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Published: Sunday, 6/29/2008

Curtain closes on long-troubled south-Toledo mall

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The South Toledo mall was a retail hot spot after its 1972 opening, but drivers haven t fought over parking spots for years. The South Toledo mall was a retail hot spot after its 1972 opening, but drivers haven t fought over parking spots for years.
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The countdown reaches zero today for Southwyck Shopping Center, nearly 36 years after the South Toledo mall opened and became a leading regional shopping venue.

Following management s orders, the mall s final holdout businesses all four of them last week will have closed shop for good by 6 p.m., effectively leaving Southwyck a retail ghost town of darkened store windows, empty corridors, idle water fountains, and pulled-down metal gates.

The deadline brings an end to the gradual decline in Southwyck businesses that gained speed last fall when the Y-shaped mall s final anchor store, Dillard s, closed in coordination with the opening of its new location in the Shops at Fallen Timbers in Maumee.

Just eight vendors remained last month at the 2040 South Reynolds Rd. mall when today s closing was announced.

Southwyck, in its heyday, could boast 103 stores and three anchors, along with several dozen smaller shops in its Old Towne mini-mall wing that was modeled upon the marketplace of late 19th-century Boston.

Yet the decline and fall of a once formidable mall is nothing new or specific to Toledo.

Customers at Deb, one of Southwyck s last three interior
stores, shop for super sales before the mall closes for good. Customers at Deb, one of Southwyck s last three interior stores, shop for super sales before the mall closes for good.
THE BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Other 1970s-era shopping malls nationwide have had trouble competing in the contemporary retail climate, in which open-air, villagelike developments, such as Fallen Timbers and Perrysburg s Town Center at Levis Commons, are a latest fashion.

And Southwyck is not the only Toledo-area mall that has taken a beating. The former North Towne Square mall, off Alexis and Telegraph roads near the Michigan border, shut its doors in 2005 after 24 years of retailing, and the Woodville Mall east of Toledo in Northwood is continuing to struggle and is seeking a new owner.

I don t want Toledoans to beat themselves up about it it is a national trend, said Michael Young, an urban planner in San Diego who was a Toledo city planner for 16 years. There are entire Web sites about dead shopping malls.

But growing old isn t necessarily a death sentence for malls. Some local development observers and experts say there were strategies that Southwyck s handlers could have employed to survive but didn t.

Mr. Young, for instance, points to Southwyck s longtime competitor in West Toledo, Westfield Franklin Park, as an example of an aging mall that not only sustained its early success but continued to grow.

Although it opened a year earlier and with less space than the 950,000 square-foot Southwyck, the Franklin Park mall grew to become northwest Ohio s dominant retail force with 156 stores now open. Until 2002, the West Toledo mall was owned by the Rouse Co.

It s a fantastic contrast, Mr. Young said. Franklin Park would compete well out here in San Diego. Southwyck would have been dead a long time ago.

He added, Southwyck is like a museum of a 1970s mall design.

Southwyck s carousel near the center of the complex is motionless. The shopping center also at one time featured a seven-theater complex for movies and an Old Towne mini-mall. Southwyck s carousel near the center of the complex is motionless. The shopping center also at one time featured a seven-theater complex for movies and an Old Towne mini-mall.
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Stan Eichelbaum, a shopping mall and development consultant, said a core reason for Southwyck s downfall was that its owners displayed a real-estate mentality build it and they will come rather than the retail management mind-set for continually investing in their shopping complex and working to gain the best tenant mix.

As a result, Southwyck proved unable to sustain its roaring successes of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

[For] long-term sustainability, and we study this all over the world, always go with the mall that has the recapitalization and the strategic logic of who the anchors and the tenant body is, and they ll win, said Mr. Eichelbaum, a professor at Michigan State University s college of communication arts and sciences and an official at Franklin Park mall in the early 1970s.

Other often-cited reasons for Southwyck s decline include the increased competition from strips malls and the growing Franklin Park complex, the South Toledo mall s lack of major renovations or upgrades, and a lingering perception of crime or danger at the mall.

They have some of the same landscaping and benches that were there when it opened, and you just can t do that in any type of retail setting, said Rob Ludeman, an agent with Danberry Co. Realtors and a former Toledo city councilman whose district included Southwyck.

The mall and its parking lot were the scenes of several incidents of vandalism, assaults, drug deals, and fights in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

On Dec. 26, 1981, Southwyck was crowded with after-Christmas shoppers. In its heyday, the mall had 103 stores, three anchors, and several dozen smaller shops in its Old Towne wing. On Dec. 26, 1981, Southwyck was crowded with after-Christmas shoppers. In its heyday, the mall had 103 stores, three anchors, and several dozen smaller shops in its Old Towne wing.
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A 1990 city report found that Fridays were considered white night at the mall and Saturdays black night. It warned that many of the violent incidents involving teens seemed racially motivated,

Although Southwyck officials eventually gained control of the situation, the negative image proved tough to shake.

