Renaissance or Ruination?

When the Pekin Mall opened its doors for business on September 20, 1972, it opened with 53 stores and space for 3,150 cars. At the time of the grand opening, the mall boasted four anchor stores: Bergner’s, J.C. Penney, Murphy Mart, and A&P Food. It was a new era, a time of excitement, and the structure was deemed a modern marvel in the eyes of the residents.

Due to the sheer size of the building and accommodations for parking, it was necessary to build such a structure further away from the core of the city. This type of development was completely different than that of past generations, which used to include many mixes of uses, a densely populated core, and accessibility by foot or bicycle.

From this point in the history of Pekin, it was clear that consumers would be reaching their future shopping needs by automobiles. With the implementation of single-use zoning already in place throughout America, it was predicted and assumed that future developments would fill the space down Court Street leading out to the mall which is approximately three miles from the downtown district and the core of the city.

As is the case in developments that were built all at once (as all malls are), its economic weaknesses were bound to show over time. The mall itself was hailed as a local success at the time because the effects of unanticipated consequences on the current economy had yet to be seen. Pekin carried on with the new, modern way of development.

Just like children with a new toy, Pekin residents of the city quickly forgot about its older buildings and places. The historic, centrally located downtown could not compete with such a massive, non-organic shift away from its core. Two years after the opening of the Pekin Mall in 1974, the Illinois Department of Transportation completed an “improvement” project involving the construction of a new, vehicle only bridge leading into town from the west across the Illinois River.

The street system of the downtown was also reconfigured at the same point to allow for a much more rapid movement of traffic from the bridge moving eastward through the city. It dramatically affected the downtown by dissecting it with its multi-lane, higher speed, one-way streets. It was engineered at the time with only automobiles in mind. It was only a matter of time before businesses started to drop by the wayside or tried to locate closer to where the new shift of consumer spending was located.

Downtown Pekin on a Saturday afternoon.

Momentum was added to this non-traditional style development when new subdivisions were created in between the original city street network and the newly created shopping oasis on the outside of town. These newer homes did not have accessibility to either places of the city. Without a properly integrated and convenient street infrastructure, use of the automobile became mandatory.

During this time of expansion which coincided with the regulations set by single-use zoning, more land and density was sacrificed as a result. A tried and true method of city planning was put on the shelf. As consumers shifted their focus further away from the city, business owners relocated to be closer to where the consumers were, and the governing bodies followed suit and continued this form of growth. It would be the start of a self-validating behavior.

Court Street looking West. The developments are not built to a human scale as buildings are set back far from the street, there are no sidewalks, and only one story single use-structures dominate the area.

The population levels throughout the years have increased very meagerly as compared to the amount of land used for development. Per the 1970 U.S. Census, there were 31,375 persons living in Pekin. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 34,097 persons reported to be living within Pekin. Over the four decade span, surrounding communities have seen their populations rise.

Having the same set of guidelines for development, other cities grew their economies by providing the consumer needs that their citizens required. In only a short time after the Pekin Mall opened, Northwoods Mall in Peoria opened in direct competition. Pekin was no longer considered a destination for its mall due to similar developments in closer proximity to surrounding communities.

With neighboring communities able to provide comparable goods and services for its residents, a chain reaction took place. The result was a reduction of consumer spending in Pekin that would lead to the slow deterioration of the mall itself. Other nearby places of commerce hung on fearfully.

In places such as the abandoned downtown where businesses had exited earlier to be closer to the radius of consumer spending, blight quickly followed with no better use for buildings. Some of these buildings lay vacant while others have been demolished or lay in ruin waiting to be redeveloped. Spaces originally designated for commercial uses around Pekin Mall sit empty as there is nothing else they can be used for under self-imposed single-use zoning restrictions.

Presently, both areas now lack critical characteristics of economic diversity such as mixed use, a connective multi-modal transportation network, and density resulting in a paradox of existence. Solely providing goods and services to be purchased in an area is not enough. There are not enough residents in close proximity to provide a constant flow of people. Offices and industrial uses are isolated and dispersed in their only single-use zones of the city – each disconnected in their own respect. There is no basic connection between people and the places they need to live, work, shop, and play which is a fundamental necessity to the economic prosperity of a city.

The remaining pieces of the Pekin Mall. Bergner’s, the last standing anchor sits in front of a sea of parking.

