Looking back at Southtown Mall

March 16, 2008 at 10:42 pm 18 comments

(Jon) A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the Web site deadmalls.com, which chronicles the sad stories of decaying retail centers.

In this article, the featured mall is Fort Wayne’s own now-demolished Southtown Mall.

The commentary includes a short history submitted by a Fort Wayne resident and a kind of walking tour made by the Web site’s owner in 2001. You can also view a gallery of 25 photos taken in 2001 of Southtown Mall (Note: photos 26 through 33 are of a different mall).

You can also see many more exterior and interior photos of Southtown Mall in a photo gallrey at aroundfortwayne.com.

I find it amazing that such a spookily vacant mall was open to the public for such a long time after it was obviously dead. Whatever you think of Wal-Mart, it sure beats what it replaced.

I’ve heard Southtown was successful for the first half of its life. But was there anything about the mall that doomed it to fail?

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  • 1. Mike Harvey  |  March 17, 2008 at 10:34 am

    I think people feeling safe there was a big issue. I remember the newspaper (I don’t remember which one or if that matters) reporting little stories of incidents over and over. I think the flow from the south slowed down (from Decatur and points around and below) with safety being a factor, but with Decatur it may have become easier to shop or do whatever in Decatur rather than Southtown. Being from Decatur it seemed like the idea of going to Fort Wayne meant you were going to the north side of town and not Southtown. The added distance was no biggie. Maybe someone living in Fort Wayne during Southtown’s plummet would have an equally good angle on it.

  • 2. Kevin  |  March 18, 2008 at 9:31 am

    I think shopping malls in general are a good case study in the failures of Suburbia. They’re usually successful at the start, but then as people move farther and farther out, they fall out of favor to newer strip malls or discount big box stores. The malls themselves are (as described by James Kunstler) places not worth caring about.

    I was at Lafayette Square Mall last Thursday. The ocean of empty parking spaces, combined with blank grey walls is bleak, and would take a massive investment to turn around to a viable retail hub. Other old malls share similar fates. Washington Square is a ghost town. Glendale is undergoing a massive downscaling pinned on the hopes that a new Target can save it. Castleton and Greenwood Park are opening up their spaces to catch up to the “lifestyle center” trend. Only the newer Keystone Crossing seems to be doing well without massive changes, and that is because, well, it’s new, as well as it’s located in the area of town that can support upscale items.

  • 3. Chris  |  March 18, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    The closing of the International Harvester plant in 1982 was a big factor. Also the killing of the family in their home on S. Harrison at about the same time added to the lore of the southside of town.

  • 4. Gbow  |  March 21, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Comment on: Only the newer Keystone Crossing seems to be doing well without massive changes, and that is because, well, it’s new, Keystone Crossing is hardly new. That mall has been there for nearly 35 years in some form. It just keeps exapnding to keep up withthe expanding north side on Indy. Castelton and Greenwood Park Malls are doing just find and Glendale is a inner urban mall that has undergone many make overs…it has survived them all and will keep surviving. Actually Indy residents have been trying to pull a few Targets in closer to the inner city instead of the outer looop areas. Many residentsof downtown iIndy would love to see a Target within reach of downtown since the explosion of people now living downtown.

  • 5. Kevin Knuth  |  March 24, 2008 at 5:35 am

    I think the biggest problem it faced was location.

    When it was built, it was the biggest mall, as well as the CLOSEST mall to all the communities south of Fort Wayne- as far south as Portland! (Decature, Bluffton, Berne, etc).

    Once those communities started getting their own stores (walmarts, targets, etc) there was no need to trek to Fort Wayne anymore.

  • 6. de_tokeville  |  March 29, 2008 at 5:01 am

    The closing of Harvester, the arrival of Big Box stores in places like Decatur and Bluffton, the rise in crime and general decay of the south side — all were culprits in Southtown’s demise. Retailers there quickly faced plummeting sales in combination with escalating theft. When anchor tenant Ayres first announced it was closing the Southtown store, the mall owners, fearing acceleration of the mass exodus, sued to make Ayres honor the terms of its lease. So Ayres kept the store open two or three more years with barely any staff or merchandise. By then, the rest of the mall was pretty much deserted.

