Cortana closes mallwalking…and then closes altogether.

As I work on a longer, more photo-saturated post, I have to get a little snippet in because of some news that a reader recently sent me. The Cortana Mall (or the Mall at Cortana) in Baton Rouge recently closed. The only functional portion left is a Dillard’s Clearance Center, which, though physically connected to the mall, is under independent ownership—an ownership that sealed off the internal mall access many years ago. The remaining one million square feet of this hulking institution on the east side of town is completely shuttered.

Cortana Mall ends mallwalkingThe closing of Cortana has personal significance to me, not only because I obviously featured a lengthy and engaged blog article on it, but because I saw the indicators firsthand, back when it still drew crowds. I did the bulk of my shopping there during the holiday season at the end of 2005, back when the crowds nonetheless seemed atypical because: a) Christmas was fast approaching and b) Baton Rouge was still packed to the gills with refugees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. At that time, it still had five department stores and all the bustle one expects during the holidays, but the telltale indicators of weakness were present: lots of independently owned mom-and-pop stores, and the corridor leading toward the Sears suffered low occupancy. Having opened in 1976, Cortana Mall became the “other mall” for Baton Rouge after Mall of Louisiana opened in the more affluent southeast suburbs in 1997.

Cortana decay 003Fast forward to 2010 when I revisited and blogged about it, and Cortana was indisputably a dying mall, peppered heavily with vacancies and only a few national names surviving among the inline tenants. Most of the department stores were still there, but the Dillard’s had closed off its upper floor and a vacated Steve and Barry’s (chain went out of business) was preparing to receive the for-profit Virginia College. In those ensuing years, I didn’t visit Cortana, but blog followers informed me that the mall survived increasingly by catering to non-profit or quasi-public services, with the Virginia College location keeping the place feeing reasonably active. Nonetheless, the downward spiral continued, with all of the anchors (except Dillard’s) closing by the mid 2010s. As of summer 2019, when Bath and Body Works closed, the only remaining occupants were a post office, a church, a theater, a medical clinic, and a charity specializing in diaper drives.

But here’s the clincher: just a few weeks before the mid-September announcement, a hastily produced sign tacked onto the front door announced that the mall’s management would no longer allow mallwalking, apparently “for liability reasons”. Are they worried that mallwalkers would trip and fall and could sue the company? Is the place in that bad of condition? A video linked to the cited article from The Advocate (Baton Rouge’s primary paper) shows a mall of staggering vacancy but it doesn’t appear unmaintained. However, the article also indicates that the air conditioning was not operating inside the mall at that time. For anyone who has visited Louisiana, the weather conditions usually require air conditioning well into November, and for senior citizens—the typical mallwalking demographic—it could be particularly dangerous. Besides, most seniors gravitate to malls for their exercise because the malls offer free and climate controlled environments. My favorite part of the article, though, was the announcement that mallwalking was restricted as of 8/3/19, but then someone had scratched over the “8” with a “9”. How generous of management; it gave the mallwalkers one more month.

Cortana decay 023This restriction during Cortana Mall’s dying days seems unusual in light of a recent blog article, where another fading mall in Pennsylvania openly encouraged mallwalking by providing various metrics and paths to indicate the laps necessary for a mile. It’s almost as if this mall wanted the presence of people to give the place some life and activity. But the Pennsylvania mall was much smaller and easier to monitor; a hulking mass like Cortana could indeed leave a person stranded in an obscure corner, suffering an injury or infarction with few opportunities to summon help. But the lack of air conditioning is a deal breaker; who would even want to wait in line at a post office to experience Louisiana’s September heat with no opportunity for relief? It was clear to everyone in Baton Rouge that Cortana was in hospice care.

I have a suspicion that, as the dying malls become more prevalent (they’re already easy to find) and the former mega-malls face 90% vacancy, the management will start imposing more restrictions on mallwalking. This conclusion more or less contradicts what I said in my August article about the one in Pennsylvania, but I’ve changed my tune: mall management is likely in the long run to concern itself more with avoiding liability in those dying days rather than simply creating incentives for mallwalkers, who, as we all know, rarely actually spend money. But as our population ages and more of them seek comfortable, secure environments for exercise without shelling out the money for a gym, where are they going to go? Maybe the next generation of smart phones will develop an app with a mini-fan or space heater, so they can tote them around while walking outdoors in our generally safe, revitalized, well monitored urban centers. When we refer to the rising tide of senior citizens these days, it’s Baby Boomers we’re talking about. They’ll think of something.

