If you asked me in my teens or 20’s what my favorite pastime was, I’d undoubtedly reply, “going to the mall.” Shopping is my cardio, my therapy, and my number one hobby. In recent years, especially since becoming a mom, I’ve turned to online shopping or one-stop shops like Target more and more out of convenience. In the meantime, little did I know, that our malls have been dying left and right. First, we lost retail favorites like KB Toys, Sam Goody, Blockbuster, then Delia’s and Toy’s R Us. Now entire shopping malls seem to be on the brink of extinction. My little 80’s baby heart is breaking. Maybe I’m the last person to catch on to this phenomenon, but for a short while now I’ve been fascinated by this “retail apocalypse” and what that means for our future and for the next generation.
Malls used to be more than just shopping, they were places of entertainment for all ages. A mecca for retail, dining, playing arcade games, meeting friends, dating, seeing movies, going to the salon, and maybe even seeing the next up and coming pop star perform. They were especially popular with high school kids as an after school or weekend hang out. They smelled like Cinnabon and cologne and featured fountains, plastic plants, and gaudy colored tile.
Malls have been around since the late ’50s but reached their peak of popularity in the 1980s. Between 1956 and 2005 approximately 1,500 shopping malls were built in the US. In the mid-1990s new malls were still being built at a rate of 60-100 per year. Malls were so popular in fact that in 1988 Milton Bradley first released the board game Mall Madness, a favorite among teen girls throughout the ’80s and ’90s. 2007, the year before the Great Recession was the first year no new malls were built in the US. The increase in popularity in online shopping coupled with the collapse in the economy took its toll on brick and mortar retail. Malls have begun to dwindle and close their doors permanently since then. Currently, there are approximately 1,100 currently still standing, however many of these are considered dead or dying. The term “dead malls” or “abandoned mall” usually refers to a mall that has a high vacancy rate or very little consumer traffic. Often these are malls that have no surviving anchor stores (large department stores) and may be dated or deteriorated. According to Business Insider, it’s currently predicted that roughly a third of America’s existing malls are at risk of dying off as a result of store closings.
St. Augustine is home to one such dying mall that has been on my mind lately. Locals here are aware that the Ponce de Leon Mall has been dying for quite some time, but it suffered another great blow this July, when one of it’s two remaining anchor stores, JCPenney closed. On it’s last day in business I hurried my toddler out the door and we ventured out to try and snag some bargains. By that time all that was left inside were a couple of racks of clothing, store fixtures and some odd mannequin parts that were actually up for sale as well. The vast empty store was quite shocking to see, remembering what it once was.
If you’ve lived here a while, you may remember when the Ponce De Leon Mall was in its prime, or at least a little less dead. I remember it back in the mid-’90s when it had a 6-screen movie theater, Regal Mall 6 Cinema, which was one of three local St. Augustine movie theaters at that time (the other two being PotBelly’s Cinema on Granada Street, in downtown St. Augustine, now Corazon Cinema and Cafe, and Movie Works in the Anastasia Plaza in St. Augustine Beach, known and loved for it’s glorious PVC furniture!) Crowds of high-school kids used to gather outside the entrance to the Ponce De Leon Mall back then, waiting to be picked up by their parents before curfew. Inside the mall, many may recall a popular pizza restaurant (De Leon Pizza), a Hallmark Store, Body Central, and my personal favorite at that time, The Sanrio (Hello Kitty) Store. Those who have lived here longer than I fondly remember Morrison’ Cafeteria, the arcade, Music Land, Circus World, Nautilus and Chic-Fil-A.
Ponce-De-Leon mall opened in 1979 as the first enclosed shopping mall in St. Johns County. Its fall from grace began in the ’90s when competing malls, The Avenues Mall in Jacksonville and the St. Augustine Outlet malls opened. It suffered further blows when the Cobblestone Village opened, offering more space for a variety of restaurants and when Epic Theaters opened in 2010. Ponce De Leon Mall is currently owned by Hull Property Group, who acquired it in 2002. It is rumored that Anchor Faith Church who leases the space where the mall’s movie theater was is in talks to purchase the mall.
Youtuber, Dan Bell’s Dead Mall Series showcases many of America’s dead or dying malls. He recently featured two other local malls on the brink of closure, The Palatka Mall in Palatka, Florida and the Regency Square Mall in Jacksonville, Florida. For a full list of America’s dead malls check out deadmalls.com.
Whether malls will die off in the near future or rise again is yet to be seen. I’m hopeful retailers will find a way to adapt to the changing shopping trends and survive to be loved as much as they once were by the next generation. Personally, I’d love to see them come back in all their glory. Give me back Contempo Casuals and Chess King, the piped-in music, vast skylights, and massive fountains. I’ll trade you for my iPhone.