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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Commentary: O.K. Carter: Six Flags Mall and Forum 303 Mall are gone, but there is life after demolition

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Arlington’s answer to a big question – what to do with death spiral malls – likely will never be featured in Architectural Digest, but there is this: The ultimate solution did create about 2,500 new jobs occupying more than 2 million square feet of new if exceedingly dull concrete tilt wall structures.

We’re talking about the demise of Six Flags Mall, all 1.4-million square feet of it. And also, Forum 303 Mall, no little thing at 800,000 square feet. Both of them opened in 1970, both on Texas 360 about 2.4 miles apart, both in Arlington but on the edge of neighboring Grand Prairie. Neither mall exists anymore, but both took decades to finally die.

Quick facts on mall morbidity: In the 1990s the number of U.S. malls had climbed to about 1,500. It’s down to around a thousand now and economists predict that about one out of four of those now operating will be out of business very soon, as in by 2022. There are occasional new malls of course, but more malls perish than are created.

As to Six Flags and Forum 303, the fact that there were two of them likely meant Arlington – and Grand Prairie – were over-malled from the get-go. Though both cities were fast-growing, in 1970 the population of Arlington was 92,000, Grand Prairie only 51,000 – not enough people for so much mall offerings.

What happened to the malls?

It’s complicated but whether the malls are located in Arlington or elsewhere, the summary version is that big department stores – the critical anchor tenants — began to close and on-line buying mushroomed. Go ahead, blame or credit Amazon. And others of its ilk.

Too, sometimes newer, glitzier malls come along that guts the old guard as the Parks of Arlington did when it opened in 1988. It, by the way, is still prospering, though the future of the massive Sears on the south end of the mall – and a J.C. Penney’s in the middle – are at best gloomy.

The problem of what to do with a couple of million square feet of failing malls isn’t easy, though there have been successful alternatives.

In Baltimore, a big chunk of the Marley Station Mall became a data center, a relatively easy conversion. In Boise a mall will become a charter school. One of the country’s oldest malls in Providence, R.I., was converted to micro-lofts, some as small as 225 square feet but very affordable – so much so there’s a 4,000-person waiting list. A Memphis suburb plans to convert an empty factory outlet mall into a mixed-use blend of hotel and restaurants.

One of the more spectacular conversions took place when Austin Community College converted the withering Highland Mall into a state-of-the-art campus and workforce development center. That one has perked up interest in communities with fading malls across the country.

But more commonly, what happened to Arlington’s two older malls is repeated across the country. Owners and lenders desperate to salvage their investment try new retailing formulas that more often than not fail, then fail again. Meanwhile creditors are running out of patience until, finally, both a bargain buyer with a start-from-scratch plan and the bulldozers show up.

Not that either Forum or Six Flags surrendered easily.

Six Flags originally had the primo stores, movies, restaurants and a plethora of special events – car shows, Little Miss pageants and assorted special events. Forum 303 promoted itself as the new downtown. It also had movies, an ice rink, a popular amphitheater and – for a while – was home to a wildly popular nightspot fronted by Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett.

Forum 303 gave up first, the mall being sold to movie maker and investor Bob Yari in 1994. Yari first tried to convert Forum 303 to an outlet mall, and then a discount outlet center. His final try was billed as a bargain hunter’s paradise – a sort of air-conditioned flea market he dubbed Festival Marketplace. He could never fill more than half the space and eventually it was sold and flattened.

The Forum site, which opened in 2009, now contains the Pioneer 360 Business Center – 1.16 million square feet with three massive buildings and a mix of enterprises: Edge Tech Academy (computer programming courses), Cardone, Briggs Equipment, Elliott Electronics, Intelligent Mexican Marketing and other enterprises, including substantial warehousing. The combined endeavors created an estimated 500 new jobs.

Six Flags, too, went through ownership and lender changes, steadily declining, by the end a virtual ghost mall supporting half a dozen smallish retail endeavors and a for-profit college, along with a still-functioning movie theater.

It, too, was finally flattened when Missouri-based Northpoint Development purchased most of the 83-acre site. It was demolished to build two multi-tenant warehouses in 2017, International Automotive Components and Android, housed in a new 1.4 million-square-feet industrial complex that primarily serves the nearby G.M. Assembly Plant – and provides about 2,000 new jobs.

The architecture for both sites is clean, functional, well-maintained and uninspiring – but 2,500 jobs and a substantial boost to the tax rolls is no small matter.

““We’re all excited because (the uses) will be all the way from light manufacturing to distribution,” Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams said back in 2017. “It’s a big improvement from a decaying mall.”

O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.

okcarter@bizpress.net

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