BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - When Mall of America first opened in 1992, it was so big that designers added visual cues to keep shoppers oriented.
Each of the mall’s four main corridors bore a theme. One avenue looked like a train station. Another featured neon.
Now two decades later, the theme concept is out. Instead, the nation’s largest shopping mall has embraced a new design philosophy: clean, light, classy, open - throughout the mall.
“What we have found through the years, truly, is that people don’t get confused where they are,” said Maureen Bausch, the mall’s executive vice president of business development. “They get confused (about) where they park, but they don’t get confused when they’re in the building.”
This spring, MOA began an $11 million renovation of West Market - the corridor with the exposed truss and brass work that was modeled after a train station or a European market. It’s the widest of the four corridors at the Bloomington mall, and in some ways, the most problematic.
“The big complaints on West (Market) have been that it’s been so dark, and it just feels separated from the rest of the building,” said Nathan Klutz, director of construction for Mall of America. “There was a lot of green, skylights were small, didn’t allow for much natural light.”
When the makeover is complete this fall, the west corridor will feature a 400-foot-long “continuous skylight through the entire avenue, from end to end,” Klutz said.
Most of the west avenue’s fussy fixtures are being removed, along with its gray tile and dark green paint. And some of the items blocking sightlines - even a few tenants - are being relocated.
“It makes it look a lot larger,” Bausch said. “It’s amazing what lightness does to increase the size of the building. People always thought we were big, but now they actually get to see it.”
One irony of the project is that, due to Mall of America’s size and ambition, even an $11 million renovation is dwarfed by its other undertakings.
In March, MOA broke ground on a $325 million expansion that will include perhaps 60 new retailers ringing a glassy atrium on the north side, plus a luxury hotel and a 10-story office tower.
And work continues on the $49 million roadwork project to lower and bridge Lindau Lane, the busy street on the north side between MOA and Ikea.
Mall of America has even bigger dreams in the future. It plans to keep growing north - a billion-dollar expansion that would include more retail, more hotels, a waterpark and more.
To analysts, the fact that Mall of America also is spending significant amounts to glam up its 21-year-old corridors is revealing. MOA is owned by the Ghermezian family’s Triple Five Group, based in Edmonton, Alberta.
“What it tells me is that it’s a healthy property,” said Jim McComb, a Twin Cities retail analyst. “Looking forward, they’re going to open a new area which will be brand-spanking new, and they don’t want the existing mall to look dowdy.
“They’ve got to keep making improvements with the existing property, so it remains an attractive location with retailers, and with the customers,” McComb added.
The wealth of activity at Mall of America is striking, partly because the shopping mall concept isn’t so perky everywhere. Unlike in the 1980s, when Mall of America was first conceived, almost no one in America is building enclosed shopping malls anymore. Sales at U.S. regional malls continued to decline in 2013, as they did in 2012 and 2011, the International Council of Shopping Centers reports.
While top-tier malls including MOA remain strong, a large number of second-tier and third-tier malls are up for sale. Shopping patterns are shifting, competition from online is growing, and traditional mall anchors such as Sears and J.C. Penney are struggling.
Mall of America still attracts 42 million visitors a year and has a unique reach. It says nearly 10 percent of its visitors are from outside the United States, and roughly 40 percent live beyond a 150-mile radius of the Twin Cities.
To keep ‘em coming, MOA has ramped up its attractions and shined up its appearance. The West Market renovation is based on design work from New York architectural firm Gabellini Sheppard.
MOA has been renovating about one quadrant each summer. It started with South Avenue, then the East section - the one with the atrium - before this year tackling the West section. Bausch said MOA can chart the impact because it monitors sales for every store.
“The first thing that happens is, more tenants are interested in that street, so it absolutely helps leasing,” Bausch said.
“We know that sales go up, because people want to spend more time on that street. So it does help leasing, it does help sales.
“Now, is that because of the design - or the tenants that want to go there?” she asks.
The primacy of the tenants is another factor driving MOA’s new design philosophy. Back in the 1990s, the megamall had showy touches like neon and art-deco finishes.
“The new architectural design lets tenants bring the color to the mall,” Bausch said. “We’re kind of this white palette for them to work on. Now everything is lighter and brighter, and higher ceilings and natural light.”
Opening up the West Market ceiling to more natural light, however, turned out to be a challenge. Mortenson Construction is the project’s contractor.
Mall officials needed the stores to stay open every day throughout construction, and keep the mall weather-tight from rain, wind, heat and cold.
To achieve that, workers are installing steel beams at the base of the vaulted ceiling, high above the mall floor.
“It’s essentially a rail system,” said Klutz, MOA’s director of construction.
“We’re putting in steel rails, and we’re going to roll the platform down the avenue as we put in the skylight.”
As for keeping the mall weather-tight during construction, the team figured that out, too.
“The guys will be up on the roof constructing the new skylight, and the guys below (on the elevated rolling platform) will be demolishing the old skylight from below,” Klutz said.
The project’s completion date is scheduled for October, so it won’t interfere with holiday shopping.
Once it’s finished, after 110,000 square feet of porcelain tile is placed and the green, gray and brass is banished, Bausch is confident that shoppers can still get their bearings inside Mall of America.
Those cues will just be more subtle.
“There are distinguishing characteristics of each street - the rotunda on the East, the chandeliers on the South, the skylights and roofing on the West,” she said.
The original themed streets at Mall of America “worked really well for 20 years, and still kind of work,” Bausch said. “But when the trends change, you look outdated if you don’t stay with them.
“You have to keep up with those trends, or the tenants say, ‘Well, why would I want to come to a mall that doesn’t look new and fresh?’ We’ve always tried to stay fresh.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.