    When Southtown opened in 1970, it outclassed Glenbrook both in terms of its size and architecture. Glenbrook countered with a large expansion, then another. Then Southtown added a wing, but the decline had already begun and the pace only quickened after that.

    I’m not sure how much word of crime impacts malls, but Glenbrook has seen its share of carjackings and sensational parking lot robberies and rapes over the years. If business is slower there, however, it appears to be only because there’s so much more new retail all over town and no one thinks of Glenbrook as the ultimate destination anymore.

    It will be interesting to see how the new Big Box retailers on the Southtown site perform in the long term and whether they’ll find it worth their while to remain. It seems overoptimistic to expect them to serve as a catalyst for reversing the amount of blight and poverty in the area.

  • 7. Karen Goldner  |  March 29, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    In the late 1990’s, I took a 10-year-old girl to a movie at Southtown (my reasoning: it was Christmas, we were seeing “the kid’s movie” that year, and the crowds would be considerably more tolerable – sadly, I was right). As she walked around the corner into the corridor that used to house the ice cream shop, she said “Wow, this looks like it used to be a mall.”

    She nailed it.

    The Public Safety Academy is a beautiful building we can all be proud of and that will serve our community (and region) for decades. Thanks to the leadership of a number of state and local elected officials (of whom Graham Richard was the champion), we now have a valuable community asset where “what used to be a mall” once stood.

  • 8. Jamie Garwood  |  March 30, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Growing up in the area, my take is that it was a “perfect storm” of economic despair.

    Harvester left in the 80s, destabilizing the area’s workforce and homeownership. During the 90s the entire nation saw an increase in youth and gang violence. These newer suburbs in the 80s with young families, now had teens running rampant during the 90s. The perception was the area was more violent. No doubt there was violence, but other parts of the city escaped the negative stereotypes. I worked at Southtown, and there were far more media reports about crime at Southtown than Glenbrook. Even though Glenbrook regularly reported problems to us, they went unnoticed by the media. In fact the media gladly ridiculed efforts to strengthen SE business, “kicked us when we were down,” and stoked the flames of racial tension. Perceptions bred fear, and fear produced “white flight” to the SW suburbs. And the cycle of blight continued…. businesses close, people leave, school test scores drop…people leave….. so on and so on.

    Fort Wayne must learn lessons about smart growth from the Southtown experience. Instead of confronting social challenges, we built as many developments SW as we could. Only making the problem worse SE. Imagine how cheap a Boys and Girls Club would’ve been. How many lives would’ve been improved by investing instead of depleting.

    If we’re not careful, it will happen again in some form. You can already see that SW cannot sustain its commercial development. There are ghost-town strip malls forming after less than 20 years. Sound familiar??? Now people move NW and NW grows.

    We can’t keep shuffling the pieces and moving them around. Growth must be for everyone. Smart growth is healthy for cities. Growth led by developers is doomed. Local officials must be more active and thoughtful in looking at long term consequences.

    Just ask the people in the Maplecrest area. They’re becoming another victim of suburban sprawl.

  • 9. kristinafh  |  April 1, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Yeah – I don’t go with the theory of International Harvester closing down as one of the major instigators (of the fall of Southtown Mall).

    It was quite obvious – sometime around the mid to late 80’s that the owners of Southtown Mall – really didn’t give a shit about things. There was an increase in crime and instead of addressing it appropriately, they blamed everybody and everything.

    It was one giant P.R. mess and perception is everything to the public…

    They also did nothing to keep up the appearance of the mal (internal or external) l – to keep it “modern” with the times. Look at Glenbrook Mall…how many times has it “reinvented” itself? Too many damn times if you ask me but for some reason, it’s worked for them.

