A mall on the brink

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Outside of Sears

Outside of Sears

Technically The Summit, a mall just outside Niagara Falls, N.Y., has been a dead mall for years. By the time it announced last month that it was closing its doors, it was down to 25 tenants in an 800,000 square foot space that once held over a hundred stores.

It was meant to shut down on June 6. But this week a bankruptcy court granted an extension that will allow it to stay open at least until the end of the month.

I hope that it manages to hang on somehow. I know that a lot of people don’t really lament the decline of shopping malls, dozens of which are a danger of going under this year in the U.S., but I like the fact that this mall still exists.

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Outside of the Bon Ton

Known as the Summit Park Mall when it opened in 1973, the mall was pretty successful up into the 1990s.

But then, as with so many things in the Niagara Falls area, things kind of fell apart. Some people blame the fall of the Canadian dollar below 70 cents U.S., and the resulting drop in cross-border shopping. The local economy probably wasn’t any great help either.

The middle of the mall

The middle of the mall

Most of the chain stores that you see in any generic suburban mall, the Radioshacks etc., bailed out. But with admirable resilience, the mall soldiered on. It replaced some of the departed stores with local businesses, as well as non-retail outlets like churches and a community college.

Map of the mall

Map of the mall

The potentially fatal blow may have come when discount clothing retailer Steve and Barry’s went bankrupt and shut their store, leaving a big stretch of space in the middle of mall pretty much dead. It also left Subway, somewhat incongruously, as one of the only national chains leasing a location in the mall.

A store selling teddy bears

A store selling teddy bears

I guess the ambiance of 1970s shopping malls isn’t really seen as something worthy of preservation. But this mall had it, and it was a rare thing. Most older malls either fail and are knocked down or succed and are renovated so extensively over time that they retain little of their orginal charm. 

But The Summit, despite some renovations, still had all the feel of a 1970s mall: The floor tiles, the benches, even the retro-looking payphone kiosks. Until last year it even had two arcades, though these were really just empty storefronts full of unattended arcade games from the early 1990s. 

The Bon Ton end of the mall

The Bon Ton end of the mall

The Summit may yet manage to keep going. Its two main anchors, Sears and the Bon Ton, own their own sites at either end of the mall, and plan to stay open even if the vast stretch of mall between them is closed down. I guess there isn’t really anywhere else for them to go; the only other remaining mall in the Niagara Falls area is a much smaller, although very popular, outlet mall. with no space to house department stores.

A local politician wants to have the New York Power Authority relocate to the mall. An earlier pipe dream involved building an Oz theme park nearby to draw in visitors. This may all come to nothing. But I find something hopeful about the idea of a cavernous, mostly empty shopping mall somehow continuing to exist despite some many forces converging to batter it down.

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A mural

A mural

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6 Responses to “A mall on the brink”

  1. Abeed Says:

    Wow! When I was a kid, I used to frequent this mall all the time with my parents. We lived in Canada and we’d seek bargains at Summit Park Mall. I remember going to Child world and getting toys. I never understood why there was no mall entrance from Child world. I bought my very first CD from this mall. It was Blood Sugar Sex Magic by the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in 1992. That was probably the last time I ever came to that mall.

  2. Eugene Says:

    In the late eighties and early nineties, I was a regular visitor to Summit Park Mall from the Ontario side. At that time, if you looked in the parking lot of Summit Park Mall (or the Factory Outlet Mall down the road), I would guess that 2/3 of the cars in the parking lot had Ontario plates.

    There were many things that brought us to Niagara Falls to shop. At the time, Ontario didn’t allow stores to open on Sunday, so lots of people went to Niagara Falls on Sundays for a retail fix. There were distinctive American brand items that weren’t sold in Canada, so you had to go to New York to get them. And the prices tended to be lower, so that even though the exchange rate wasn’t right at par, you still tended to save money (assuming you didn’t get nailed by customs on the way back!)

