place is still visible at the mostly-defunct Dead Malls website: http://deadmalls.com/malls/southtown_mall/

      Reply
  2. AvatarHeather M.

    The mall in my hometown is certainly struggling while a giant Walmart does fine just down the road. The good news is that the downtown is getting better every year!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      This seems to be the recurring trend! I didn’t even visit Sandusky this time around, but I could tell downtown had improved from a 2012 visit after just 5 minutes on Google Maps.

      Reply
    2. AvatarHeather M.

      A good community/economic developer makes a huge difference. South Grand in St Louis is so much stronger a few years after hiring Rachel Witt!

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

        While I’m always glad to hear about and witness these revitalizing urban corridors, I’m not exactly cheering on the demise of the conventional shopping mall. Most malls represent a huge swath of land that is a big part of a municipal tax base. If they plummet in value because of vacancies, the municipality loses out on its budget and an opportunity to provide services for its constituents. Maybe some of this loss is offset by the revitalization of old Main Streets, but I don’t know if it’s a one-to-one replacement.

        Reply
      2. AvatarHeather M.

        They have torn down Creatwood Mall in the St Louis metro. Crest wood doesn’t have a core commercial area either

        There are a few big boxes getting built in Emporia still- but it’s frustrating when they insist on completely new development rather than redevelopment

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Yup. It’s usually cheaper to build anew than to renovate, even those nondescript big boxes. And the cities are more than happy to oblige by extending municipal infrastructure to the site, because it boosts the assessed value. A greenfield (probably former farm land) usually gets appraised at a lower rate than an improved land with stormwater and water/sewer. Though that may soon change, as shopping becomes an increasingly devalued activity, while farming commodities–especially after the flooding devastation this past year–makes the crops higher value. It’s a tough wager…

          Reply
  3. AvatarOran Sands

    I too wonder about the place of the mall in the future. What exactly IS the right-sized mall? We’re stuck with large real estate malls that are hard to impossible to re-purpose, certainly not to the level they were. So do we tear down these structures and replace them with what? I feel like I’m watching a very slow movie and I’m waiting to see what the outcome is going to be.

    Reply
    1. AvatarChris B

      I think there is some movement to turn “dead department store wings” into combination indoor-outdoor lifestyle centers with lots of entertainment/dining options. Eric has highlighted such a transformation at south-suburban Indy’s Greenwood Park Mall. (Another is coming: Dave and Busters is taking over the dead JCPenney Home/Furniture store space.)

      Elsewhere, dead department stores have become libraries, health care centers, and government offices. (They have the advantage of being surrounded by acres of parking.) There is even a conversion to a 50’s themed memory-care facility, since most acute dementia sufferers are familiar and comfortable with that era; I can’t wait for the Rock ‘n’ Roll/arcade version aimed at My Generation.

      Since the owners (mostly big REITs) of the remaining “B” and better malls surely see the writing on the wall, it’s only a matter of time before we see apartments or condos built in a department store shell that has had hunks removed from the roof and core plates to make a light-well atrium.

      Reply
      1. AvatarBrian M

        Our dead Sears (outer suburban “B” mall in Bay Area) is being converted as we speak to a Dave and Busters.

        Which I, as an antisocial grump, will probably never visit. 🙂 Why would I go to an adult Chuck E Cheese with mediocre food? In a mall?

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          I have to admit, it seems hard to imagine that a Dave and Busters could need to be so large to fit into the typical floorplate of a Sears. Aren’t most “Searses” two stories? A Dave and Busters is going into the mall where I grew up, apparently–filling in an old JCPenney Home Store, which was always much smaller than the JCPenney itself. And the JCPenney trudges onward.

          Reply
          1. AvatarBrian M

            You are right. The remaining square footage will hopefully be leased to another retailer. No user is identified at the moment, though.

            Solano Mall has so far been somewhat successful at releasing spaces as the old school middle market departments stores have fallen one-by-one (Mervyns, now Sears…how long for J.C. Penney or even Macy’s?) Given that the vast parking lots are no longer needed, they built a small strip center and filled it with a couple of currently trendy fast casual restaurants (Habit Burger and Sourdough and Company). I think the mall shop space are pretty full.

            Reply
    2. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I’m with Chris: the future is in repurposing. If any survive, they will be very special and will cover an extremely large trade area. I’ve featured Greenwood Park Mall quite a bit on this blog (it’s the one I went to while growing up) and it has held together better than most, and I think the biggest difference is the spatial separation between it and the others in Indy metro. Nothing else is close, and on the weekends (at least in the past), it was pretty clear that it pulled in visitors from rural southern Indiana. The only other malls nearby are in Bloomington and Columbus, and they don’t really compete (probably even less now, since I imagine they’re facing challenges too). Of course, now even GPM has a vacant tenant (the Sears) and it was very fortuitously situated: right next to the food court, and with two separate internal entrances. It was also huge, with a lower level. There are almost certainly no prospective tenants.

      I also think we’ll see a decentralization in the repurposing, which Chris already indicated. There will never be a paint-by-numbers conversion; they’ll modify themselves according to highly localized needs. It remains to be seen if a dead wing can repurpose itself into housing and attract a market that will, in turn, help add immediate density to the rest of the mall. Does anyone care enough about malls anymore to want to live near them? Outdoor shopping at least seems to have a little cachet, but enclosed centers are increasingly the domain of mallwalkers. Who do not shop.

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        The Columbus “Fair Oaks” Mall has not survived the passing of Elder-Beerman from the scene. The City is purchasing it for redevelopment.

        Which is funny. It was always “the old County Fairgrounds” when I was a child living within walking/biking distance, and its distinguishing feature was an open woodland of mature oaks…hence the 70s habit of usually-ironic development-naming (after what was destroyed on the site). But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post topic.

        It had a dirt racing track, which was still big in small Indiana motor-related cities in the 60s, and Columbus was certainly that. (It was gone by the time Tony Stewart was old enough to be a dirt-tracker.)

        Reply

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