  • 10. Jason H.  |  October 6, 2008 at 10:45 am

    I recently unearthed a video circa 1991 a friend and I took of Southtown. We went in one end (by B. Dalton’s, or where it used to be) with a video camera on a rolling tripod and were able to get all the way through the mall to Service Merchandise before the rentacop stopped us. It’s a bit shaky despite the tripod but a very nostalgic walk.

    At Glenbrook we got stopped within thirty seconds.

    • 11. mike sanders  |  April 23, 2012 at 10:25 pm

      Thank you for this video, I found it on youtube. My grandfather can be seen @ the 2:30 mark, left screen, in front of the guy from footlocker waving his arms. I was shocked to see him, he having passed 7 years ago, april 1st 2005. He walked this mall daily and as a child, myself and siblings were visitors a few times a year to southtown in the 80’s and early 90’s. Thank you so much for capturing this mall and my grandpa for me to enjoy on film for the rest of my life.

  • 12. Phil H.  |  October 28, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    I lived in Waynedale and SW Fort Wayne most of my life. I used to regularly shop Southtown Mall from my youth to early adulthood. I can sum up the mall’s issues and why it couldn’t survive.

    The early 80’s were Southtown’s heyday with the newly finished expansion of the mall (from removal of the GC Murphy Mart next to JC Penney where the hallway was) around 1977 and expansion to Sears…taking nearly 5 years to complete when Sears opened in ’82. Glenbrook just finished a “new expansion” running from south of center court to JC Penney.

    Glenbrook expanded again in 1980 with the square addition from Sears to Penney’s which included the Hudson’s store, food court and ice rink. THIS was Southtown’s first problem… Glenbrook mall’s constant “refreshing and inviting mall interior”… When Southtown did their expansion, the old part of the mall looked just that, old and tired. Spiece and Kohl’s taking over the old Montgomery Ward brought a little update to that section of the mall, but the main halls just appeared “dark and dreary”. I don’t think crime or Harvester was the problem as much as the slummy appearance of the mall, and little southside development. Even as late as the mid-70s, the Northside of town didn’t extend much past Coliseum Blvd, and the spot between there and I-69 was PRIME!
    When Kohl’s closed in the late 80’s, and the “new stores” started becoming vacant from a “lack of traffic” this was the second major blow to the mall, rent was near the same at the “new Glenbrook Square” and had a lot more traffic. The third and final to the mall blow was the closing of Ayres… the southernmost store stuck at the far end of the dark and dreary mall. When Penney’s closed, the damage was already done with the mall mostly vacant.

    Coincidentally, I live in an area (Akron, OH) which has a mall that went thru the exact same history (and had the reputation of being in “a bad area”). Sears and Penney’s are the only stores there also. The mall (Rolling Acres) still stands… but for how long?

  • 13. Charles Sizemore  |  December 12, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Yes I remember the good days of southtown mall, My Aunt Mary and I would go to lunch after our sunday service at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, we would eat at the MCL Cafitaria, I would get the Jack Benny plate, and she would get vegtables or something like that, the Mall is gone and Aunties been gone for Eleven years, they both still give me bittersweet memorys, she was living at the Twin Oaks for seniors, I can’t go by their on Decatur Rd, with out tearing up, she was one hell of a good person, and Southtown Mall was the best.

  • 14. Anthony  |  January 9, 2009 at 7:41 am

    As someone who was raised in SW Allen County I can tell you that even in the 80’s when I was a teen nobody from our side of town would be caught dead in Southtown Mall. Even then the place had a bad reputation for the kind of people that hung out there. As I sit here writing this it looks like the same story at Lafayette Square in Indy. My last 9 years as a Hoosier were spent in Indianapolis and the impending doom of that mall is no surprise either. The next time I’m in town to visit my parents I’ll have to see what that area looks like.

