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Recession Turns Malls Into Ghost Towns

It's the end of an era as the economic decline erodes what in many areas is still the center of social activity: CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Malls, those ubiq

It's the end of an era as the economic decline erodes what in many areas is still the center of social activity:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Malls, those ubiquitous shopping meccas that sprang up in the 1950s, are dwindling in number, with many struggling properties reduced to largely vacant shells.

On the low-income east side of Charlotte, N.C., the 1.1-million-square-foot Eastland Mall recently lost a slew of key tenants, including a Dillard's and, next month, a Sears. Sales per square foot at the venue fell to $210 in 2008 from $288 in 2001.

The Metcalf South Shopping Center in Overland Park, Kan., is languishing after plans to redevelop it into an open-air shopping district fizzled. The stretch of shops that connects the two largest tenants -- a Sears and a Macy's -- stands mostly vacant, patrolled by security guards.

With their maze of walkways and fast-food courts, malls have long been an iconic, if sometimes unsightly, presence in the American retail landscape. A few were made famous by their sheer size, others for the range of shopping and social diversions they provided.

But the long recession is helping to empty out the promenades. Some analysts estimate that the number of so-called "dead malls" -- centers debilitated by anemic sales and high vacancy rates -- will swell to more than 100 by the end of this year.

In the 12 months ended March 31, U.S. malls collectively posted a 6.5% decline in tenants' same-store sales, according to Green Street Advisors Inc., a real-estate research firm. The recent slump was led by an average 7.3% sales drop at Simon Property Group Inc., the operator with the largest number of mall locations.

The industry's woes are worsening. Thinning customer traffic, and subsequent hits to tenants' sales and profits, prompted Standard & Poor's Corp. last month to lower the credit ratings of the department-store sector. That knocked Macy's Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. into junk territory and pushed others deeper into junk. Sears Holdings Corp., a cornerstone tenant at many malls, is expected to close 23 stores this month and next.

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