Ross Park Mall has stayed vibrant by adding retail such as LL Bean, Crate and Barrel and Nordstrom. Photo courtesy of Ross Park Mall.

This week, the news from Pittsburgh area shopping malls was both promising and grim.

On February 6, the West Mifflin Borough Council ordered Century III Mall to close due to problems with the sprinkler system brought on by last week’s polar vortex. In a notice posted on social media, the borough council declared the building “unsafe and uninhabitable.”

A sheriff’s sale for the now mostly shuttered Century III Mall was originally scheduled for June 2018 but has repeatedly been pushed back due to legal disputes between Sears and the property’s owners over the retailer’s now-vacant space in the building.

Las Vegas-based Moonbeam Capital, which owns Century III, filed for bankruptcy in September. Of the estimated 1,200 shopping malls nationwide, fewer than half are projected to be open by 2023.

And yet … a few miles away in Ross Township, the site of another vacant Sears store is getting a new lease on life.

On Tuesday, Ross Township Commissioner Steve Korbel used Facebook to announce that Simon Property Group, the owners of Ross Park Mall, are going to formally propose demolishing the vacant Sears building there to make way for several smaller stores as well as a fitness center and a movie theater.

While many other malls in the area have closed in the last decade, Ross Park Mall expanded with additions like Nordstrom, L.L. Bean and Crate & Barrel — none of which can be found elsewhere in town. They’ve also added unique features like a Wigle Whiskey tasting room.

Together, the two malls serve as a vivid example of the changing face of America’s shopping malls: Traditional brick-and-mortar stores are in retreat, while shops offering an experience are on the upswing.

“We’re building experiential entertainment components at all of our properties,” says Les Morris, director of corporate public relations with Simon Property Group, which also manages dozens of shopping malls across the U.S. and several in East Asia. “There are plenty of opportunities in addition to retail.”

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Morris said that the growing number of large, empty retail spaces like Sears provides an ideal opportunity for expanding the local experience economy.

“It’s a chance to reposition the space in a more attractive way,” said Morris. “We’re very active in anchor redevelopment operations, which is what we’re doing at Ross Park.”

Morris said the company has no specific tenants lined up for the space at the moment, but would begin the formal process of seeking tenants pending approval from Ross Township at the public meeting on Monday, Feb. 11.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.