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How the Denver area lost more than half of its malls and why their replacements may have a shelf life too

Before Amazon Prime Day, the mall was the place to be
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Posted at 7:53 AM, Jul 13, 2023

A once-ubiquitous staple of American suburbia is slowly dying. Malls are disappearing from the retail landscape.

And perhaps no better sign of the inevitable doom of malls are the almost yearly announcements of sweeping closures from major mall retailers — the most recent one being Bed Bath & Beyond.

Before Amazon Prime Day, the mall was the place to be, and the Denver metro area was once home to several of them. From 1950 until today, the Mile High City and the surrounding area had at least 17 indoor shopping centers at one time or another. That number is down to about six in 2023.

Some of the malls we lost are as follows:

  • Cinderella City
  • Villa Italia Mall
  • Southglenn Mall
  • Westminster Mall
  • Buckingham Square
  • Northglenn Mall
  • Lakeside Mall

Go back in time and hang out in the food court with your friends. See pictures and learn the history of how these seven malls came to be and why they disappeared | Do you remember these 7 iconic Denver area malls?

The shopping mall concept came about after World War II when families began moving to the suburbs. Jack Buffington, a professor in the business school at the University of Denver, said logistics was a big driver in the development of the shopping mall and its eventual downfall.

"The United States built this highway system and people moved out to the suburbs. Then came to the shopping malls," Buffington explained.

But after about three decades, that convenient new way of shopping was about to change.

What happened?

How we lost more than half of the malls in the Denver area was a combination of several factors including major department store closures and changes to the supply chain leading to a shift in how Americans shop. And that shift, Buffington said, caught many retailers off guard.

Shopping malls were once coveted rich sales tax sources for municipalities. In the 70s and 80s, cities like Arvada, Westminster and Louisville were competing to lure developers in a race to build a mega mall.

The City of Arvada was planning to build a mall in the area of Wadsworth Boulevard and Interstate 70. The proposed mall would be between 750,000- and 850,000-square feet in size and was contingent on whether or not Louisville or Westminster landed a mega mall first.

But that race appeared to have been won by the City of Westminster when developers in the mid-80s chose to expand the existing Westminster Mall into one the largest shopping centers in the state. And some folks were not happy.

In a Sept. 18, 1985, op-ed in the Louisville Times, the decision to expand Westminster Mall into a regional shopping center was framed as corrupt and unfair to the City of Louisville, which had hoped to build a mall of its own.

"Talk about bigness. It's funny, but there is an absence of 'alarm' over the Westminster expansion — the kind of 'environmental concern' that did-in the once proud Louisville mall plan," the newspaper wrote.

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"The northeast entrance to Westminster Mall in Colorado. Building was demolished sometime between July of 2011 and March of 2012."

But maybe Louisville dodged a bullet because Westminster Mall, which opened in 1977, was on borrowed time after the mid-80s expansion project was completed.

Beginning in the 90s, large department stores that anchored the Westminster Mall, and virtually every other mall in the country, started to close after failing to adapt to a fast-changing retail landscape that was emerging at the time.

"You started to see changes with big box [retailers] due to globalization. Global logistics were able to produce things in other countries. So big companies like Amazon took advantage of that. So that was really the initial step through with the big box," Buffington said.

Caused by a changing supply chain, big box retailers and e-commerce began to flourish, which contributed to the downfall of the once mighty mall anchor stores like Sears, Mervyn's, Joslin's and Montgomery Wards.

These rapid-fire closures were the catalyst that eventually led to the death of most of the seven malls in the Denver area, including the Westminster Mall, which closed in 2011.

Cinderella City

Perhaps the most iconic mall on the list is Cinderella City. The mall was located in Englewood at W. Hampden Avenue and S. Santa Fe Drive. The operational end of the mall came in 1997. The 1.35-million-square-foot mall was called the largest shopping center under one roof in the world when it opened in 1968.

The three-level mall had 250 stores and restaurants and was sectioned into five individually named areas that covered about two miles and were connected by a center court, known as the Blue Mall. The center court featured a massive fountain with a 35-foot high spray. A handcrafted Italian carousel was installed. A three-minute ride cost $1.

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"Local shoppers went absolutely nuts for the fairy tale shopping space. For decades, it was the place to shop in the Denver area, and customers streamed in from across the Mountain West," wrote Brian K. Trembath with the Denver Public Library.

But not everyone was happy about Cinderella City.

An essay — written by Richard Lutz and titled "Chaos in Cinderella City" — published May 4, 1972, in the alternative weekly publication "The Straight Creek Journal," symbolically used the then-largest indoor mall in the world to point out everything wrong with Colorado and the growth the state was experiencing at the time.

