Foot traffic was steady, if not exactly heavy, at Iowa City’s Sycamore Mall on Friday.
A half-dozen women rolled their jeans to their knees and readied for summer pedicures at the nail salon. A couple dozen more sipped iced coffees and nibbled late lunches at the nearby Panera. Shoppers strolled down the concourse in small, occasional clusters: A mom with young kids, a couple of high-school-aged girls, an elderly couple eating from small dishes of ice cream.
You can’t walk the length of the mall without passing through Von Maur — Iowa City’s sole remaining department store. It’s dead center; a literal hub. It was one of Sycamore Mall’s original anchors and it’s the last of those three to go.
When Von Maur packs up this month and reopens at Coralville’s Iowa River Landing, it will leave its former home with more than a gaping hole, but an identity crisis, to boot.
“We are very disappointed that they’re moving, but we’re going to make the best out of it,” John Arlotti, Sycamore Mall vice president, told a local news reporter last week. “Sometimes the biggest problems create the biggest opportunities.”
Then this must be a doozy. Across the country and here in Iowa, the great Age of the Mall is coming to a close. Empty storefronts fill “dead malls” in every direction.
Even if the Sycamore’s owners are able to entice a major retailer to fill the 53,000-square-foot Von Maur space — a “what if” that’s anything but certain — that might not be the best way to go.
Here in Iowa City, the struggling Old Capitol Town Center was saved when the flooded University of Iowa gobbled up vacant space.
In Cedar Rapids, City Councilors are throwing their support, and public money, toward the redevelopment of Westdale into a residential/commercial mix.
Sycamore’s owners have hinted they might be open to some kind of non-traditional solution, emphasizing the mall’s role as a community center in a news release. They have hired an engineering and architectural firm to explore their options. The City of Iowa City, retailers and residents should join the conversation.
There’s no going back to free-spending, pre-Internet days, when shoppers crowded suburban malls as fast as we could build them.
Mall owners, and their communities, will have to get creative to stay relevant and keep blight at bay.
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