    I suspect that the decline in the value of the Canadian dollar was a killer for all the malls in Niagara Falls, Summit Park mall in particular. Another change was when Ontario allowed Sunday shopping in the early nineties. Even the coming of Wal Mart to Canada probably changed thigns — I suspect that Wal Mart forced Ontario retailers to be a lot more competitive than they were before, and closed the gap on a lot of pricing issues that made shopping in the U.S. cheaper. Finally, the retail markets in Canada and the United States “converged” in the wake of the Free Trade Agreement, and a lot of American brands that had previously not been sold in Canada were now available in local stores without having to go to Niagara Falls.

    Any one of these things might not have been deadly. But the impact of all four (together with the trend towards big box stores) was just too much for Summit Park mall. I’ll still fondly remember many Sunday afternoons visiting Summit Park Mall in those far off days…

  3. mary Says:

    i agree with the mall staying opened despite the emptiness it holds. im from niagara falls although stationed outside of the state now, i would still go back to the summit on my trips home. its ashame a building with so much potential and history in the city is now just an eyesore. i could never understand why nobody has ever wanted to fix it up. i think after the theatre closed it also had alot to do with its downfall.

  4. marv alpert Says:

    yes the mall is outdated ….it should be turned into a “mall musuem” it could be a big attraction like waterslide world…genx’rs can take their kids here and show them how retail used to work before the internet…you know …pimply faced kids waiting on you …stuffy ol men in jonathan reid…

  5. Dan Haick Says:

    The Summit Mall was a great place to be and visit. My dad owned a store in the mall called Seasons Apparel. The most memorable moments I remember from the mall has to be buying LJN WWF wrestling figures from Child World, buying Garbage Pal Kids from McCrory’s and eating at York Steak House. I believe the mall could have survived if the owners would have done a better job. I miss this mall a lot. It would be nice to see some original pictures from its opening and throughout the years. If anyone has them please send them to me at SPARKIE958@aol.com and in the subject line write Summit Park Mall. Love you all! Peace.

  6. john Says:

    I remember this mall from the 80′s and early 90′s. Lived in the falls until I graduated college, then moved away for grad school and stayed away. I remember when the Summit Park Mall was a good mall with almost all the chain stores you could want, and was really the only place you could buy most things like clothing and stuff without having to go all the way up to amherst or buffalo. I also remember a time when the Summit Park Mall was the good mall, and the Factory Outlet Mall on Military Rd (or whatever they are calling it nowadays) was the ‘dead’ mall, before they renovated it. After they renovated the Factory Outlet Mall, it was like a shift happened and that became the good mall and took all the steam out of the Summit Park Mall. I always liked the Summit Park Mall the best, because it was an actual mall, while the Factory Outlet required you to walk outdoors like a plaza to get to many stores.

    I agree with what the author said about the Mall’s unique appeal. Yes, to some, the 70′s might seem dated, or even a period of culture and architecture without much merit that many are happy to forget and leave in the past. Ironically, I generally feel the same; yet the Summit Park Mall had a certain charm. Even the name, “Summit Park Mall” sounds so nice, like a happy place to go to shop. Certainly much better than just saying the generic, “mall.” I also recall fondly those little sunken areas containing benches, as if the mall were so big that people would literally get winded and need to stop and rest someplace quiet for an extended period. They were unique and like a little oasis. But I remember running through the walkways and then running down the steps into those sunken areas and running across it, back up the steps at the opposite end, and continuing on, only to repeat this at the next sunken rest area. Truly a unique touch not found in malls nowadays.

    I remember that once or twice a year they used to have a weekend where they would park all these RVs in the mall, and you could go inside them as if you were going to buy them. I loved to go in each one and try them out. I also remember when the mall had fountains, down by AM&A’s and in front of the food court & McCrorys. I remember when the mall had a pet store with animals in the windows as you walked by. I remember when there was once a movie theatre inside the mall. I remember my grandmother always wanting to go to Jenss to shop for anything and everything, be it clothes or household goods, while I liked Structure and the newer, “younger” stores. I remember McCrorys and its lunch counter and restaurant. I remember Leon’s pizza and Doyle’s down at the end of the mall. I remember going to Babbage’s to look at computer games. I remember going to Aladdin’s castle to play arcade games. I am sure there is much I have forgotten, and perhaps it sounds silly, but I have very fond, nostalgic, memories of this mall.

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