“Cinderella City itself is Walt Disney’s dream come true. Four stories of every imaginable useless store in the world. Four stories of indoor sidewalks (with streetlights), legions of angry mommies yelling at their kids, the gang cruisin’ the linoleum streets, and hassled husbands checking out the fishing tackle,” Lutz wrote.

Development began in 1963 when Denver developer Gerri Von Frellick — the king of Denver shopping centers at the time — planned to build a mall on East Hampden, near where the KLZ radio tower was located. But neighbors weren't happy with his plan so he moved it down the street, giving the City of Englewood $1 million to purchase the 55-acre City Park.

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The name Cinderella City was reportedly just a placeholder, but Lutz kept the name after the center opened.

The mall experienced tremendous success, but the fairy tale began to fade in the early 80s, according to the City of Englewood's History of Cinderella City Mall. And by the early to mid-90s, the city was looking to redevelop the land as the once-packed mall was virtually deserted.

Montgomery Ward was the final tenant to vacate the premises in December of 1997, according to the city.

The successful ones

While indoor malls continue a downward spiral, some in the Denver area are thriving. Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree and the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver are packed with shoppers on any given weekend. These two shopping centers appeared to have bucked the trend, but why?

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Cherry Creek Mall

Buffington said it's because these malls offer more than shopping — they offer an experience.

“These malls, Cherry Creek and Park Meadows, have won through experience. It's a place where people go to, you know, have an experience versus just buying something,” he explained. “There's a certain clientele that wants to go there, have a coffee and walk around with their friends. So, the malls that have made it have been experts at doing that.”

The Cherry Creek Mall opened in 1990. But before the enclosed mall opened, the area was home to the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, an outdoor shopping plaza. The plaza opened in 1953 and was built upon a landfill. Most of the original plaza remains standing just west of the indoor mall.

Park Meadows opened its doors in 1996. Plans for a regional shopping center in that area were in the works for several years. A 1-million square foot complex, called the Regency Mall, was proposed for Denver at the interchange of Interstate 25 and Interstate 225 in the Tech Center. But that plan was scrapped in favor of the more "logical location" at I-25 and C-470.

Lifestyle centers

Most of the seven malls that disappeared from the Denver area retail landscape in the past 20 years were replaced with open-air shopping centers, often referred to as lifestyle centers.

Lifestyle centers started to trend in the late 90s and are designed to have a town-like feel. The Villa Italia Mall, which opened in 1966 and closed in 2001, was replaced with Belmar Downtown Lakewood.

Belmar was one of the first major open-air shopping centers in the Denver area when it opened in 2004. It offers 80 shops and restaurants as well as residential spaces. Similar concepts began opening soon after, like the Streets of SouthGlenn, which replaced the former Southglenn Mall.

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Bellmar Downtown Lakewood

These centers generate tax dollars and attract shoppers from around the region, much like the indoor malls they replaced. However, unlike malls, Belmar and the Streets of SouthGlenn have a residential component to them — something that may prove to be more of a gamble than traditional malls, according to Buffington.

He said many lifestyle centers still rely on anchor stores to attract shoppers, but he said the cycle of store closures will continue, which may leave homeowners at risk when these retailers close shop, leaving centers abandoned.

"The goal (with lifestyle centers) is to create an urban experience in the suburban setting," Buffington said. "But the problem with those is that you start to lose stores, and then you start to lose that experience. And then people can't sell their homes. It just becomes kind of volatile."

The future of retail

American shoppers are moving away from the mall. So, where are they going? Online sales have certainly increased in the past 10 years. Companies like Amazon have increasingly made it easier to shop online with one-day shipping. At the beginning of the pandemic, retailers beefed up their order online, pickup at the store and same-day delivery operations.

Buffington said this will continue to expand and is evolving into a mixed-use model where a brick-and-mortar location offers in-store shopping and online ordering fulfillment in the same building. Major retailers like Target and Walmart are already doing this to compete with Amazon.

How the Denver area lost more than half of its malls and why their replacements may have a shelf life too

"Walmart beats everybody because 90% of the United States is within a mile drive of a Walmart versus Amazon," Buffington said. "So Walmart is really the king of what's happening in the current state."

A Walmart in Lakewood is already undergoing a transformation. The company is building what they call a "market fulfillment center" at its location at Colfax and Wadsworth. The location will serve as an automated fulfillment center while still offering in-store shopping.

Other retailers, including Walmart, offer curbside pickup, which saw a surge during the pandemic. Buffington expects this way of shopping to see increased growth in the coming years.