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The Suburban Mall: A Thing Of The Past?

The near 30 year old Greeley Mall goes on the auction block today for a fraction of its original building cost. The mall, which is currently in foreclosure, has been looking for a buyer for over two years.

The traditional "suburban" mall may be on its final leg, as a new type of retail shopping destination emerges.

Remember when the mall was the center of suburbia? 50’s sales training films[8:06] frame the shopping center as an endless line of customers out the door, beckoned by the concept of ‘one stop shopping’ and modern amenities.

“The shopping centers have built fountains, commissioned statues, put in restaurants and free standing stairways, they’ve including banks loan offices rental plans plant nursery and places to buy building materials.”

In Northern Colorado – the Greeley Mall, the Twin Peaks Mall in Longmont, and the Foothills Mall in Ft. Collins have stood for decades as popular shopping destinations, and a steady source of sales tax revenue for their respective cities.

But times have certainly changed.

Two of these malls have been in foreclosure; the other sits on land that can legally be considered blighted.

The Greeley Mall.

Taking a stroll inside the Greeley Mall today, you see vacant store front after vacant store front. The halls are virtually empty. Sales people at kiosks read books to pass the time.

Robert Cosas works at the Radio Shack. The only person in the store, he leans against a display case waiting for a customer. He says business here is good, but he’s afraid the empty storefronts are driving people away.

“I know a lot of the owners. I’ve even heard rumors. I’m not going to say who, but they’ve said they’re thinking of leaving at the beginning of this year.”

So What Happened?

“I think the economic situation changed on every one.”

Eric Berglund is President of Upstate Colorado Economic Development, in Greeley.

“At one point, you didn’t know anyone that was laid off, and then suddenly it was your neighbor or someone in your family. So I think it’s a combination of all those things, and it’s almost a perfect storm.”

Berglund also points out that some mall owners had little capital during the recession and were unable to keep up with consumer demand for slicker, more modern-looking upgrades.

The Lifestyle Center.

“What we’ve done for decades has really created some pretty bad things.”

Jeremy Nemeth heads the Urban Design Program at the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning. He says the traditional, suburban mall has outlived its time.

"You know we’ve created low density sprawling suburbs, and we’re now dealing with the consequences with what I’ve heard people call ‘dead malls’ or vacant commercial strip developments.”

Nemeth says traditional low density malls built as urban centers are out. And outdoor focused developments like Belmar in Lakewood, Crossroads in Boulder, and to a lesser extent Centerra in Loveland are in. These places have the stores, but also condos, ice rinks, artist studios…basically whole neighborhoods.

“We have lost that connection with other people that we’re looking for. The suburbs are no longer filled with that nuclear family. In Denver the suburbs are much more diverse then the city is becoming.” Nemeth says.

Dead malls? Not so fast.

I went to Cherry Creek to ask mall manager Nick LeMasters what he thought about Nemeth’s comments.

He says a big change is happening in the retail world, but it’s not between lifestyle centers and the traditional mall.

“Just because you take the roof off a mall, doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be a more attractive place to shop. Here we sit inside a typical enclosed mall environment, and we reside successfully right next to Cherry Creek North, which is really the outdoor village, it’s always been a lifestyle center. So here we successfully coexist.”

LeMasters believes people shouldn’t write off the traditional mall concept. However, changes have to be made to keep it and other malls like it relevant and appealing for retailers and consumers.

“There is a fundamental shift, and the shift is this. There is a bifurcation in our industry. The strong malls are doing well, and succeeding and thriving. The malls that haven’t kept pace are struggling, and we’re seeing it all across America. And it’s a phenomenon that mall owners and developers will have to wrap their heads around.”

The Greeley Mall, once again.

The opening bid for this week’s on-line auction of the Greeley Mall is expected to be around three million dollars. A deal compared to its one time value of 41 million dollars. But this is the second time the mall has been up for auction in the past 16 months.

The lender was the sole bidder on the facility the last time it was up for sale.

UPDATE 03.05.2012 - 1:30pm: The opening bid for the Greeley Mall has been lowered. It had been set at $3 million dollars, it is now $1 million dollars.

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