For decades, Southdale was the king of shopping centers. But old age hasn't been kind to the nation's first enclosed mall, which has had a succession of owners who lacked the cash to keep it competitive.

A recent multimillion-dollar face-lift from owner Simon Property Group could be the gift that changes the fortunes for the Edina landmark. The interior has been spiffed up with porcelain tiles and warm wood panels. Corridors have been realigned to improve store access. And a new high-energy food court awaits hungry patrons.

"It almost made me cry to see what happened to Southdale," said longtime Twin Cities retail expert Jim McComb. "I knew Southdale in its prime, and it was sad to see it in that condition."

McComb and other retail experts say the mall's structural and cosmetic retooling will help fill vacancies and attract new shoppers at a time when online retailers and bricks-and-mortar behemoths like Mall of America -- in the midst of its own expansion -- increase competition.

Simon won't say how much it spent on the project, nor will it reveal current or historic vacancy rates. But the company, which bought the 1.3 million-square-foot mall about five years ago, says it's pulled out all the stops to bring shoppers and retailers back as Southdale undergoes its biggest makeover since opening in 1956.

Throughout the center, there are comfy "living rooms" furnished with mid-century modern sofas and chairs that harken back to the era during which the center was built. The renovation also includes a new children's play area on the second floor.

"The goal was to update Southdale, but in a way that respects the past," said Lauren Carpenter, the mall's director of marketing and business development.

Vacancy rate a problem

But high vacancies continue to plague the mall. Vacancy rates at Southdale, estimated at 10 to 15 percent recently, exceed the single-digit rate for the Twin Cities metro. It also faces stiff competition from the neighboring Galleria upscale shopping center and the Mall of America in Bloomington, which is getting a $220 million-plus expansion that will open next fall.

But owner Simon said it expects things to pick up at Southdale as new retailers arrive. Over the past year, 13 stores and restaurants have opened -- including Herberger's, Michael Kors, Francesca's and White House/Black Market -- and 11 more are coming soon. Several existing tenants have also remodeled or expanded as part of the mall's broader makeover.

Such additions and upgrades are harbingers of better times to come, said Dick Grones, a retail expert with Cambridge Commercial Realty in Edina. He said he's optimistic about prospects for a Southdale turnaround, particularly because of its Class A location in the midst of several affluent communities.

"It's a deep market and a really dynamic market with lots of disposable income," Grones said.

The market is also unique because of the high density of hotels and offices. More housing is also being built in the area. Simon is teaming up with Twin Cities-based StuartCo. to build 232 rental apartments in three buildings on a surface parking lot at the northwest corner of 69th Street and York Avenue.

"It will return to its position as one of the premier malls in the Twin Cities area," said McComb.

Southdale was recently featured in a PBS documentary called "10 Buildings That Changed America." It was the first indoor, climate-controlled mall in the country and was auspiciously located near the doorsteps of some of the wealthiest households in the Twin Cities metro.

Harlo Petoskey, who recently visited Southdale, is already enjoying the new play area.

Petoskey said he's a Southdale regular and didn't have much in the way of complaints before the renovation, but the new play area means that he and his wife will come back more often rather than going to nearby Ridgedale, which already had a place to keep his 2-year-old son occupied, or Mall of America, which is more of a production. "We end up at the megamall more than we'd like to," he said. "It's just so big."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376