Oklahoma must be the land of repurposed malls (i.e., malls that have been converted to almost entirely non-retail uses after long, slow, very painful deaths as retail centers). Perhaps Oklahomans repurpose malls because they have an undying commitment to malls and preserving mall structures for the education and enjoyment of future generations. Or perhaps not. Whatever the reason, Oklahoma has some of the best repurposing efforts that efforts I’ve seen—and they actually seem to be working.
Shepherd Mall, Oklahoma City, Okla.
I saw my first semi-successful repurposing effort on a bitterly cold day in January—the day before my 30th birthday to be exact. (Yes, I went to Oklahoma City for my birthday. And I loved it. My husband surprised me with the trip because he knows me all too well.) When it’s that cold out, malls are about the only sane places to hang out. In fact, malls were refuges for my childhood birthdays, which always seemed to fall on winter’s coldest day.
Shepherd Mall, however, wasn’t filled with the typical good times of childhood—bulk candy, giant chocolate chip cookie cakes, and pre-teen fashions. Unless you were one of those super nerdy kids whose idea of a good time was visiting the social security administration. See, it wasn’t really what you’d think of as a traditional mall.
The mall was dead from a retail standpoint, but still around 90 percent occupied. It was just occupied with the weirdest tenants I’ve ever seen. These tenants included the social security administration, various state offices like the Oklahoma Real Estate Commission and Senior Health Insurance Counseling, and even Astec Charter Middle School. Definitely weird, but totally awesome.
At first it was a little surreal to see a mall full of non-retail stores, but as I wandered around looking at the various bland offices in this clean mall environment, things started to feel right. It took me back to the horrors of waiting in long lines outside the Colorado driver license office, subjected to the brutality of Colorado weather. (It’s bitterly cold and just snows here all the time. Really, it’s an awful place to live and even just visit.) How relaxing it would have been to wait in a climate-controlled mall, listen to my favorite elevator version of Tiny Dancer, enjoy random indoor plant displays, and sip on the sweet nectar I retrieved from the convenience store down the hall (i.e., diet coke).
The success of this repurposed mall provided much humor to me, but as I looked into it, the reason for its success was slightly sad. The mall was built near downtown in 1964. My mother-in-law pointed out that this mall was the coolest in 1970s Oklahoma City. (Yes, not all mother-in-laws just nag you. Some, like mine, actually provide valuable insight and meaningful historical perspectives.) Then came competition from malls that were located in their natural habitat: the suburbs. By the early 1990s, this mall was toast. With such an urban location, it wasn’t surprising.
The mall was being repurposed into an office building in the early 1990s when the Oklahoma City bombing took place. Several of the tenants in that federal building relocated to the mall, due to its central location and ample space, and still remain there to this day.
Eastgate Metroplex, Tulsa, Okla.
The next interesting former retail mall was 100 miles and 100 degrees away from Shepherd Mall. I visited Tulsa’s Eastland Mall on a dreadfully hot summer day—again, the humidity made the extreme temperature so much worse. Ugh. I was dying to get some good AC action going and quite excited about walking into the mall’s climate-controlled comfort. Well, I was shocked, in good and bad way, when I got there.
The bad shock was not being able to get into the mall’s interior. I went entrance-to-entrance trying in vain to access the mall, but no luck. It was the first interior mall area that I wasn’t able to get into, with the exception of a crazy mall in Minnesota known as the Moorhead Center Mall (named after the city right across the North River from Fargo, N.D.). Darn it.
People in the parking lot must’ve had a grand old time seeing this overheated youngish woman desperately trying to get into the mall, peering into the windows, and taking some horrible photos of the mall’s interior through the glass doors. There were probably some jokes made about me being confused, and still trying to get in on shopping sales. Yes, there were people in the parking lot, which was the good shock about this mall.
The mall, in fact, was no longer a “mall.” It had been christened with a new generic name, Eastgate Metroplex. Not sure what the metroplex part had to do with anything, but hey, the name seemed to work. (As an aside, I looked up the definition of metroplex and it has sort of a weird background. The North Texas Commission (NTC) developed the term metroplex (through the creativity of an ad agency) and copyrighted “Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex” in 1972 to replace the term previously used to describe the area: “North Texas.” In a series of surveys, NTC found that North Texas apparently was a confusing term that made people think of the Texas Panhandle, not Dallas/Fort Worth. Uh, they didn’t need a survey to figure that one out. I wonder if the NTC changed its name, too. DFWMC is a much cooler acronym than NTC.)
The name seemed to work because there were actually businesses in the metroplex. Now, like Shepherd Mall, they weren’t of the retail variety. Residents included a Coca-Cola customer service facility, (What sort of calls would they seriously handle there? “Hello? My Coke is flat and I need it replaced stat.”) a Head Start center, the University of Phoenix, and Alorica, Inc. (which looks like another call center. What is it with call centers in abandoned malls?)
Even though I couldn’t get inside, the mall’s exterior provided some interesting facets. The front of the old mall had been completely redone in today’s popular stucco and cultured stone motif (i.e., boring and ultimately dated in 10 years motif). The backside of the mall, err, metroplex still looked like the pristine mall it must have been back in its 1980s heydays. Geometrically goofy aqua-colored structures marked the entryways and the good old 1980s brick shined in all its dated glory.
Roadside zombies tip #10: Enjoying mall repurposing
So here’s how to enjoy repurposing to its fullest:
- Build your mall appearance knowledge base, so you can readily identify “office complexes” that are actually former malls.
- See if the former mall houses any call centers.
- Passionately lobby your state government to move its driver license offices into former malls, preferably ones that sell diet coke.
- Call the Coca-Cola customer service line to complain about a Coke that just wasn’t fizzy enough to truly quench your thirst. Then let me know about your experiences. Colorado is pretty boring some times, well, make that most of the time.