 

[NOTE: All photos featured here come from the 2010 blog article. No doubt, in its final days, Cortana Mall was much more bleak even than these images.]

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19 thoughts on “Cortana closes mallwalking…and then closes altogether.

  1. AvatarSteve P

    You mentioned the free aspect of mallwalking and I think the next best place might be in hospital gyms and the hospitals’ museum-like atriums. Gym amenities at hospitals often cost patients about $10/month. I wonder if local schools and colleges might similarly build relationships in the community.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      You could be on to something, Steve. I’ll admit I don’t know much at all about hospital gyms. Are they common and are they fancy? Most American for-profit hospitals are pretty plush so it wouldn’t surprise me. I can’t help but wonder if the older end of Baby Boomers (the emerging market for this sort of thing) may not want to make routine visits to a hospital for wellness-based activities, since frequent hospital visits are in many regards the opposite of the association with “active adults”–a moniker that implies older individuals who do not need regular medical attention.

      I’ll admit that seniors are a pretty uncommon sight at the private gym that I most frequently patronize. I guess there are always the community centers or the health clubs in the megachurches. But your observations here lead me to believe if there’s an untapped market: a private health club specifically catered to the 65-and-older population: perhaps a higher concentration of the machines and equipment they like, a running/walking track, classes they prefer, and it specifically forbid the kind of swingers-club atmosphere you sometimes see at youth-oriented gyms. With Boomers remaining a lucrative, high income market, it could have the ingredients of a national franchise. Who knows?!

      Oh, and the idea of actually converting a mall into a health care facility has already taken place. The earliest and best known example is the Jackson Medical Mall in Mississippi which I’ve never visited, but I did feature an article about a mall in eastern Pennsylvania where about 50% has turned into a medical center: https://dirtamericana.com/2018/04/bon-ton-malls-medical-intervention/

      Reply
      1. AvatarSteve P

        Eric, the malls and hospitals use and build so much public space, at high expense (nice finishes), I wonder if boomers who volunteer at hospitals and museums aren’t doing it for at least the aesthetic environment and steps for their pedometers. (Big assumption I’m suggesting.)

        The hospital gyms have great equipment and the seniors have been trained on it through their rehab if they’ve had joint surgery/replacements. Built in market and the membership fee is reduced to encourage continued PT/OT.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Good to know! Probably explains why the sort of gym I just envisioned hasn’t popped up yet. The healthcare industry has already largely cornered that market.

          Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Thanks for the heads up, Alberto. Kinda surprised that that has been declining that long, but it probably became the “other mall” about as soon as Mall of Louisiana opened. I was there way back in late 2005 with a bunch of FEMA workers when we were working nearby and needed a place to shop for Christmas (needless to say, it was still the stand back then). Everything in Baton Rouge was jam-packed with Katrina evacuees so we deliberately chose Cortana. It was still pretty hoppin’ (probably because everything was), but even then we could see the obvious signs: lots more mom-and-pops and obscure names, and the hallway toward Sears had more than a few vacancies. Probably only about 15% vacant overall, but that’s something. It wouldn’t surprise me if, these days, Mall of Louisiana (the largest in the state) has some of the telltale indicators of struggle that I saw at Cortana Mall way back then.

      Reply
  2. AvatarBrian M

    How is The Mall of Louisiana doing?

    I was in the very affluent Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek today, and their combination high end outdoor mall/traditional Main Street (a real one), and new neotraditional shopping streets seems to be doing pretty darn well. It helps that it was a beautiful day (we are way behind on rain, and the season of dust and fire is fully upon us, but 75 and sunny is still really pleasant).

