Taking the Top off of Chicagoland's First Enclosed Mall | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Taking the Top off of Chicagoland's First Enclosed Mall

The tough economic times have crippled many retailers and small businesspersons. But you know what they say, "Desperation is the mother of invention." Some in Mount Prospect, Ill., have taken that adage to heart. Eight Forty-Eight's intern Whitney Wyckoff has the story.

MUSIC FROM “Let's Go To The Mall”

When Randhurst Mall opened in 1962, it was the first mall in the Chicago area, the world's largest shopping center under one roof and the largest air-conditioned structure in North America.

Longtime Mount Prospect residents remember it as “the place to be” when they were teens. In fact, Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Mount Prospect Historical Society, says people drove from hours away just to see it.

PEERBOLTE: It would have been really kind of awe-inspiring. They took great pains ensure that Randhurst was a very grand place to visit, and kind of an experience. They spent several hundred thousand dollars on pieces of art, sculpture that were commissioned. The dome was a huge feature at Randhurst. It was very ahead of its time. It was a massive dome—it was, I believe, 40 tons in weight. And it was decorated stained glass around the base of it, which kind of allowed colored light to filter in. And overall, the lighting was very dim and it was very kind of hushed. It was almost like a church in a lot of ways.

But that age has long passed, and Randhurst, located about 25 miles outside Chicago in Mount Prospect, has become a mere shadow of its former grandeur. It has faced some tough times: The shopping center's customer base took a hit when the much-larger Woodfield Mall, located a short drive away, was built in the ‘70s. Nearly all of Randhurst's major department stores — like Montgomery Wards or J.C. Penney's — have moved out. Bill Cooney, the director of community development for Mt. Prospect Village, says that the village's most important piece of commercial property needs a fresh start.

COONEY: Over the last 5, 7 years the mall itself was really going downhill. It was not maintaining itself and being competitive in the market.

A Florida-based developer named Casto Lifestyle Properties, who co-owns the Randhurst's property with JP Morgan, is hoping to revamp the mall—and boost Mt. Prospect's sales tax revenue—by recreating Randhurst to be an outdoor mixed use center à la the outdoor Deer Park Town Center. Cooney says what would stand in Randhurst Mall's 100-acre footprint would be Randhurst Village. It would include office space, a 110-room hotel and an 12-screen movie complex.

COONEY: We are projecting after this is open for a few years that the Village will benefit by about a million dollars extra a year in sales taxes. So if they do better than the projected sales per square foot, we'd do better than that.

Those earnings would go toward city services. Earlier this year, workers knocked down substantial portions of the mall, including its iconic dome. The mall's revamping will cost nearly $200 million—and $25 million of that is coming from the city through tax revenue associated with the development.

John C. Melaniphy, III is a business and development coordinator for neighboring suburb Arlington Heights--and a former consultant on Mall of America. He says what's happening to Randhurst is part of a trend.

MELANIPHY: We've seen a transition in malls. Most of them were developed in the late '60s and early '70s. They were enclosed to create a climate-controlled environment. And the objective was to increase the length of stay and hopefully increase the amount spent. But as consumer patterns changed and there were more working women, people had less time to shop. So he said many developers have seen their malls become obsolete. They responded by creating shopping centers that were more convenient.

Nostalgia aside, some locals still aren't sure the idea will fly. Residents like Frank Vlock in Mount Prospect, who said his business — the Singer Sewing Machine Company — was the third retailer that opened at Randhurst.

VLOCK: Most of us don't know for sure if it is going to last or if it is going to be a good, productive-type mall or what. So it's kind of an iffy situation and an iffy question.

Bill Cooney, the Mt. Prospect director of community development, says he hopes the economy rebounds before the center opens.

COONEY: There's been a lot of interest so far. We've some of the outlying developments taking place already. Certainly any development is a risk. But we're hopeful that spring 2011 is going to be the ideal time to open up.

Melaniphy says that the retail market will rebound in 2011, but it won't be as strong as it was in the past.

MELANIPHY: It's going to take the consumer some time before they return to the kind of spending that they have in the past. They just don't have the discretionary buying power they had several years ago.

Brett Hutchens is president and CEO of Casto Lifestyle Properties says the Randhurst development would be similar to Deer Park Town Center in Deer Park, but talked about a key distinction.

HUTCHENS: The income demographic that's immediately around that project is higher than Randhurst. But the density at Randhurst and daytime population are far superior to Deer Park.

Originally, Randhurst was supposed to open in spring 2010, but the date was pushed back to spring 2011 because of delays with the theater at the site.

Until then, it looks like Mount Prospectites might have to travel a little farther for most of their holiday shopping.

MUSIC FROM “Let's Go To The Mall”

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