LOMBARD, Ill. – While mall walkers strolled Yorktown Center’s quiet corridors before most shops opened Monday morning, a handful of visitors in search of a tougher workout strode straight from their cars to the fitness studios along the Lombard mall’s western side.
Shopping centers used to shun gyms and workout studios, believing clients would clog parking lots without patronizing shops post-workout. But consumers’ changing shopping habits left some mall-based chains foundering, from department stores like Carson’s, which is in the process of shutting down all its stores, to smaller shops like Gymboree and Rue 21, which announced hundreds of closures last year. That has pushed mall operators to turn the empty stores they have left into places for customers to do more than just shop.
Increasingly, that can mean sweating through a workout. Consumers are growing more health-conscious, so “it’s the perfect storm,” said Jason Press, vice president at real estate firm JLL.
The trend isn’t new — Chicago-based mall operator GGP said it has been working with fitness tenants for more than a decade — but it is growing. The amount of space leased by fitness centers and gyms in malls and upscale open-air shopping centers grew about 69 percent nationwide over the past five years, according to data firm CoStar Group, and the number of leases has nearly doubled.
In Chicago, roughly a dozen gyms have leased space in malls and multitenant shopping centers in each of the past five years. Fitness tenants have picked up more than 1 million square feet of shopping center space since 2013, according to CoStar. There’s an Equinox fitness club at 900 North Michigan Shops and a rock-climbing gym at Block 37 on State Street. At the Roosevelt Collection in the South Loop, shoppers can choose from interval training, boxing and yoga.
More gyms are headed to Chicago-area malls, including a three-story Life Time club with a rooftop pool on the site of a former Sears Auto Center at Oakbrook Center. In Minnesota, Chanhassen-based Life Time is building a three-story club in Edina’s Southdale Center.
Sean McCourt, vice president at real estate firm CBRE, sees it as part of a broader interest in catering to the “self-care” trend, with salons and massage providers expanding too. But fitness tenants tend to get more attention because they can fill the big spaces shuttered department stores leave behind at a time when few retailers are looking to take on that much space, he said.
The ability to attract consumers with regular workout routines who might spend money while lingering before or after a gym session makes fitness tenants particularly attractive, JLL’s Press said.
Chris Pine, senior vice president of big-box leasing at GGP, said the company is actively seeking to add gyms and grocery stores to the mix of retail, entertainment and dining options at its malls, since both can get customers in the habit of stopping by multiple times per week.
“It’s just rounding out the experience and offering more for the customer to experience at the property,” Pine said.
Last year, GGP and Life Time announced plans to partner on developing athletic clubs at GGP properties. Five have been announced so far, including the 125,000-square-foot Oakbrook Center club, which is expected to open in fall 2019.
For Life Time, regional malls often offer convenient, easy-to-access locations with plenty of parking, said Bahram Akradi, the fitness chain’s founder and CEO. As long as Life Time can provide a “country club” atmosphere within a bigger shopping center, “if we can generate a positive impact for the mall, that’s fantastic,” he said.
In addition to the clubs in development with GGP, Life Time has opened or plans to open clubs at malls owned by Simon Property Group, Macerich, Kimco Realty and Taubman Centers, including several on the sites of former department stores. But Akradi said he considers the idea that gyms will save U.S. malls “kind of comical.”
“With the amount of excess square footage, if it all became fitness centers, the fitness centers would go bankrupt,” he said.
But he sees an opportunity to partner with property owners to turn struggling, retail-only malls into “assets for the future,” where people can live, work and shop in one place.