    On the other hand, aI did a lot of my cycling today wandering through the affluent suburbs of central Contra Costa County (beautiful suburbia,. I have to admit), and it seemed like the Amazon Prime Sprinter Vans are EVERYWHERE.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I haven’t been to the Red Stick since 2012, but my guess is Mall of Louisiana is doing just fine by today’s standards, which still probably means much worse than the standards of 1995, or even 2012. It seems like they still have all their anchor department stores, including a Sears, which by now is about as common as a Florida panther. After this Christmas, the ailing company is expected to be down to less than 100 locations. Unreal. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mall of Louisiana faces a vacancy at that time. Besides that, the only major chain to leave was Indianapolis-based H.H. Gregg, but they folded everywhere and are now an online-only company.

      I’m not familiar with Walnut Creek, but glad to hear it’s doing well–including the neotraditional part. In Baton Rouge, just a half-mile south of Mall of Louisiana, a mixed-use (residential/retail/office) development called Perkins Rowe opened right at the onset of the Great Recession. Though a novelty for the Baton Rouge metro and reasonably well designed as those things go, it looked like it was struggling to secure a solid base of retail tenants back then and I’d be surprised if it’s in any better shape. I even think some of the housing was owner-occupied (condos) which, given the middling state of the retail and the overall drab appearance with high vacancies, can’t be good for those homeowners’ investments.

      I have no idea what an Amazon Prime Sprinter Van looks like! We’re 18 months behind y’all out here.

      Reply
  3. AvatarBrian M

    It’s Mercedes delivery van design. In Europe, Mercedes serves far more niches than “55 year old upper middle manager who wants a boring look car that drives well (when new)”.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Having balked at the chance to buy a German car several years ago, I did not know this about Mercedes, though it doesn’t surprise me. But it’s always interesting to know the demographic sub-groups that major brands eventually capitalize upon, often through very subtle signaling: e.g. Subarus and their outreach to a certain market as reinforced by their logo of the Seven Sisters or Pleiades (and “Subaru” is the Japanese word for this constellation)…

      Reply
  4. AvatarUrban Prairie Schooner

    I visited Cortana Mall just before it closed. The lack of climate control is noticeable. Also felt very creepy being all alone in such a vast structure where the silence was such you could hear a pin drop.

    As for the Mall of La, as you said it’s doing about as well as a mall can be doing in the current retail environment. The mall still has all its anchors (for now) but vacancies are popping up (esp. in the outdoor ‘lifestyle’ wing) and lower tier tenants are appearing here and there. Most of the tenants are still national retailers though.

    The post office is still open at Cortana (for now) as it has a separate outside entrance and is located very close to one of the mall entrances.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Interesting that the only inline tenant in this entire massive mall is a public agency. For the sake of those workers, I hope that that P.O. branch is getting serviced with A/C. Mall of Louisiana was still the place to be when I was last there in 2012. I’d have a feeling, if I were to visit today, the reduced vibrancy would be noticeable, both in the lack of crowds and the less lucrative tenant mix…just like every other mall really.

      Malls today are in approximately the condition of downtowns in 1966: there are still some that are holding their own, but the trajectory is obvious, and the powers that be haven’t fully given up on them yet. Then again, most malls have a single corporate owner whose profitability depends on it. And one of the biggest owners (Simon Property Group) is still apparently finding creative ways to rub two coins together, since most of their financial performance indicators remain stable or good.

      Reply
  5. AvatarBrian M

    Have to admit I always HATED malls. I see photographs of my hometown downtown (Fort Wayne, Indiana) from the glory days and I always ask myself, basic comfort of climate control aside, why would someone really choose this artificial, Muzakified, sterile, bland, chain-dominated shopping machine over a classic downtown? I am exaggerating on both ends, of course. And I am old but not so old that I really remember a strong downtown!

    Reply
  6. AvatarChris B

    why would someone really choose this artificial, Muzakified, sterile, bland, chain-dominated shopping machine over a classic downtown

    In the 70s, 80s, 90s…for easy access and parking and lots of selection under one (big) roof. Plus, in the Midwest, climate control is a thing.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Bingo. It’s hard to imagine from the aesthetic climate that dominates today, but I have no doubt in 1955, the malls seemed sleek and sophisticated and new, while downtowns were old and creaky and obsolete. There’s a reason most of the early malls peppered their big blocky façades with Jetsons-styled, Googie architecture references. It emphasized that this was the shopping typology of the future. Now we tend to view malls the same way we previously looked at our town centers. If we put the enclosed shopping mall within a chronological context based on cultural taste, it might as well be there year 1960–which means there’s still some viability to malls but they have yet to reach their nadir.

