When Southdale Center opened in October 1956, shoppers were justifiably intrigued.
The shops at the nation’s first indoor mall were more beautiful than the Twin Cities had seen. Attractions such as an indoor skating rink, a floor-to-ceiling bird cage, fashion shows and a live nationally televised TV show coaxed them inside.
Without leaving the mall, shoppers could get groceries at Red Owl, drop off dry cleaning at White Way Cleaners, pay their utility bill at Minneapolis Gas Co., pick up stamps at the post office, get cash from First Southdale National Bank, grab a prescription at Walgreens and then walk outside to a doctor’s appointment at Southdale Medical.
“I miss the bird cage and the water fountain and the way we tried to make things hum every day,” Marty Rud, the mall’s first manager, now 92 years old, said at a celebration earlier this month for Southdale’s 60th anniversary.
Today, Southdale is again blazing a trail for shopping malls, this time in how to reshape themselves in a time when competition comes from online shopping and home delivery.
Architect Victor Gruen’s vision was to keep people at Southdale as long as possible by catering to nearly every need and making the visit worth the time it took to get to Edina in the pre-interstate Twin Cities.
“The original mall concept was to create a complete experience,” said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with NPD Group. “It was a campus environment for a full day’s experience. You had to make it worth people’s time.”
Southdale, started by Dayton’s, became a template for the department store company to create several other malls in the region, including Ridgedale and Rosedale.
But in 1992, all were overshadowed by the Mall of America; Southdale, as the closest to the Bloomington megamall, endured the competition most intensely.
“Southdale lives in the shadow of MOA and consequently has lost its dominance as ‘the’ single most popular mall in the Twin Cities,” said Dave Brennan, co-director of the University of St. Thomas Institute for Retailing Excellence. “Its popularity has slipped behind MOA and Rosedale, with Ridgedale moving up in importance.”
At more than $700 per square foot of retail space, the Galleria in Edina and Mall of America are generally thought to enjoy the best sales per square foot in the Twin Cities. Rosedale is about $600 per square foot. “Ridgedale and Southdale are fighting it out for the next spot, about $500 per square foot,” said Dick Grones, principal at Cambridge Commercial Realty in Edina.
Ridgedale over the past year moved to get an upper hand with a remodeling that included the addition of Nordstrom, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma.
Southdale’s renaissance is shaped in part by the big-scope thinking that drove it at the start. For instance, a Hennepin County Service Center recently moved into the mall from the Hennepin County Library several blocks away. “It’s the county’s newest prototype that gets people in and out very quickly,” said Ben Martin, Southdale’s general manager. “They go in the center and then they can shop at Southdale.”
Dave & Buster’s full restaurant and video entertainment complex, which opened two summers ago in the former food court, has brought in “a ton of traffic,” Martin said, becoming the go-to place for parties. Other recent additions include locally owned DeLeo Bros. Pizza in the former California Pizza Kitchen and Chatime tea. As the Mall of America has attracted big name restaurants such as Shake Shack, Southdale might be getting one too. Martin would not confirm the rumor.
California Closets will open a showroom in early November. And an even bigger home retailer might be in the offing: Restoration Hardware is considering building a 50,000-square-foot RH Galleries in the southwest corner of the Southdale parking lot. The new building would take the place of the Restoration Hardware store in the nearby Galleria, whose lease expires in 2019.
Ahead of the curve
Southdale is also ahead of the curve with creative use of unused parking lot space. One Southdale Place Luxury apartments are 97 percent leased. The Titus Building on the edge of the mall’s grounds at 66th and York could become another luxury apartment complex with 375 units. Homewood Suites by Hilton is expected to break ground early next year.
“Mall owners are now looking at how to turn dormant space into usable space. They’re looking to see where they can use every square inch,” Cohen said.
With the hotel and the apartments, Southdale becomes one of only a handful of centers owned by Simon Property Group to offer such a mix. Patrick Peterman, a vice president at Simon, said the firm gets calls all the time from residential and hotel developers wanting to buy land in their parking lots.
Even if malls find themselves surrounded by residents who can walk to their doors instead of drive, they still have to showcase a variety of stores as rich as Southdale’s original mix.
The days when the anchors could dictate which stores could set up shop within a mall are gone, said Paco Underhill, author of “The Call of the Mall.” “Anchors would say that shopping carts weren’t allowed — no grocery stores — but now a Whole Foods or a Target is acceptable,” he said.