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What happened to Lincoln Mall?

May 3, 2009

Lincoln Mall is sick. The piped music and the shiny floors, the jewelry stores occupying every corner and the kiosks selling watches and cell phones tell you the mall is doing just fine.

The dusty silhouetted names of past tenants on the storefronts, the stores that no one has heard of before, the geese roosting on top of the old Montgomery Ward building tell you something else.

Lincoln Mall is fighting for its life.

Foreclosure proceedings started in January laid bare some of the problems. Then the mall's operators turned around and sued the bank that initiated the foreclosure. The mall currently is overseen by a third party appointed by the courts.

There's also a matter involving a $10 million loan that might or might not have been pledged by the village of Matteson for mall improvements.

While those messy issues play out, the folks who actually use Lincoln Mall are left to wonder: What happened?

Lincoln Mall opened in 1973 as a new era for south suburban shoppers. Bob Evans, of Park Forest, remembers the new mall was so successful, it eventually chased Marshall Field's and Sears out of Park Forest a few miles to the east. (With a name like that, he must know something about retailing.)

But over time, some of the anchor stores important to a mall's health - Wieboldt's, Ward and J.C. Penney - folded. The other stores suffered from the drop in foot traffic.

In the middle of shopping for grills at Sears, Evans questioned the wisdom of allowing a J.C. Penney and Target to build standalone stores next door to the mall in the past couple of years. He said other suburbs scrambling to grab a slice of the shopping pie didn't help.

"Drive through Orland Park or U.S. 30," Evans said. "There are like 9 million strip malls. We're oversaturated."

Elon Larkin, 25, of Park Forest, has lived within 20 minutes of the mall since he was a teen. Larkin said there's nothing hip about the mall he went to as a kid. The place could use a Jimmy Jazz or a Buckle, he said, a place where he could buy lines such as Sean John, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren.

When in need of threads, Larkin visits the River Oaks Center in Calumet City or Orland Square in Orland Park instead.

Larkin last week stopped into Sears to buy a power drill for his new job as a Comcast installer - a very unhip purchase.

"I would love to see the mall succeed," he said. "But they never attracted a lot of younger people. They never had that edge that would pull people away from the other malls. You can't window shop here because there is nothing in the windows."

Larkin was not critical. But he was mournful.

In 2006, Lincoln Mall appeared on the Web site www.deadmalls.com, a sort of online repository of aging shopping centers that are closed or about to close. According to a ratings scale on the site, with 1 being a healthy mall and 5 being a wasteland (aka Dixie Square Mall in Harvey), Lincoln Mall gets a 3.

Web site creator Brian Florence said scores of suburban malls have been hanging by a thread for years. The rotten economy has been the scissors.

Florence said a wistful reaction to a mall in trouble is not unusual.

"If you think back to when you were a kid, everyone remembers going to the mall," he said. "You remember what it smells like. You remember the sights. It's almost like it's pounded into the cement of your brain."

The older malls still doing good business need to worry about new retail designs.

Two years ago, Bolingbrook opened The Promenade - a little quasi-downtown, complete with a movie theater with an old-school marquee and premium parking spots with coin-fed meters. The "streets" are lined by stores that look like boutiques, but they are backed by deep-pocketed corporations.

"Don't be fooled: It's a mall," Florence said. "A mall can kill another mall."

Dody Mooney, of Flossmoor, has lived in the area for 43 years but comes to Lincoln Mall only about twice a year.

"Does this look pleasant?" she asked, waving her hand across a parking lot where a Menards employee weaved his bicycle between a smattering of cars like an obstacle course.

Behind her stood the barren concrete and rusty steel edifice of the old Ward store.

"It used to be better here," Mooney said. "So many things have changed here. Now they mostly have T-shirt places."

She's angry that retailers seem to think the south suburbs are Siberia, unworthy of building quality places to shop.

"There is money here," Mooney said. "People need to realize that."

A dead mall won't change that perception.

Guy Tridgell can be reached at gtridgell@southtownstar.com or (708)633-5970.