      I suspect that, in the next 10-15 years, virtually all malls will be non-viable. But before they become extinct, a nostalgia-driven historic preservationist movement will emerge to attempt and save some of the most vintage looking ones. They’ll face some serious challenges: most of the oldest malls (with those great Googie flourishes) already have failed (and even been demolished or repurposed beyond recognition), and the newer ones, though still structurally sound, won’t be old enough or interesting enough to elicit curiosity. Besides, even when malls were still popular, they’d usually undergo a complete interior renovation–and some slight changes to the exterior–after 25 years, so the generally assumed minimum of 45 years to make a property “historic” might not ever stick, except for really significant malls like Country Club Plaza in KCMO, which is probably already registered as historic and isn’t a conventional mall anyway, by any definition.

      Reply
      1. AvatarBrian M

        Can’t deny anything you say. I still find them horrifying, and I was a Midwesterner who never really loved winter, so…

        Forgive my cri de Coeur. 🙂

        I am sure there will be a Save The Mall movement some day soon! Heck, you can already see it. There was a failed 1970s mall in the heart of Silicon Valley (Cupertino-home of Apple) that was proposed for redevelopment into mixed use with (much needed) housing. NO! The neighbors cried. Bring us back to the 1970s shopping paradise! (Plus, the usual NIMBY arguments).

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          I’m sure a Save the Mall movement is already in the works! I think the mall nostalgia movement began awhile ago (early/mid 2000s), with sites like DeadMalls.com and Labelscar.com (both now largely inactive), and has morphed in recent years to successful “urban exploration” tours of dead malls in the form of YouTube vlogs. I think you recommended one once…?

          Sandwiched in between is the music genre Vaporwave, characterized by altered 80s pop (lots of Diana Ross) and morphed to a creapy, dreamlike distortion, which largely serves as the soundtrack to these dead-mall vlogs.

          Your Cupertino anecdote is interesting to me. It’s a pretty ritzy suburb with a good school district, right? And yet the neighbors to this mall would rather it stay an aged, blighted ,windowless hulk? And they’d rather it languish in the hopes that some great retailer like Pirch or Dean & DeLuca might resuscitate it? And if one doesn’t arrive (because those companies are failing), it can sit and depress the neighborhood, generating little to none of the property tax revenue that would make their schools even better? Why could that be? Is it possible that they fear that the redevelopment of the failed Cupertino mall will get turned into high density moderate income housing, attracting the likes of “those people” who might topple their school district ranking from its lofty “pirch”, thereby depressing home values even more than a dead mall? Nah. Couldn’t be. That sort of NIMBYism never happens in places that are progressive and well-educated…

          Reply
          1. AvatarBrian M

            LOL. A hilariously accurate description of the reality! Of course,, the good progressive thought leaders of Cupertino NEED school teachers, service workers, Uber drivers, and Amazon Prime deliverymen. It’s just that THOSE PEOPLE can commute from Manteca. Meanwhile, Cupertino will install a few solar panels in the library parking lot because they are so GREN and committed to climate change activism, dontcha know?

            Reply
  7. AvatarAnonymous

    Excellent post, and I really like what you have here. The only thing I will say is that by the time the mall banned mall walking, the only other business in the mall open besides the US Post Office and, of course, Dillard’s Clearance, was a health care clinic (Heart 2 Heart Care). The clinic opened in late 2018 as one of the nontraditional tenets Cortana tried to lure in, and although they claimed they were staying until the last day their lease ended (September 18, 2019), some media outlets reported they were gone only a few days after mallwalking ended. Heart 2 Heart was located near the former Wilson’s/Service Merchandise/Steve & Barry’s/Virginia College anchor. When I visited the mall several days before mall walking ended, there was an alarm blaring incessantly from the old Virginia College, and it seemed it continued after mall walking ended, per an article from “The Advocate.”

    Reply

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