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Editorial: Bringing malls back to life

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, 4:33 p.m.
The Sears at Westmoreland Mall in Hempfield, one of the mall’s major anchors, is slated to close in March.
The Sears at Westmoreland Mall in Hempfield, one of the mall’s major anchors, is slated to close in March.

In 1989, malls were the place to be.

They weren’t just stores. They were entertainment and food courts and social scenes. They were the place to be for kids after school. They were where retirees gathered to walk in the morning. They were there for a quick lunch or a Friday night date. And as malls thrived, downtowns sputtered.

Today, things are different. Thirty years later, the malls are dealing with change.

As the giant anchoring department stores like Sears and Bon-Ton continue to cycle through closings and cuts, and as more shopping moves from counters to couches, they are altering the landscape of more than retail. They are changing real estate.

Three years ago, CNBC reported that 400 of the country’s 1,100 malls would perish in the coming years. The good news for Western Pennsylvania was the prediction that Simon malls, like South Hills Village and Ross Park, could be among the survivors. The bad news? Those aren’t the only malls in the area.

But malls aren’t giving up. They’re finding ways to reinvent themselves.

From office spaces at Station Square to the casino that will take over the Bon-Ton location at Westmoreland Mall to the new Citizens School of Nursing facilities at Pittsburgh Mills , mall operators are looking outside of the traditional areas of buying and selling and eating to fill the available blocks.

At the Beaver Valley Mall in Monaca, the Center at the Mall is a “community wellness center designed for adults over 50 who want to have fun, stay healthy and be active.” That doesn’t just provide the Beaver County Office on Aging a place to gather seniors. It also brings people into the mall every day, just like other tenants the ARC of Beaver County and the DCI Career Institute.

Increasing traffic in the malls helps make them what they used to be, a town square that just happened to not be in the downtown. And as economic development groups, like the Pennsylvania Downtown Center and Main Street America, have tried to keep those areas alive, they have looked to what is called the “third place.”

If the first place is where we live and the second is where we work, the third is where we gather and connect with each other. Bringing a new breed of tenants to what were shopping centers could help those second and third places lean on — and support — each other.

Finding the right mix of those destinations could be more than just life support for dying malls. It could be what gives them new life as the destinations they were in the 1980s.

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