The need for convenience has always been at the forefront of human consciousness. In a new world with new demands for conveniences, the evolving consumer demands were highlighted in places such as the Pekin Mall. Due to the lack of connection with the rest of the city in an easily reachable, diverse setting, the mall had to find a strategic advantage.

As the average American workers continue to work longer hours, the mall stayed open longer to meet the needs of its evolving consumers. The cost of operations to maintain convenience has subsequently put many retailers, restaurants, and service providers out of business. Conversely, small business entrepreneurs are put in the position to compete and operate at the same capacity. However, without having comparable economies of scale they struggle to exist.

A current economic recession lingers due to present day conditions. The Pekin Mall has since closed its doors. A retrofitting of sorts took place starting in 2001 to salvage the land and the place in the consumers’ minds where shopping used to exist. Bergner’s stands alone as the only anchor to outlast the life of the mall and other competition.

The stores and restaurants that used to be housed all under one roof have been scattered along Court Street. They appear in the form of nationally operated big box stores and fast-food chains – each having their own separate single-use parcels of land equipped with their own self-serving parking. The new anchor stores of East Court Street are: Wal-Mart, Menard’s, Staples, Dunham’s Sports, and the ever-resilient Bergner’s.

These mammoth buildings include seas of parking solely for their customers. The new food court is now drive-thru or take out friendly. Applebee’s, Culver’s, Wendy’s, Steak ‘n Shake, and Sonic make up the culinary scene of the east.  From time to time, small local businesses will try to locate in or near where the perceived action is only to find higher lease prices and longer store hours to compete for a piece of market share.

Located in the East Court Village where there are only commercial developments, this restaurant is neither in a neighborhood as it suggests nor a village.

The marketplace is full of indicators of what the market truly desires. When the core of the city was displaced, so was its sense of place. In response, developers have created spaces labeled as villages, centers, plazas, squares, and so on to meet the intrinsic needs of the American consumers. Corporations have understood this as well, providing “Neighborhood Bar & Grill’s” where neighborhoods do not exist. A substitution of what was genuine and authentic has been replaced by a faux reality.

Commercial signage desperately claiming that what is located there is a real place.

What modern style developments like the Pekin Mall and its now helter-skelter remains are missing today is what it has always lacked – the mix of uses, proximity to its consumers, and a densely situated setting to make it conveniently accessible by human means of transportation.

The toll taken on other parts of the city while this experiment of development happened has been severe and long-lasting. Without the needed conditions that create diversity, a place stands only by itself. Increasing diversity strengthens the foundation in which cities can sustain themselves longer.

A mixed-use development with a dense core that is not dependent on automobiles will produce the desired economic results; however, it cannot be built in a day. It must take place slowly and evolve organically over generations. As they say, “Rome was not built in a day.

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7 thoughts on “Renaissance or Ruination?

  1. Kind of old post here, but I wanted to comment anyway.

    Two things I will say in Pekin Mall’s defense is that almost every older city with a decent-sized population has a mall like this that siphoned off money from the historic downtown, and that at least Pekin managed to keep the mall within the city’s borders. In Michigan, it’s amazing how many of our older, more urban cities have a mall located JUST outside the city borders, with many butting up against the actual boundary line. It almost seems like developers were trying to give cities like Detroit, Pontiac, and Port Huron the finger. Now, there could have been zoning issues and such at work that partially informed those decisions, but I’d like to think that the cities I mentioned would’ve done what it took to keep those tax sources within the city proper if possible.

    Now, that’s not to say I’m a champion of mall. I’m no fan. But it’s what American consumers wanted, for better or worse.

    1. Agreed. There was really no stopping it at the time. I grew up having a deadmall nearby (St. Charles Mall). It had all the usual suspects there, Camelot Music, Aladdin’s Castle, Famous Footwear, etc… and it has since been demolished and nothing has been able to fill its giant footprint since 2002.

      Unfortunately, St. Charles built a newer, bigger mall clear on the other side of town in the ’90s. Now that thing has sat in a decrepit state since 2005ish. Back on the other side of town the new fad of “Commons” have been built along a north-south corridor. – Once again, all car-oriented.

      Meanwhile, St. Charles (IL) has a wonderful downtown that actually has survived this gut-wrenching of either side of it. It is roughly the same size of Pekin (34k) but yet much different demographics.

      We are fortunate to have the ability of hindsight, but unfortunately have to deal with the stuff that is left behind. Here, it’s town that has been drained economically and emotionally. The mall is just one of many reasons.

      The part I REALLY wonder about is if people would change things knowing what they know now? My guess… probably not.

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