Dying malls? This one in the US has found a way to thrive

"Veiled in a Dream," a sculpture and public seat by Wendell Castle near the food court at the Aventura Mall in Aventura, Florida, on Jan 10, 2020.
"Veiled in a Dream," a sculpture and public seat by Wendell Castle near the food court at the Aventura Mall in Aventura, Florida, on Jan 10, 2020.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Some retailers have turned to extras like virtual-reality headsets and touch-screen mirrors to give shoppers an experience they can't get online.

Aventura Mall, a shopping complex between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, is using a nine-storey slide.

The double-chute tower, which began offering rides in 2017, invites children and adults to grab hold of mats, rocket around corkscrew turns and whoop 93 feet down.

In emphasizing low-tech entertainment over cutting-edge gadgetry, Aventura is betting that brick-and-mortar retailers can beat online vendors without having to play their game. The mall's owners, Turnberry Associates and Simon Property Group, have also installed whimsical sculptures, a terrace-lined party venue and carnival-style games of chance.

And as unlikely as it is for a 37-year-old property filled with chain stores to be at the forefront of anything, Aventura may have stumbled on a winning formula. With nearly a 100 per cent occupancy rate, according to Turnberry and outside analysts, the mall is widely considered one of the most successful in the country, which may be particularly notable as store closings mount.

Sears and Kmart, which have the same parent company, have shut down about 3,500 stores in the past 15 years, and will soon close 100 more, according to a November announcement. Macy's has announced more than 100 store closings since 2016, and Toys 'R' Us liquidated all of its US locations, about 800, in 2018. And this month, Pier 1 Imports said it would close about half its stores, or 450, as it weighed bankruptcy.

Despite the struggles that physical stores face, the number of enclosed malls in the country has grown, clocking in last year at 1,170, which was higher than at any point in the last 50 years, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group. Some malls have gone out of business and have even been demolished, but others continue to take their place, according to the trade group, suggesting that the death of the mall has been exaggerated, as Aventura can bear out.

Aventura is not the only mall that is bucking trends. Other large, luxury-focused properties seem to be weathering the retail apocalypse equally well. One is Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, the largest mall in the United States at 3.1 million square feet. Others are South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California; the King of Prussia Mall near Philadelphia; and Fashion Show in Las Vegas, which all have healthy vacancy rates of less than 3 per cent, said Kevin Cody, a senior consultant at CoStar, which provides analytics on commercial real estate.

At Westfield Century City in Los Angeles, customer visits rose 93 per cent from 2017 to 2018 after a US$1 billion renovation, according to Placer.ai, a company that analyzes foot traffic using cellphone data.

 

Anchored by department stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and J C Penney, and featuring the long halls lined with smaller stores that have characterized mall design since the 1950s, Aventura in some ways seems to be a typical shopping destination.

But the property has not been shy about investing in its infrastructure, and has grown by about 50 per cent in size since 1983. Today, it offers 2.5 million square feet of stores, making it the ninth-largest enclosed mall in the country, according to CoStar.

Aventura's third expansion, a US$214 million undertaking completed in 2017, added an airy 315,000-square-foot wing illuminated by a 347-foot-long skylight.

The expansion also made over an existing food court, giving an upscale polish to a mall staple. Now called Treats Food Hall, the eatery sells lobster rolls, Cuban food and pizza. Nearby is a ceviche restaurant, a barbecue joint, and Tap 42 Craft Kitchen and Bar, which, in an un-mall-like arrangement, has outdoor seating and serves drinks past midnight. Two hair salons, two nail salons and a Tesla dealership are also in the mix.

Art, inside and outside, seems to help, including figurative sculptures resembling huge heads by Ugo Rondinone, a sculpture of a strolling girl by Donald Baechler and that curvaceous slide, from Carsten Höller.

 

Events are also part of the equation. A sleek, third-floor event space that can be rented out for up to 700 guests for weddings, fashion shows and art exhibits opened last year. Every Saturday and Sunday, the mall hosts a farmers market in an atrium. A train show, with a miniature model of the mall, takes place around Christmas. Violin ensembles play. And there's also the usual mall staple, a movie theater.

Vendors get in the act. Last month, the fashion company Tory Burch introduced a game in a nearby hallway with a tall, brightly colored peg board that wouldn't look out of place on a carnival midway. It drew long lines all month, Turnberry said.

"I think human beings are social creatures, which is why they go to Starbucks even when they can make coffee at home," said Jackie Soffer, chief executive of Turnberry, who added that even die-hard online shoppers needed to get out once in a while.