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Rise and fall of the mall: Palm Beach Outlets opens Friday as county sees first development of latest retail trend

By Emily Roach - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer



Stacey English loves to shop, from The Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens to Boca Raton’s Town Center.

Shoes? That’s Town Center.

Clothes for her teenage son? That’s Gardens.

Dinner after shopping? Wellington Green has her favorite restaurants nearby.

So where will she be Friday at lunch? Checking out the new Palm Beach Outlets in West Palm Beach.

“I enjoy the thrill of finding something I wasn’t expecting to find or a good deal on something,” the West Palm Beach woman said.

From the days Clematis Street had the Comeau Building arcade and nearby Harris Building and Via Jardin, shoppers have looked for a variety of stores, some protection from the weather and a snack to keep going. How people live and shop has changed from those days, and the retail establishments built in Palm Beach County reflect those cultural changes.

Today, Internet shopping has disrupted the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail business, and many stalwarts of the trade are struggling, like JCPenney and Sears. But even as wages are stagnant, shoppers have helped bring the economy back from the Great Recession, as tourism and retail have led the way in job creation.

“Seventy percent of the U.S. economy is consumption,” economist Mekael Teshome of The PNC Financial Group said. “Without consumer growth, it’s hard to get economic growth.”

Lynn University psychology professor Ann Crawford teaches a Call of the Mall class during the month-long January term, and she said the future of retail will be different.

“I think malls are going to have to do something to compete with this, because it’s so easy to shop online,” she said.

Malls will evolve as they have for decades, said Steven Kirn, executive director of the David F. Miller Retailing Education and Research Center at University of Florida. The future mall may have a real estate office or a Blue Cross office in it — some already do — but the social aspect will draw people away from their couch and computers, he said.

“I think it will reinvent itself as something else,” he said. “We will see more integrated malls. The stars may be entertainment and dining.”

In fact, CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, Delray Marketplace in western Delray Beach and Mizner Park in Boca Raton already feature a good deal of dining and entertainment.

But another boom has been the outlet mall concept.

“Those kinds of malls are very attractive because the prices are so competitive,” Crawford said. The recession accelerated development of discount shopping alternatives, like the outlet malls and dollar stores.

The historic ride from downtown arcaded buildings to today’s outlet mall can be seen around Palm Beach County — shopping malls that are still attracting people even if they are last decade’s darling.

Arcaded buildings came to Clematis in the 1910s and ’20s, when an economic boom brought these multi-story buildings with vias, or alleyways, at ground level and floors above for businesses, historian and architect Rick Gonzalez said. People could walk through the middle of the building instead of having to walk around the block.

“Back then, it was all about pedestrian and people,” he said. “You could walk three blocks off the Datura and Tamarind train depot and find housing, food and clothing.”

Most people lived and worked in a 10-block area every day.

The Great Depression halted development, but when commerce kicked in after World War II, American life changed from urban to suburban, from pedestrian to power. After the war, soldiers who had trained at Morrison Air Force Base (now Palm Beach International Airport) in West Palm Beach and Boca Raton Army Airfield returned as civilians and Palm Beach County grew.

While downtown boomed again, people started to settle in the suburbs and buy cars to commute. They needed goods and food nearby.

“We’re now mobile, we’re now suburban versus urban,” Kirn said.

Not surprising, malls came to Palm Beach County.

Billed as the county’s first mall, Palm Coast Plaza opened on South Dixie Highway near the West Palm Beach-Lake Worth line in late 1959. But it was the Palm Beach Mall on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard that brought the area statewide attention when it opened in October 1967.

Former Gov. Claude Kirk was one of the very brief speakers that day — the crowd of 40,000 was calling for the doors to be opened.

“It was one of the top malls in the country when it opened,” said retail expert Alan Bush, CEO of Northlake Partners in West Palm Beach.

And it was the biggest covered shopping center in the southeast United States.

As the suburbs moved farther out, so did the shopping centers.

“People didn’t have to go all the way downtown, and they could park right next to the door,” Kirn said. Enclosed malls recreated the downtown experience without the streets, he said, and they spread in the 1970s and ’80s.

Palm Beach County’s population increased nearly 150 percent from 1970 to 1990, and the malls grew to match the 863,518 people who lived here in 1990, according to the U.S. census.

In the 1980s, the county added three enclosed malls, swelling shopping options by more than 350 stores.

Town Center opened on Glades Road in (at the time) suburban Boca Raton in 1980, Boynton Beach Mall opened across the road from a cow pasture on Congress Avenue in 1985 and The Gardens Mall took a large swath of vacant land on then mostly undeveloped PGA Boulevard in 1988.

“When I moved here, Town Center, a Simon (Properties) mall, was new and didn’t have that many shops,” Crawford said. “Now it has transformed into a large, sophisticated mall.”

Bush said retail evolved from the marketplaces of centuries ago through specialized merchants then morphed into large department stores, and now we’re back to wanting specialty stores.

“People want to go into a store that specializes in what they are looking for,” he said. “One of the reasons that Palm Beach Outlets will be so well received is shoppers will know what they are getting before they go there” with all the specialty retailers.

The 1980s brought big-box retailers, too: the Walmarts and Best Buys that offered everything in one stop, or at least everything in a certain category.

“But people weren’t satisfied with the suburbs. They were antiseptic,” Gonzalez said.

The 1990s brought the lifestyle malls, which mimicked a downtown, Kirn said. Think the fountains and benches of Mizner Park, which opened in 1991 and CityPlace in 2000.

“The effort was to make them look like what we fantasized a nice downtown looks like,” he said. “We were beginning to see a decline in the traffic in enclosed malls.”

In Palm Beach County, the suburbs were exploding with growth, and Wellington got its first large retail project, The Mall at Wellington Green, which opened in 2001.

But the recession halted development for a few years, and most new projects are featuring a greater mix of entertainment. Enclosed malls are turning to creative solutions, like leasing to churches or redeveloping as municipal offices.

Many large department stores, such as Nordstrom’s and Saks Fifth Avenue see most of their store growth in their outlet chains. That’s why New England Development razed the 46-year-old Palm Beach Mall and replaced it with Palm Beach Outlets.

Kristie West is an avid shopper who misses her days of browsing the Palm Beach Mall near her West Palm Beach home. Now she shops about once a week, but it’s usually a targeted trip for a specific piece of clothing for herself or her teenage daughter.

“I used to go shopping for no reason,” she said. Next weekend she’ll be checking out the new outlets.


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