Where did everyone go?
Ask that question aloud inside the Orlando Fashion Square Mall and, if not for the ambient pop music playing in the background, you could probably hear your voice echo off the building's high ceilings in reply.
This emptiness is evident on a muggy Tuesday evening in June, with just a few folks ambling about the mall's air-conditioned confines. On first impression, you feel like you're crashing a wake for the consumer industry.
The nail salon next to the main entrance is mostly vacant, minus a woman getting a pedicure while her bored son pouts in a corner chair across the room, his face resting in his palms. The lights inside Dillard's – which has been reduced to a sales and clearance outlet – are dim, some flickering. The mannequins in the windows nearly outnumber the people looking into them.
There was a time, of course, when Fashion Square wasn't a ghost town of materialism. But that era is more past than present – a time when the gag gifts you bought at Spencer's were still funny, when eating a Sbarro's slice every day after school still seemed like a good idea, when malls were still ground zero in the pubescent social order.
A native Orlandoan, John Tran, owner of Fashion Square-based H&Q Jewelers, isn't totally removed from those days. His family has made a living running businesses in malls across Central Florida, from here to the Oviedo Mall and elsewhere. He says he even went trick-or-treating at Fashion Square as a child.
But as a shop tenant for the last three years, Tran can't help but notice that Fashion Square has seen better days – and a more reliable customer base.
"To be honest, most of my clients here are not people who are wandering the mall, it's people I'm actually bringing in," Tran says. "This is a destination mall. You come in here because you know what you want – 'I'm looking for a shirt, it's at Macy's.' It's not necessarily the kind of place where you'd walk around and window shop."
The mall's decline is obvious, with its early-1990s interior and obscure retailers, and H&Q's business here has suffered ever since the nearby outlet of women's clothing chain Charlotte Russe bailed, depriving him of a chunk of foot traffic. But regardless, he says he's in it for the long haul: As long as Fashion Square's here, he'll be here, too.
"I've established myself here," Tran says. "Now that I've built a reputation here and I don't need the people who are walking around daily anymore, I have my consistent cash flow."
While there are still signs of life at Fashion Square – the pretzels at the snack kiosk still smell freshly baked, and the escalator stairs to the mall's second story are still running – Tran is likely better positioned than most of his fellow tenants.
Fashion Square isn't alone in its seemingly bleak situation. While large malls continue to thrive – e.g., the Florida Mall and the Mall at Millenia – small and midsize malls across the country have fallen on hard times over the last decade. In 2017, a record 6,985 retail stores closed in the U.S., according to retail analysis and advisory firm Coresight Research. This year, per the same data, retailers are on pace to close roughly 10,000 stores nationwide.
It's what many analysts refer to as the retail apocalypse. From 2002 to 2017, according to most estimates, department stores lost 448,000 jobs – a 25 percent decline. Meanwhile, a report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners estimated that the number of Amazon Prime memberships in the U.S. jumped by 35 percent up to 54 million, which translates to about half of American households having at least one Amazon Prime member, creating an increase in convenience for consumers everywhere.
So with a multitude of alarming factors compounding on midsized and small malls across the nation, as well as a daunting future predicted for most retailers, what's to become of a City Beautiful staple like Fashion Square?
The answer depends on whom you ask.
The genesis story of Fashion Square starts in October 1963, when a lone Sears outlet was built just off Colonial Drive. The rest of the mall, at least in its most recognizable form, would come when Pompano Beach real estate investor and shopping center pioneer Leonard Farber developed the 70.5-acre property a decade later.
As time went on, anchor stores like Burdine's (now Macy's) and Robinson's (later Maison Blanche) were enough to woo a multiplex theater and the development of a food court, allowing Fashion Square to acclimate itself into the enclosed mall aesthetic we're familiar with today.
For more than 30 years, Fashion Square experienced a heyday, becoming a pigment in Central Orlando's colorful culture.
Then, as the bottom fell out of the national economy in the late aughts, Americans flocked to e-commerce shopping for the sake of convenience and lower prices. The country's model of consumerism began to evolve. (Some retailers might say devolve.) And with that, the realization began to sink in that the structures in which goods and products had been traditionally sold weren't physically capable of doing the same thing as, say, Amazon or eBay.
