a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Boarding up a shopping mall wing

Another wall rises to block off a vacant department store at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pa. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. – A gigantic retail mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh shouldn’t have lasted more than a year had widespread rumors of a tragic nature been accurate when it opened three decades ago.

The one I heard involved a New Year’s prediction by astrologer Jeane Dixon about people being crushed on escalators during a mall collapse along America’s East Coast. Many of her fans were sure the then-new Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pa., was doomed, including some of my relatives in Rostraver Township, a 20-minute drive south of that shopping Mecca.

It was 1979. I was my early 20s, and was convinced that story had been invented by any number of small shop owners who were struggling to survive new mall competition.

The owners of mom-and-pop stores had plenty to fear, as most of them between Charleroi and Monongahela and Pittsburgh’s South Side and Brentwood wouldn’t survive into the 1980s.

Charleroi, which had one of the busiest retail districts in Pennsylvania, was known for its many shoe stores, yet its chamber of commerce would quit advertising the borough’s annual Shoeleroi Sales Days before that decade was out. The biggest mall in Pittsburgh – Century III Mall and its whopping five anchor department stores – had by then cornered the local shoe and clothing markets.

Purchasing new clothes in the hinterlands at Tars Romito and shoes from Mr. Pagano in Charleroi – where personal attention from familiar faces was paramount – was suddenly within reach of such fine, established Pittsburgh stores as Kaufmanns, Gimbels and Joseph Horne Co.

And then came Internet shopping followed in 2008 by a deep economic recession, which lifted the big mall collapse from urban legend status.
A string of small mall stores were closing. The Gimbels, Kaufmann's and Hornes had already disappeared from Pittsburgh’s landscape, leaving Century III with just three two-story departments stores - a Macy's, JC Penney and Sears.

Yet, the hub of the mall looked more festive and alive with shoppers this Christmas season than it had in recent memory. People are spending money again.

Even so, the mall just closed off a second wing with a new high wall of dry wall – one that had led to a Macy’s scratch-and-dent furniture warehouse. Other high-end retailers have been replaced by such businesses as hip-hop discount clothing stores or even a tattoo parlor.

Meanwhile, trash containers sometimes double as buckets to collect dripping water from the mall’s leaking roof.  Pittsburgh’s transit authority also began two years ago to reduce bus routes to the area, vehicles that had brought to the stores inner city customers who scared away many country racist redneck shoppers.

If nothing, maybe this trend could lead local investors back to such places as Monessen, Donora and Charleroi, towns with an abundance of vacant and decaying historic storefronts in need of care.


jtogyer said...

Shades of Eastland Mall! Maybe a flea market will be next.

Enclosed malls around the country are suffering, but Century III is doing worse than many. I think a lack of investment by Simon Property Group is a large factor --- when's the last time they updated the exterior, or repaved and re-striped the entrance ways?

But the West Mifflin area is also severely over-retailed, especially considering that it draws from some of the most economically depressed communities in the Pittsburgh region (Duquesne, Clairton, Homestead, McKeesport, etc.).

Scott Beveridge said...

You are right Jason about the suffering of malls around the country. The two indoor malls in Washington, Pa., have their own issues, too.

Clark said...

I often wondered if Jeanne Dixon ever made that prediction. Around 1970-71 the same story was going around and people thought it was Monroeville Mall. She had given a certain date it would happen by and I remember different people saying they would wait till the day after to go there.