Illustration by Sawsan Chalabi
Illustration: Sawsan Chalabi

In its waning days before closing for good, the two-level Sears store at Stratford Square in west suburban Bloomingdale became a bazaar of odds and ends. Wares scattered throughout its nearly empty floors included children’s games called Pie Face Cannon and Toilet Trouble, a fire-engine-red riding lawn mower, weight machines, and a few racks of men’s underwear. Store fixtures, too: Jewelry display cases sold for $75 each.

Sears, which shuttered in mid-November, is the latest department store to exit the cavernous 1.3 million-square-foot mall. Macy’s (RIP 2017), Carson Pirie Scott (RIP 2018), and JCPenney (RIP 2014) have all departed the indoor galleria in recent years — a rare quadruple loss, even in this disruptive buy-it-from-Amazon era. “Losing one or two anchor stores is typical,” says Mark Hunter, managing director of Chicago-based CBRE, which tracks retail and commercial real estate trends. “Four is an unusual hit.”

It’s a distinction that Stratford Square’s owners and remaining tenants and the village of Bloomingdale could have lived without. But it’s also driving home the hard reality that this almost-40-year-old shopping center, like so many other suburban behemoths, must drastically change or risk commercial obliteration. So the mall is doing just that: Rather than attempt to woo another large department store, it’s rethinking its very shape by adding a grocery store.

Wrecking crews are whacking away at the old Macy’s structure to make way for Woodman’s, a grocery chain based in Janesville, Wisconsin. The low-slung, modern-looking complex will stand separate from the mall and also include a food warehouse, two gas stations, and a car wash, taking up about 240,000 square feet on roughly 19 acres. It will be open 24 hours a day, every day, and is expected to draw customers from at least a 10-mile radius, according to Woodman’s, which has 18 stores in Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

The addition of the grocery store continues a transformation that Stratford Square’s previous owners — a local investor group, which did not return phone calls for comment — started in 2015. That $30 million makeover aimed to turn the mall into a “neighborhood destination,” with 60 percent of the space used for entertainment, dining, and sports and the rest featuring traditional stores. The current tenant mix includes a few restaurants and a motley crew of entertainment venues: a 12,500-square-foot dance studio, an arcade with bowling, Ping-Pong, and other games, a synthetic ice rink, an indoor futsal court, and, soon, an ax-throwing franchise called Bull & Bear.

The mall’s new owners — New York’s Mason Asset Management and Namdar Realty Group acquired it late last year — stress they’re open to any and all nonretail opportunities. That could include everything from offices to apartment buildings. “We bought the mall because we believe in it and its location,” says Elliot Nassim, president of Mason Asset Management. “We’re not shy about taking down buildings. We’ll consider any construction, provided it makes the site better.”

Indeed, several other area shopping centers are banking on tenants other than typical mall stores to shore up their businesses. Up at Old Orchard in Skokie, a virtual reality gaming center replaced Lord & Taylor. (Chance the Rapper rented it out for an after-party when he DJ’ed the opening of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery on North Michigan Avenue in November.) And Yorktown Center in Lombard created what it calls a “self-care precinct” that includes three fitness studios, a salon devoted to eyelash extensions, and a place to get waxed.

Yet it’s unclear whether the Bloomingdale Woodman’s — which is expected to open in late 2021 — can be a customer magnet for the struggling Stratford Square itself. The village was hoping the grocer would physically connect with the mall, but Woodman’s declined because it prefers to stay freestanding, says Pietro Scalera, village administer of Bloomingdale. Says Clint Woodman, the grocer’s president: “When connected to other businesses, you’re depending on them … and who knows what’s going to happen to the rest of the mall in the future?”

That’s the big question. The village concedes it’s going to take more than one huge store to revitalize Stratford Square, which up until a few years ago was among the municipality’s top tax revenue providers. In 2012, the suburb collected about $1.3 million in mall-related taxes, but by 2018 those returns that had dropped by nearly half, to $633,840 — a precipitous tumble for a village of only 23,000 people and a limited property tax base, says Scalera. To stanch the bleeding, the village has authorized a tax increment financing sweetener of up to $2 million to help pay for the demolition of the Macy’s and other redevelopment such as new roads, repairs, and upgrades to the area around the bilevel mall, whose interior is chock-full of Prairie-style skylights, rafters, and pillars.

A recent Sunday afternoon visit indicates a hard slog ahead. Foot traffic was sparse; large parts of the yawning facility were closed off and dark due to store vacancies. Kohl’s and Burlington are the remaining anchors. Most of the action was within the first-floor food court — with the exception of a small motorized train that shuttled children around the mall.

Stratford Square’s owners are in discussions with tenants and village officials about the property’s fate. Mason Asset Management and Namdar Realty Group control 15 shopping centers throughout Illinois, including Ford City and Pullman Park, and share ownership of 120 properties nationwide. They are known for buying distressed malls at reduced rates and then investing very little in their turnaround, according to a Reuters article from 2018. Mason’s Nassim disputes that characterization and says his team intends to revitalize Stratford Square, which CBRE’s Hunter says is possible, even if the outlook is typically bad for troubled malls of that size: “It’s a good location and has a lot of potential.”

Bloomingdale’s Scalera wants Stratford Square revived, even if it’s on a smaller scale, but concedes: “There’s a possibility the mall will go dark, and we don’t want to see that happen.”

Finding a way to keep the lights on will be a tall order — even for a mall where you can throw an ax before you pick up a pair of shoes and a gallon of milk.