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Retail flops fail to stop mall frenzy

February 8, 1989

This is a terrible time for mall freaks.

First, Branden's announced it was closing. Not only was this bad news for Branden's employees, but also for several South Florida malls which had counted on the big department store as their "anchor" to bring in customers.

FourThe Promenade, Town & Country, Colonial Palms and The Fountains in Browardare suddenly stuck with about a jillion square feet of retail space, of which there is already a gross surplus.

In South Miami, the long-troubled Bakery Centre was clobbered by the abrupt closing of the Bodyworks spa and adjoining Sports Rock Cafe. Certainly it was an interesting idea while it lasted: Presumably you were supposed to pig out on the cafe side, then burn off the fat at the gym. Only in America, and only in a mall, could such a concept be born.

The shutdown of Bodyworks was the final blow to the Bakery Centre, which has announced that it's converting from retail to office space. Meanwhile developer owner Martin Margulies and the bank that loaned him the dough are suing and countersuing each other over why the loans aren't being repaid.

A new fire station that Margulies had promised to build in exchange for the mall approval is still just a sketch on paper. Gee, what a surprise.

The Bakery Centre fiasco is not a unique story. All over South Florida, shopping malls are in trouble for the simple reason that there are too many of them. A recent study showed a glut of 2lb million square feet of shopping space in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Vacancy is high, tenant turnover is high, foreclosure is high.

Still they build more and more of these megaturkeysa mystery, unless you understand the symbiosis of greed. Developers usually don't lose a dime on dead mallsthey get their money from the banks. The ones who really take it on the chin are the small, independent shop owners trying to make the rent in an air-conditioned ghost town.

Yet zoning boards lustily endorse mall after mall, seemingly oblivious of the fact that many of these projects have no prayer of financial success.

A perfect example: A few years ago, an economic study done in Broward reported that there was so much empty retail space that it couldn't all be filled until well into the 21st century.

Officials conveniently chose to ignore the experts, and continued to rubber-stamp every shopping mall that came up on the drawing board. Their groveling allegiance to developers is best manifested along a two-mile segment of University Drive in Plantation, where there are now no less than five malls and shopping centers.

If the Russians ever decide to bomb us, this particular stretch of suburban claptrap is where they'll start. The aerial resemblance to a munitions dump is uncanny.

Any idiot could have predicted that not all these malls could make moneyany idiot except the ones who approved them; the elected ones.

Here's one idea you won't hear from government planners: Don't build any more shopping malls until the ones we've got are at least 90 percent occupiedand the stores are actually making a profit.

There's a radical notion. No one suggests such a thing because it means saying no to fat-cat developers and their lawyers. Saying no to a mall is like saying no to growth, and saying no to growth is like spitting on the flag.

Why, what would we do without another multiplex cinemaa dozen theaters, each no bigger than a tollbooth! Where else but a mall could we buy our apricot bagels? Where else could our daughters get their ears pierced?

And, most of all, what would we do with all that open space if there were no more shopping malls? Oh, I suppose you could plant some trees, put in a playground or maybe a ballpark for the kids.

But what neighborhood would ever go for something so dull when it could have its very own J. C. Penney and Wicker World and Orange Julius and parking lots as far as the eye can see.

We're talking quality of life.

Maybe first Thanksgiving soured early November 24, 1989 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | A message to outsiders: Floridas full January 5, 1990