Looking back at Southtown Mall

(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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. I think another part of the demise of Southtown Mall was the media coverage it got each time something happened. I presently work on the North side of town and I am constantly reminded to lock the door on my car from my General Manager and colleagues. I have also talked to one of the security guys at Glenbrook and it is astounding at how much crap goes on in those parking lots…car thefts and muggings.

    On another note, I also believe that Harvester killed the economy on the Southside of Fort Wayne. It also didn’t help that no one would renovate the place because you know that Mall had A TON of parking spaces when it was “the mall” to go to.!

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