As a result, small and midsize malls had to brace for impact. In the ensuing years at Fashion Square, major tenants picked up and left one after another – Bath & Body Works, Victoria's Secret and the Limited, just to name a few. Dillard's scaled down to a skeletal version of itself, becoming a clearance store, closing an entrance to the parking lot, using only the first floor and limiting its operating hours.
In an effort to energize what was becoming a very sluggish Fashion Square, in 2014, mall owner Up Development opened StrikeOuts Bowling and Entertainment Center and tore down a front portion of the mall to make way for a hotel.
That hotel never became a reality. The Sears outlet, the original store, closed in 2016. It was bulldozed shortly after, and a Floor & Decor store and Orchard Supply Hardware store were built in its place – they'll open later this year. In December, the bowling alley went belly-up, too.
According to court records, Up Development was sued for foreclosure and subsequently filed bankruptcy as the company fell behind on its $42.2 million loan last year. Lender Bancorp then took ownership in February 2017, and the mall was immediately put up for sale.
Earlier this year, reports surfaced that Tampa developer DeBartolo Development – which renovates everything from high schools to apartment complexes – had lined up to purchase the property. However, according to Tania Hernandez, the leasing and marketing manager at Fashion Square, no additional news has been made available since the initial talks. She says she's under the impression that the deal is supposed to close on Aug. 31, though there's no confirmation.
She isn't alone in not fully understanding Fashion Square's status quo.
Aaron Holland, the owner of Coliseum of Comics, which maintains a location in Fashion Square, says that most aspects concerning the mall's future are "pretty much up in the air." He says there's currently no information coming through the grapevine from the current management staff, not even rumors.
"Once things start moving and there's positive news, more people will come to the mall," Holland says. "In the right hands and with the right changes, [Fashion Square] could flourish."
Perhaps. But when viewed within the context of the midsize mall's precipitous decline, you have to wonder: Is it too late?
The father of the American shopping mall was – wait for it – not an American.
Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen envisioned malls as European-style shopping arcades, centers for suburban communities. But instead of stores like Hot Topic and Bebe, his concept was a new kind of Main Street, with post offices, grocery stores, cafés and the like, that would function as cores for larger social hubs like schools, parks and hospitals. In his mind, it was supposed to be a sort of insulated community.
That ended up not being the case. By the twilight of Gruen's life, the architect had grown disenchanted with what his concept of community living had mutated into. "I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all," Gruen said in 1978. "I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They've destroyed our cities."
But what if it's not too late to pivot toward Gruen's original plan for malls as socially productive community centers?
Cole NeSmith, founder of the Creative City Project, an Orlando organization that platforms artists and creates meaningful community connections, still sees potential in something like Fashion Square, albeit in a new, inspired iteration.
"We're at an interesting place as a city as a whole where we're very young, but we have kind of skipped over the 'artists can move into a warehouse cheap' and kind of live there against code and make stuff and live in the same spot and not shower," NeSmith says. In other words, Orlando has never experienced the same sense of cheap rent-equals-more art as, say, Williamsburg, Philly or Oakland did.
NeSmith adds: "The data show that investment in arts and culture is a significant driver of economic development for a region. When organizations like Amazon are considering where to place their second headquarters, in line with the workforce, the second thing they're looking at is available culture and art experiences."
Indeed, according to the state's Division of Cultural Affairs and regional arts organizations, for every $1 invested, the arts return between $5 and $11 to communities.
One idea for this kind of economic development: Lure Florida's film industry to Orlando.
In recent years, the industry has come close to flatlining due to its inability to compete with the generous tax incentives offered by other states. And considering that launching a major studio in the City Beautiful would require a large, already developed swath of real estate – Fashion Square consists of 1 million square feet, according to the mall's website – wouldn't it make sense to repurpose the property into something cool like that?
Pie-in-the-sky ideas aside, creative interventions for Fashion Square aren't just restricted to the arts-and-culture sectors.
Just look at what became of the Highland Mall in Austin, Texas: By 2010, nearly all of its stores were vacant. But when a local college noticed the neighborhood's wane had coincided with the mall's decline, it was repurposed as a branch of Austin Community College. This reignited the neighborhood in the process.