  • 15. Sandy  |  March 17, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I lived in Fort Wayne and worked at the Mall in the mid to late 70’s. While testing Google maps I discovered a vast emptiness where the mall used to be. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as trips to the area within the last few years revealed a huge decline on the south side. I don’t know what happened to the mall, but it had been happening for a long time. Even in the late 70’s Glenbrook was the place to go, and as the years progressed development accelerated. When my in-laws moved to the area in the 90’s they asked me where I’d gone to school. When I told them Harding they shook their heads and told me what a troubled school it had become. Sad.

  • 16. Dave from Oregon  |  August 16, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    I grew up on the south side of Fort Wayne (leaving in 1975 for IU), Southtown was thriving at the time. It would seem that Southtown died as that part of town died. The hospital where I was born was rased and replaced with a park. Perhaps it was Walmart that hastened its demise, but the loss of industrial jobs had to help finish the place off.

  • 17. Jeremy from around Fort Wayne  |  September 24, 2010 at 12:18 am

    the southtown mall was a great place once upon a time, had better variety of stores then glenbrook, it was a place where I spent a good many years before I was old enough to go to school that and glennbrook sometimes both in the same day, anyway they had a doctor pet center, and a popcorn stand as you walked in the one entrance and a small arcade, not as big as the tilt arcade at glenbrook but that is another story.

    I would say its downfall was the rampent gangs there, they used to talk about it in grade school how dangerous the southside of fort wayne is, its not that bad not like parts of a true large metro like new york or Chi town. with the downfall of people moving in and the support for the mall, it becoming the side of town were old people and minoritys lived much of the southsides grandure left. The whole side of fort wayne is the 1950s style small contemporary houses as well as the other land marks of it like the hillcrest drivein which was torn down, and the hillcrest bowl now called thunder bowl if that is even still there.

    Then there was the issue of mantainance of the mall, the part that they really wanted to save, no matter what was the sears store, but it was too far gone and would have caused more to fix then to rebuild new, that was to be a public safety training ground in the building, and it was indeed a fair sized building being a two story old store. Lots of fun times I had in there sitting on the garden tractors in the store and the in ground seating terrace which is where they also had santa during the christmas season, and a McDonalds in the mall, think how great I thought that was as a little kid, lol.

    The thing I was always curious about was what the 3 screen cinema was like since I was only three and the only time I went there I think was to see gremlins in 1983 always wanted to go there but never did now its gone forever, that and a kids place much like showbiz or chucky cheeses called tex ritters or something like that went in there once it was kind of small and I remember it was dark but thats the only time I remember going there and it closed up in a short time. Wish someone could tell me about it or what it looked like since I have wondered for years about it and feel unfulfilled about it from the age of 6 and I am now thirty.

    signed Jeremy dated September 24, 2010 1:18 am

  • 18. Mark  |  November 7, 2010 at 7:26 am

    I grew up in Fort Wayne too. Most of the reasons Southtown failed are visible from Google Earth. And they should have been obvious to the developer from the start.

    1. Southtown was 1.75 miles from Southgate Shopping Center when it opened. Glenbrook was only 1/2 mile from Northcrest Shopping Center and the complex of existing stores there. K-Mart was already open right across the street.

    2. The old Speedway, the Coliseum, City Utilities Park and IPFW are all near Glenbrook. Once “downtown” had ceased being the cultural center in the early 1960s the Glenbrook area emerged as the new cultural center of gravity.

    3. Glenbrook is 1 mile down Lima Road from the nearest I-69 exit. The nearest I-69 exit to Southtown was 8 miles as the crow flies, and around 10 as the car drives.

    4. The positions of Sears with respect to the two malls says it all. At Glenbrook Sears was IN the mall. At Southtown Sears was 2.5 miles away up on East Rudisill.

    5. The center of gravity of new residential construction starting in the 1960s was strongly to the north side. This was initially because the north side was much closer to “Downtown”. iow the south side had been more heavily developed in earlier decades. Glenbrook is just 2.5 miles from downtown whereas Southtown was 4.5 miles from downtown.

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