As a shopping center, it was never able to overcome the perception that was created when those issues occurred, said Kevin Lent, a local entrepreneur and a manager at Franklin Park from 1989 to 1999. Even long after those issues had been eradicated, people still said, I m not going there. It s not safe.

Divided ownership

Southwyck s ownership is divided among three entities. The managing partner is Tom Morgan of MD Management in Kansas City, a firm formerly known as Dreiseszun & Morgan.

His uncle, Sherman Dreiseszun, who died in December, was an original operator of the mall.

Today, various trusts of the Morgan and Dreiseszun families own about half of Southwyck through a firm called S-S-C Co.

Half of the rest of the mall is owned by Dillard s Inc. of Little Rock, with the exception of the former Dillard s store, which is owned by the M.G. Herring Group of Dallas.

Neither Mr. Morgan nor Dillard s Inc. returned messages seeking comment for this story.

The 100-foot translucent dome skylight wowed shoppers in the mall s early days. The 100-foot translucent dome skylight wowed shoppers in the mall s early days.
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With a snip of a ribbon, Mayor Harry W. Kessler and that year s Miss Toledo ceremoniously opened Southwyck in August, 1972.

Its 100-foot translucent dome skylight made first-day shoppers marvel, and the building s seven-theater movie complex was billed as the first such amenity in the world.

Southwyck was the Toledo area s third enclosed mall, joining Franklin Park, which opened in 1971, and Woodville Mall, which opened in 1969.

A fourth, North Towne Square, opened in 1980.

Montgomery Ward, Lamson s of Toledo, and The Lion Store were Southwyck s original anchor stores.

The mall itself was the centerpiece of the Hawthorne Hills planned community in South Toledo by developer Dean Bailey, who is now deceased.

Old Towne at Southwyck was unveiled in 1975. This 15,000-square-foot connected mini-mall area had space for 57 small shops before it closed by the early 1980s.

Buoyed by three anchor stores, Southwyck overall did brisk business in its first two decades.

Back in the early 80s, Southwyck was the No. 1 center in town, and North Towne was almost on equal footing with Franklin Park, said Mike Podracky, a former Franklin Park manager who is now vice president of leasing for the developer of Fallen Timbers.

Yet, business continued to pick up at Franklin Park, which added a food court and put to use the resources and contacts of the Rouse Co. in courting higher-end and national retailers, such as Eddie Bauer, which were new to Toledo.

Franklin Park s 1993 expansion solidified the growing lead over its South Toledo competitor, Mr. Podracky said.

Southwyck s occupancy rates started slipping by the 1990s. After losing its Montgomery Ward anchor in 2001 to bankruptcy, the rate dipped below 50 percent four years ago.

As outside businesses around the mall began closing or putting up for-sale signs, Toledo city officials raised concerns about Southwyck pushing the neighborhood into blight.

Last month, the city threatened to shut the mall down because of several structural problems that centered on suspected asbestos contamination in the shuttered Montgomery Ward store.

Though inspectors later deemed the air safe, about a week later the mall gave notice that it was closing on its own.

The easy-listening music still played overhead last week throughout the mall as the last three interior stores Deb, World Nail, and GNC huddled near the center of an otherwise empty corridor.

Clerks moved around hangers and boxes to consolidate whatever clearance merchandise was left onto fewer and fewer racks and shelves. Near the center court, Southwyck s iconic carousel sat motionless. The only visitors were mall walkers or an occasional sentimental gawker.

I wanted to see if it was as bad as people said it was, and it really is as bad as people said, observed Kyle Lowe, 18, whose first job was at the mall s former Footaction USA store. It s sad to see something like this.

Shopkeepers at a fourth store with an exterior entrance, The Box Shoppe, were bidding farewell to longtime customers.

Plans for Southwyck s rebirth remain unsettled.

The latest announced redevelopment proposal by developer Larry Dillin involves razing much of the mall to build an open-air village of stores, offices, and apartments that would be similar to the Levis Commons and Fallen Timbers developments.

Some believe that, even with these two shopping centers just a short distance away, respectively, a redeveloped Southwyck would still find eager shoppers.

The level of success could depend on the mix of retailers that go into a new Southwyck, said Duke Wheeler, real-estate specialist with CB Richard Ellis/Reichle Klein.

I think if the products were different enough, all three could survive, Mr. Wheeler said. The underlying real estate is still good real estate. Even if the enclosed mall concept doesn t work in that location anymore, that doesn t mean it s in a poor location.

Indeed, Mr. Wheeler said South Toledo residents might become increasingly inclined to shop in their own neighborhood because of high gas prices.

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said in a statement late last week that he and Mr. Dillin plan to announce tomorrow a timetable for razing the empty mall.

The closure of Southwyck mall is bittersweet, the mayor said. Southwyck mall was a dynamic commercial shopping center, but due to a variety of circumstances, its time has passed.

Contact JC Reindl at:jreindl@theblade.comor 419-724-6065.



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