Dearest readers, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to talk about the River Hills Mall. Today that day has come.
Let’s crack out a bit of history first, shall we? The River Hills Mall was built in 1991, it was pretty much unecesarry at the time, but hey, Mankato loves to blow money, right?
OK, actually, let’s back up just a little bit further than that to the very first mall. The first shopping mall was designed by Austrian architect Victor Gruen. Basically the TL;DR version is, he built the mall as a place for people to gather and then in true Dr. Frankenstein fashion his creation just pretty much sucked and he ended up hating it even though it became ubiquitous throughout the American landscape
I mean, if you had come from the picture on the top and ended up creating the picture on the bottom, wouldn’t you spiral into a pit of self-loathing?
Back to the River Hills Mall. In the years preceding the construction of the river hills mall, many Mankato residents were hoping to see the Madison East Mall expanded.
Let me divert again for a minute, Mankato has three malls, the downtown mall (which is pretty much a mini-DC with all the government buildings in there) the east town mall (which, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been in there) and then our beloved “River Hills” (lol, k) mall. The first two were built in fairly close succession, the Madison East mall was built in 1968 and the downtown was an “answer” to that to get people back downtown.
You can ask the old-timers in Mankato, even with the Madison East Mall, the downtown mall was doing pretty good. It was vibrant, there were stores and people shopped there. It was the river hills mall that was the final blow (after all the urban renewal shenanigans) for the downtown mall and ultimately downtown.
As I was saying, Mankato residents and developers were looking to expand the Madison East Mall but an agreement was never reached with the then property owners. Shortly thereafter they said “whatever, we’ll build it 1.2 miles away” resulting in a billion dollars in long term infrastructure maintenance. Holy Crap.
After the mall opened, things started to fill in along Madison avenue and that’s how we got the current incarnation of that garbage stroad.
Ok, so nothing I’ve said as of yet has made you think of why the RHM is “screwed,” but I’m about to provide some pretty compelling evidence, much to the chagrin of the “sales tax for everything” cheerleaders.
American Eagle, Hollister, Victoria Secret, stores like that are great, people love them, but it’s not what makes a mall profitable, it’s not the thing that a mall is designed around, otherwise it would look different than it is today.
Malls are profitable because of “anchor tenants” these massive stores that are a sure-fire draw for a bunch of people and then they fill in all the spots in between with the above stores.
For the River Hills Mall our anchor tenants are Herbergers, Scheels, Barnes and Nobles, JC Penny, Sears and Target. The food court and movie theater could be considered anchor tenants as well, but not to the same degree.
If you look at those companies I just listed, there’s a problem… When was the last time you went to Herberger’s or JC Penny or Sears? If you have great, but you’re not having much of an impact.
Here’s the 5 year stock for JC Penny, Sears, Bon Ton (who owns Herbergers) and Barnes and Nobles.
Notice a trend? Some of them could just be leveling out and restructuring to a changing economy, or some of them might just be going the way of Blockbuster.
EDIT: If you’re reading this as of 5/13 JC Penny missed their Q1 earnings and dropped by 10%. Yeah, they’re toast.
Now, to be fair, Target has seen pretty good gains in stock and Scheels has been pretty solid because, ya know, sports.
I will also undermine myself slightly by saying that the stock market isn’t a good reflection of the economy in general, but it does a pretty good job of gauging retail consumption, which is what all of these stores are. However, Sears just closed a bunch of stores and Aeropostale just filed for Bankruptcy, a sign of things to come.
This article from AOL (yeah, I know) Finance gives a pretty good outlook on the whole mall situation in general.
To further understand how the RHM might be in the first phases of decline, we need to look a little deeper.
General Growth Properties, the company that owns the mall, filed for bankruptcy shortly after the economic recession. After liquidating a bunch of property and cutting 20% of its staff, it figured out a way to right the ship and obviously it felt that RHM was a property worth keeping and re-investing in. A company going broke certainly leaves some room for doubt.
Nationally, we’re seeing a push away from malls. No new (enclosed) mall has gone up in the U.S. since 2006 and the recent push back towards urban living, internet shopping, and lack of car ownership is undermining the very business model that holds up a mall. Not to mention that debt-laden Millenials can’t just “go to the mall” anymore. I’d say this has something to do with it.
So is the River Hills Mall Dying?
No, it’s not and it’s not going to for years to come. Actually malls across America are doing fine. In fact General Growth Properties stock has risen pretty well since 2012.
So why are you bringing this up?
Because we both know the economy never went back to normal and we’re guaranteed another recession. That coupled with are arguably pretty weak anchor tenants could spell disaster for the RHM, or at least a complete restructuring.
Again, I’ll say that the River Hills Mall is doing fine for now and probably the next decade(ish) will be in ok shape.
But keep in mind, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And the question we have to ask is, we will have an empty shell of a mall taking up a huge amount of resources in short order?
The other reason is to prepare for when that time (most likely) does come. What can we do to make sure the mall doesn’t die (because we might as well keep it around) or to mitigate the impacts of its decline.
So what are we supposed to do about it?
We should be encouraging small, incremental development on unused or underused parcels in our city. Yes, I know we’ll still need big box stores and probably even malls, but the more diversified our local economy is the better shot we have at weathering an economic downturn. We can encourage our wealthy citizens like Doctors, Lawyers, Dentists, etc… to invest in these types of buildings. They make money on them, build a better city and give small businesses and entrepreneurs a place to get off the ground. A place like Salvage Sisters or Nicollet Bike Shop aren’t going to open in an empty slot in the mall.
Heck, even the average joe can get in on the action with the right people. There have been plenty of folks who have bought or built small mixed used buildings and allowed their community to prosper.
At the end of the day, arguably the most frustrating thing is how much space we waste on the mall. Look at this awesome photoshop rendering by my cohort Ben Lundsten. This is the Madison East mall, but it gives you an idea of how much space we waste on parking.
Red is Parking, Blue is Apartments.
All the parking that is there today generates essentially nothing for the city. Time to fill it with some affordable housing, no?
Everything ends, the RHM is no different so we should start hedging our bets now. We should be developing in a tried and true method that has withstood thousands of years. Incremental mixed use buildings, that way if the RHM bites the dust, we’ll have an economy and a place to fall back on.
Cover photo from GMG who I assume got it from someone else? Maybe not.