When an Evergreen withers: Dark days for once-pioneering south suburban mall

August 30, 2011

My teenage daughters told me a little while ago: Nobody goes to Evergreen Plaza anymore.

I thought they meant "nobody" in a teen-sense, as in, maybe, only lames hang out there or something.  I hadn't been inside the The Plaza--as it's been known in recent years--in about two decades. Back then, it was a bustling mall with an array of stores with anchors that included Montgomery Ward and Carson Pirie Scott and a movie theater. When I was teenager in the 1980s, Evergreen Plaza was the nachos-scented hangout spot to watch girls, catch up with buddies, and lay in a fresh supply of diamond pattered sweaters and pleated baggy slacks from Chess King.

So out of curiosity, I took a walk through the mall last weekend. The kids were correct, but in the traditional sense. Nobody goes to Plaza anymore. As the photos above and below show, the once-mighty shopping center--among America's first major regional malls when it opened in 1952 at 95th and Western in Evergreen Park--is now almost a ghost mall.  The theaters went dark years ago and were demolished in 2003. Montgomery Ward fared as well as Chess King (although Carson's is still there.) And according to last week's Crain's Chicago Business, the Plaza has a vacancy rate of about 40 percent and will soon be in the hands of a court-appointed receiver. The 30-acre mall was hit with a foreclosure suit last month.

The Wall Street Journal in 2010 reported 95 of the nation's 1,006 enclosed malls are struggling because they have annual retail sales per square foot of $200 or less. Malls with high vacancies are especially vulnerable in this calculus. Some dying and outmoded malls can be able to be repurposed, as is the case with Mount Prospect's Randhurst Mall, which is becoming Randhurst Village, a comparatively upscale "lifestyle shopping center" in the affluent northwest suburbs. But that can't happen with every faltering mall.

What does the future hold for places like these, outside of renting them out for the occasional George Romero movie? As the economy continues to sour putting more malls at risk, what to do with these big structures might well be suburbia's next problem.