If Mall of America Is Successful, Why Doesn’t Your Town Have One?

August 5, 2013 at 8:02 am CDT

Last week we talked about a new outlet mall and how it could become a model for new, more urban retail development. Today, I want to look at an old mall but a growing mall. Despite all the failing malls in the U.S., there’s one shining example of a mall that is not only succeeding, but thriving and expanding. I can only be talking about the retail behemoth that is the Mall of America.

I happened to have some time to kill in the area a few weeks ago and stopped to see what all the fuss was about. Until you stand in the middle of the largest indoor theme park, surrounded by Dora the Explorer and her friends as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their riders swoop overhead, it’s hard to imagine the scale. And that’s just the Nickelodeon Universe itself. There’s also a movie theater, aquarium and mini golf among other attractions.

And it’s crowded. On a random Monday afternoon, a steady stream of shoppers and tourists flowed through the complex. It hosts more than 42 million visitors a year, according to spokesman Dan Jasper, and has announced plans to more than double its size with a goal of 60 million visitors.

It also appears to be recession proof. “The most remarkable thing is that in the teeth of the recession, MOA sales were up,” says Neil Stern, senior partner at Chicago’s retail consultancy McMillanDoolittle.

The Mall of America Nickelodeon Universe. Photo: Matt Carmichael

While malls are often cited as examples of sprawl-causing consumerism, the Mall of America is so big it can talk about its own density and sustainability issues . It turned its waste management from a huge cost into a profit center by recycling smartly. There are so many lights and, more importantly, people moving throughout the place that it doesn’t have central heat. In Minnesota. Where it gets, you know, cold. A lot.

“Part of density is that we can’t have sprawling parking lots,” Jasper says. “We have two very large parking ramps that hold up to 12,550 spaces. But density also calls for the effective use of transit. We have the busiest transit hub in the metro area.”

The city’s light rail connects the mall to the rest of the area as do city and tour buses, taxis and shuttles. People even use the lot as a park-and-ride for Twins and Vikings games.

Which leads to the obvious question: If this works so well, why hasn’t it been replicated. A transit-enabled mall with entertainment for visitors and families and shopping for everyone seems to be a best-of-all-worlds kind of situation.

The short answer is that they finally are trying to – the ownership group is moving forward with a similar development now in New Jersey quaintly called The American Dream .

The longer answer is cash. “It costs a lot of money. When the mall opened up, it was $650 million to construct and that was 25 years ago,” Jasper says. Mr. Stern agreed. “It’s such a scale issue. It’s an investment issue and getting the property has kept people from doing it. “

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