Repurposing and revitalizing empty mall spaces for civic use brings them closer to creator's original intent

When the first indoor shopping mall opened, creator Victor Gruen envisioned the surrounding area being developed into a more European-style town center. Instead, it grew into something he despised.

Victor Gruen designed Southdale Center in Edina, MN, the first indoor shopping mall in the United States. Opening in 1956, his vision had it at the center of a new high-density, mixed-use district that included mixed-density housing, offices, schools, medical facilities, parks and even lakes. Instead, Southdale Center, just like many of the malls throughout the United States, became the center of multi-lane roads and suburban sprawl accessible only by car and designed solely for shopping.
Minnesota Historical Society

WILLMAR — By all accounts, Victor Gruen grew to despise the very thing for which he was best-known — being the creator of the American indoor shopping mall — a staple of the suburban lifestyle from the 1960s through the early 2000s.

Victor Gruen
American Heritage Center, Wyoming

Today, due to the rise in online shopping, many of those shopping malls are struggling and losing their anchor stores, such as KMart, JCPenney and Herbergers - especially those located in smaller, more rural communities like Willmar.

However, communities are saving their malls by repurposing and revitalizing them in ways more closely related to what Gruen had envisioned - creating mixed-use spaces for people to gather for activities, entertainment, civic engagement, shopping and even to live.

Willmar has the opportunity to do just that if it chooses to repurpose the former JCPenney building located at Uptown Willmar into a new combined city hall and community center.

A concept proposed by the Willmar 10 Investors would put a combined city hall and community center in the approximately 52,000 square feet soon to be vacated by JCPenney at Uptown Willmar, formerly the Kandi Mall. Proposal image courtesy of Terwisscha Construction

Malls — the monstrous concrete and steel retail structures, taking up acres of land and surrounded by a sea of asphalt and developments of single-family homes, were not what Gruen initially envisioned when he came up with the concept for the indoor mall.


Gruen, a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, envisioned recreating European town centers by bringing downtown America to the suburbs, creating walkable spaces in which to shop and run errands without having to drive downtown.

He designed Southdale Center in Edina, MN , the first indoor shopping mall in the United States. Opening in 1956, his vision had it at the center of a new high-density, mixed-use district that included mixed-density housing, offices, schools, medical facilities, parks and even lakes.

Instead, Southdale Center, just like many of the malls throughout the United States, became the center of multi-lane roads and suburban sprawl accessible only by car and designed solely for shopping.

“I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all,” Gruen is quoted as saying during a speech in London in 1978. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.” He had moved back to Vienna in 1968 and died in 1980.

Repurposing dying malls

There are many examples throughout the United States of communities repurposing and revitalizing malls to better fit the needs of the community, one of which is another mall owned by Rockstep Capital , the owner of Uptown Willmar.

The city of Janesville, Wisconsin is in the process of revitalizing an empty space in Uptown Janesville as Woodman’s Sports and Convention Center , a 130,000 square-foot complex that will include ice, turf and indoor athletic courts as well as conference, meeting, special event and community spaces, according to the Friends of Woodman's Center website.

A preliminary rendering shows an aerial image of Uptown Janesville. At the shopping mall property’s center, where the former Sears store now stands, is the location of a proposed Woodman’s Sports & Convention Center.
Courtesy of Angus-Young Associates

The project is a public-private collaboration supported by Friends of Woodman’s Center working closely with business leaders; local, state and federal lawmakers; community organizations; the city of Janesville; the Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and private donors.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Woodman’s Sports & Convention Center at Uptown Janesville.
Image courtesy city of Janesville

It will operate under a public model by the city of Janesville and is expected to create an economic impact of $23 million annually and a one-time construction impact of $75 million. The cost to design the facility, demolish the existing building (a former Sears store) and construct the new facility and improvements is approximately $50.3 million.


Another community doing something similar is Columbus, Indiana, which, in partnership with Columbus Regional Health, is constructing a massive health, wellness and recreation destination facility at the former Fair Oaks Mall, according to Mary K. Ferdon, Executive Director of Administration and Community Development for the city.

“The old mall sits on 35 acres in a critical area of Columbus — an area which hasn't seen a lot of development recently but has a lot of potential,” Ferdon said. “We were concerned about what might happen, as the property had been for sale for several years.”

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CityCenter Englewood is a 23-year-old development in Englewood, Colorado which repurposed the 1960s-era Cinderella City Shopping Mall. For a brief time after it was built, Cinderella City was the largest enclosed shopping center west of the Mississippi River, according to Brad Power, Director of Community Development for the city of Englewood.

The shopping mall was completely demolished in favor of an open-air project, but Englewood City Hall and the public library are housed in a former department store building, according to Power.

CityCenter Englewood is a transit-oriented development that is pedestrian-friendly and includes retail, entertainment, residential, office, civic and open space with a transit focal point, according to the city of Englewood website.

The city is currently in the process of redeveloping CityCenter, which includes keeping its commercial uses, expanding the amount of multifamily residential developments, adding a hotel and retaining the city’s presence at the site - either in the current building or in a location nearby, Power added.


“Englewood citizens have a great deal of pride in the visibility of the civic center at CityCenter, and retaining the city’s prominence at the property is one of the major goals for future redevelopment,” he said.

Having the Civic Center Building at CityCenter has been a key element of the commercial development over the last 23 years due to the potential customers drawn in by the city’s administrative offices and the public library, according to Power.

While the Civic Center Building took a large commercial building off the property tax rolls, most of the property is still devoted to tax-generating uses, which increased tax revenue for a time after it was developed, Power noted.

However, most of the stores built in the early 2000s were big-box stores like Office Depot and Best Buy, which are no longer favorable. “(That) is one reason why we are planning for the next generation of redevelopment of the site,” Power said.

There are a number of other city and county governments that have repurposed or are in the process of repurposing empty mall space for civic uses, including:

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: or phone at 320-214-4339.
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