The examples don't end there.
Earlier this month in Alexandria, Virginia, a nonprofit group renovated and moved into what used to be a Macy's in Landmark Mall. The idea: to provide temporary shelter for those affected by the region's rising cost of living. The temporary housing only takes up a corner of the original Macy's retail store – which, like the Fashion Square outlet, occupied two floors – but it provides as many as 60 beds, as well as enough room for everyone to enjoy hot meals and areas to shower.
We also have to consider that a structure as large as Fashion Square will likely be there for decades or generations to come, in part because these mammoth buildings are extremely expensive to tear down in the first place. So it's not as if Fashion Square's next iteration – if there is one – would be its last. For example: In 1983, tech company Hewlett-Packard bought the closed-down Mayfield Mall in Mountain View, California, and transformed it into an office building, which Google later bought in 2013 to house its Google Glass headquarters.
These are just some ideas for Fashion Square's future. But money doesn't grow on the palm trees outside the mall's main entrance.
"In a sense, [Fashion Square's] size is the problem," says Owen Beisch, a senior director at engineering firm GAI Consultants and affordable housing scholar. "The reason these spaces were designed in that volume to begin with is because they met a certain business model, and it's hard to then divide the spaces up for another retail user where that space would then meet that business model."
There's some irony in the breakdown of American malls.
A generation ago, malls put the nation's Main Street corridors out of business. Now, Amazon and other e-commerce outlets are doing the same to malls. And some experts are suggesting using those structures as a way to attract big e-commerce companies – even if only as warehouse and shipping spaces – to a city like Orlando.
It's one big, vicious circle.
So is Fashion Square on its deathbed?
No, of course not. Not yet.
If anything, Fashion Square is a vehicle to talk about a future in which we're going to have to repurpose these large retail structures on an almost equally large scale, or else watch them crumble. It should also be said that the death knell is sounding for old-school malls, and the future's coming faster than we think.
Just ask Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne, who drove that point home in an earnings call with analysts last year. As Haynes put it, "Our industry, unlike the housing industry, saw too much square footage capacity added in the 1990s and early 2000s. Thousands of new doors opened and rents soared. This created a bubble, and like housing, that bubble has now burst. We are seeing the results, doors shuttering and rents retreating. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future, and may even accelerate."
The commercial real estate firm CoStar rings the same bell with its estimate that nearly a quarter of malls in the U.S., or roughly 310 of the nation's 1,300 extant shopping malls, are at a high risk of losing an anchor store, meaning they're at a high risk of eventually going under – that is, unless a replacement anchor store is found (doubtful) or something else is done with each structure (slightly less doubtful.)
As for Fashion Square, which anchor store will be next: Macy's, JCPenney or the zombie Dillard's? Time will tell.
The buzzword among industry experts is "experiential retail" – things like laser tag arenas, rock climbing gyms and the like. But by most estimates, the U.S. has twice as much square footage in shopping centers per capita than the rest of the world, and six times as much as countries in Europe. We can rest assured that the "experiential" bubble will eventually pop, too. (And didn't Fashion Square already drop that ball when the Bowling and Entertainment Center went under late last year?)
It also wouldn't be easy to completely overhaul the mall into something different – to, say, gut and renovate it into affordable housing, for example.
"Some of these retailers, these concepts, die a really slow death. Some of these leases are 20-year leases," says David Marks, president of Marketplace Advisors, an organization that creates mixed-used town centers. "To compound, in a lot of cases, the department stores will own their own building. So you'll have an owner of the mall and then you'll have the department stores owning maybe their own separate patch. So going through the process of redeveloping the property is complicated because you have multiple parties that have to agree on how you're going to execute that."
Which brings us to the real point: In its current form, Fashion Square is too big to thrive and it's too big to properly die – i.e., be torn down.
So though one person might consider it a waste of space, for others, it's still the main vein of their livelihood – such as John Tran, the owner of H&Q Jewelers.
"It's all going down," Tran says. "But for as long as it's been here, it's never gone away – as dead as it seems, it just doesn't go away."