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Thursday, June 14, 2012 03:44 pm

White elephant

What to do when White Oaks is gone

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A planned new “patioscape” on the parking lot side of the former White Oaks Cinema will provide outdoor seating for customers of the shops and eateries expected to move into the converted theater. The enclosed mall will be slightly less so, each of the new tenants being likely to have its own entrance to the outdoor space.

The project is the sort of thing to which retailers resort to attract jaded American shoppers. On the face of it, this is nuts, since the afternoon sun will bear down on the new space like the Illinois Inspector General bearing down on state workers filching push pins. However, it has the advantage of novelty, which passes for innovation with a public capable of spending millions on Windows Vista.  

The patio is only one of several million dollars worth of aesthetic updates to the venerable mall, which this year reaches the hair-dye phase of its life at age 35. White Oaks seems healthy enough, even if new stores don’t line up like they once did to fill an opening; its moviehouse, remember, for years housed a church, where people who used to pray for the end of bad movies prayed for the beginning of good lives.    

Looking farther down the line, the eventual end to cheap gasoline means an end to driving 50 miles to buy socks – assuming that Internet shopping hasn’t reduced bricks-and-mortar retailing to rubble. Department stores have long been killed off by big-box retailers. Among White Oaks’ original anchor stores (Sears, Famous-Barr, Montgomery Ward and Myers Brothers) only Sears remains, and that Wal-Mart of an earlier age is rapidly turning into a zombie. (See “Such a deal,” Jan. 26, 2012.) Now Internet retailing is killing off the big boxes; Barnes & Noble, which in 2009 considered moving into the larger White Oak Cinema space, today teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.  

Nationally, the number of “dead malls” (dead in financial terms, since most remain open if under-tenanted) is growing. In places where down-sizing, down-pricing and down-styling hasn’t worked, upper stories have been vacated and converted to leasable office space. Whole wings have become homes to health care clinics or public schools. Without such expedients, you end up with a Lincoln Square Mall in downtown Urbana, which was a showcase for sophisticated shopping in central Illinois when it opened in the early 1960s. It lost its anchor store years ago, and now houses a nail salon, a Bible education center, yoga and acupuncture parlors, a local food co-op, insurance company offices and the like – a downtown with a roof, but otherwise indistinguishable from its historical models.  

Too bad Lincoln Land Community College already has a campus; knock a few windows in the outside walls, put in a fitness center, convert the rest to classrooms, labs and offices with the center court as a student commons – perfect. An empty White Oaks also would make a fabulous sports complex or community center, offering in the latter case space for a branch library, a senior center and public health clinics, and maybe, in the corridor leading to the restrooms, an aldermanic hall of fame.

In a few cities, the local mall actually closed. In larger cities, these beached whales are being bought for their land; the revival of the economy will almost certainly see many of them razed and their sites redeveloped for mixed-use projects or town centers – new versions of the ersatz Main Streets that were the centerpiece of the enclosed mall. Here? Unlikely because of the size of the market. Springfield just isn’t big enough for the mall’s britches.

The usual fate for defunct retail properties in the capital city is conversion into state office space, as happened to buildings used by Bressmer’s and Sears (twice) and W.T. Grant’s and I can’t remember how many others downtown. Why not convert the mall into new quarters for the General Assembly?  A former mall in the center of a major Downstate retailing complex would be the perfect setting for the buying and selling of influence, Illinois-style. Plenty of space not only for both chambers but for legislative staffs as well, thus obviating the need to build a new Stratton. And think of the money to be made leasing space for private lobbyist lounges. The scheme has the added benefit of making possible the conversion of the Statehouse into the proper history and art museum that Illinois has never had.

I know. No money. No imagination. No vision. Certainly those realities limit the options but there must be others. The Barker family brought Springfield from the 1940s into the 1970s when it built White Oaks. Perhaps they will give a little back by commissioning a comprehensive study by a major national firm of what to do with White Oaks when it too – as it must – ceases to be viable as a retailing venue. That would be a development worth bragging about.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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