COMING ATTRACTION:The City Council voted to spend $120,000 to study what should be done with the beleaguered mall. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Saving Old Red Bird Mall

Dallas tries to answer the question: once a mall goes south, can it be saved?

In the prosaically named southwest Center Mall, where Marvin D. Love Freeway intersects with Interstate 20 in South Dallas, vacant salons stand next to the shell of a movie theater that hasn’t run a feature film in decades. You’ve never heard of most of the stores that are still open (besides loyal anchors Sears, Macy’s, and Burlington Coat Factory). They all seem to have “foot” in their names.

My son and I recently found ourselves in the mall formerly known as Red Bird because I had forgotten Dillard’s had packed up last year and moved to the new Uptown Village at Cedar Hill. We tried to find something else to occupy our time since we had already made the trip. “Does this mall have a Build-A-Bear Workshop?” my first-grader asked. “No, son,” I said, halfway shamed by his question and my answer. “They don’t have that store here.”

I began tracking the plight of Southwest Center Mall at an October 2008 tenant meeting. By then, Tom Morris’ SW Dallas Limited Partnership had declared bankruptcy, and a court-appointed trustee had tapped the Woodmont Company to operate the property. Woodmont hired a woman named Lisa Long to serve as general manager. She called the meeting to introduce herself. “The mall is not closing,” she said, doing her best to squelch rumors that had been circulating since summer. “And it’s not turning into a flea market.”

Before Long had come onboard, the air conditioning system had been on the fritz, escalators had sat motionless, and there were more rats rummaging through trash than shoppers strolling through stores. Long and the Fort Worth-based management firm made repairs, beefed up security, and started hosting weekend events aimed at improving foot traffic—from voter registration drives to sorority meetings, parking lot carnivals to health fairs.

The energetic GM had been recruited specifically to stabilize Southwest Center. She promised leaseholders that she was in it for the long haul. “I’ve invested nothing more than all of myself,” Long said before adjourning the meeting so attendees could head for the doughnuts and juice. 

Not long after that meeting, at a Far North Dallas diner one afternoon, Steven Levin schools me on North Texas’ shopping mall boom of the 1970s. Levin is president of Centennial Real Estate Company, which specializes in shopping centers. His family once ran an off-price women’s apparel store that was one of Red Bird Mall’s first tenants. The conversation eventually leads to the DeBartolo family, of San Francisco 49ers fame, and their decision in 1975 to build Red Bird in an undeveloped section of Southern Dallas. Levin is not sanguine about Southwest Center’s future.

“This mall’s got to come down,” he says while dressing his salad. His company considered purchasing the property in 2004, but decided to pass. “It’s hard to turn around a dying mall. Once they start to head the wrong way, it’s just not possible.”

Plenty of people have already tried. In 1997, Red Bird Mall was sold to NAMCO Financial, a California investment company that tried to rebrand the shopping center by changing the name to Southwest Center Mall. At the time, the Red Bird area of Dallas was synonymous with high crime. The new moniker was the only thing that changed.

Dr. Frederick D. Haynes of Friendship-West Baptist Church and a group of Southern Dallas pastors unsuccessfully pursued a joint venture with an investment group to purchase the mall in 2001. (“The owners of Red Bird got complacent and didn’t keep up with what other malls were doing,” Haynes says. “They lost contact with the community.”) Then Dr. Roland Hill, pastor of the Living Waters Worship Center, created the Red Bird Renaissance Community Development Committee to help find new ownership. But again, no deal. The sticking point with negotiations, then and now, is finding an agreement suitable to the 34 property owners with assets spread across the site.

Perhaps the answer can be found at another center: Prestonwood Town Center. In the mid-’90s, Prestonwood Mall (as it was known), at the northeast corner of Beltline and Montfort, was in serious decline. It had gained a nasty reputation as a teen hangout, and competition from the Galleria and Valley View was killing it. By 2004, Prestonwood Mall was gone. But today Prestonwood Town Center, an open-air concept, thrives on the spot.

Prestonwood offers a great comparison for Red Bird. There are those who argue that the demographics in Southern Dallas don’t support retail investment. But households within a 5-mile radius of Southwest Center bring in about $1,500 more annually than those surrounding Prestonwood. (Though it is true that Prestonwood enjoys the advantage of having a higher population density, especially considering the daytime traffic brought in by nearby office buildings.)

Some of these challenges of perception may be addressed now that Mayor Tom Leppert’s 240-member Southern Dallas Task Force lists the mall as a top priority. Edna Pemberton was assigned by Leppert and Councilman Tennell Atkins to serve as a liaison between Southwest Center’s tenants and the city. Pemberton’s duties have included everything from persuading an Oncor meter man not to flip the switch on the mall’s power to leading a group of store owners to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the Department of Labor. The most recent development came when the City Council allotted $120,000 to hire the Urban Land Institute to conduct a 12-month study of what should happen next with the property. For a fraction of that cost, I’ll share part of my vision for the site:

Start by changing the name back to Red Bird Mall. Tear down everything west of the common area that stands in front of Foley’s, including the vacant J.C. Penney and most of Dillard’s. The lower level that leads east toward Penney’s is void of tenants. The stores that are open on the upper level of that end of the building can flip to the boarded-up spaces in front of Sears on the far east side. The mall that’s now a little more than two-thirds leased becomes maxed out. This would require moving the food court to the commons area, and using part of the old Dillard’s for restaurant space. Additional casual and upscale dining options could be built on the site.

One downside to progress would be that many of the small businesses—which are responsible for the mall’s continued existence—would be priced out. Longtime occupants like African Imports, Mr. Pretzel, and others should be protected, but you can only have so many stores selling tennis shoes and seven-button suits.

Southwest Center Mall is beleaguered by the same negative forces that prick at all parts of Southern Dallas: racial politics, poor management, public apathy. But now civic leaders, community groups, and business people are all at the table trying to tackle these challenges. We may never have a Build-A-Bear Workshop at Southwest Center Mall. But a first-run movie, maybe a couple fewer “foot” stores, something Southern Dallas can be proud of? That seems doable.

Shawn Williams is the publisher of the Dallas South blog. Write to [email protected].

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