With stores shutting down and foot traffic disappearing, Ridgmar Mall has looked for years like it might not survive.
But help appears to be on the way — in the form of sea creatures.
The west Fort Worth shopping center, which is coping with the loss of two anchors and nearly 40 percent of its stores, is looking forward to the arrival of SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium in mid-October, the first step in a redevelopment aimed at moving past department stores to attract customers.
The aquarium will take up seven vacated storefronts on Ridgmar Mall’s lower level below the food court. Guests will be encouraged to touch stingrays, sharks and other marine creatures. Snakes, insects and other land-loving animals also will be on hand in a variety of themed rooms, including a simulated African cave and a Mayan jungle.
Ridgmar Mall, which was built in 1976 near Interstate 30 and Green Oaks Road, is symbolic of challenges faced by indoor malls nationwide as shoppers turn to their smartphones to make purchases. As many as 25 percent of traditional malls in the U.S. are in danger of closing by 2022, according to research by financial firm Credit Suisse.
Shopping centers that continue to be successful are home town-style developments such as Southlake Town Square or the new Shops at Clearfork in southwest Fort Worth, where Neiman Marcus relocated from Ridgmar earlier this year. Built in an open-air design, these centers allow shoppers to drive up to each store and offer a variety of restaurants.
North Texas’ 18 largest malls are 95 percent occupied, according to real estate brokerage Weitzman, a sign that the region’s overall retail health is strong.
Other improvements on the drawing board at Ridgmar, including the partial demolition of some parts of the old mall and construction of high-end restaurants and multi-family housing, could take years. But the arrival of SeaQuest in October is aimed at increasing foot traffic in the short term.
Unlike other water attractions at aquariums and zoos, where customers are warned not to touch the animals and their displays, SeaQuest bills itself as a place where guests are encouraged to get in the water with the sharks, stingrays and other animals.
“The stingrays will come up to you like puppies, swim into your lap and wait for you to feed them krill,” said Cody Wood, a former winery complex manager at Disney California Adventure who moved to North Texas in the spring to take a job as SeaQuest’s general manager.
End of an era
Illinois-based GK Development bought Ridgmar in 2013 with plans for a multimillion-dollar makeover. Artist renderings recently published by the company’s design firm, InPlaceDesign, show a portion of the mall formerly occupied by Neiman Marcus being torn down and rebuilt with an emphasis on residential units, restaurants and outdoor green space.
No timetable for the improvements has been publicized, and no new tenants other than SeaQuest have been announced. Ridgmar’s master plan features 1.4 million square feet of space on 75 acres.
GK officials declined repeated requests for an interview to discuss its plans for the mall.
The stingrays will come up to you like puppies, swim into your lap and wait for you to feed them krill.
Cody Wood, SeaQuest general manager
Ridgmar is a classic example of a 1970s-era shopping mall that can’t continue as is, but could be successful if rebranded properly, said Bob Young, executive managing director of Weitzman, a Dallas real estate brokerage that analyzes retail space.
“Even though Ridgmar is not Clearfork, it has always had a good regional location, and that’s not something to give up on,” Young said. “Most malls, including Ridgmar, have a sense of place. It’s taking advantage of a great real estate location.”
Although online shopping has devastated many traditional malls, the brick-and-mortar shopping scene in Dallas-Fort Worth is actually quite healthy for centers that cater to modern desires, he said. Among the 18 largest shopping centers in North Texas — malls with at least 490,000 square feet of gross leasing area — less than 5 percent of available space is empty, according to Weitzman data.
Two malls have already met the wrecking ball in Tarrant County: North Hills Mall in North Richland Hills and Six Flags Mall in Arlington, which was recently demolished to make way for a new industrial development.
Often, the key to success for indoor malls is to de-emphasize the amount of space for traditional retailers such as clothing, jewelry and gift shops and offer a mix of attractions aimed at entertainment and unique dining, he said.
And it helps to build multi-family housing on-site, so the new mall has built-in foot traffic.
“They might be a great site for new office buildings or multi-family apartments,” he said. “There has to become an alternative use. It can be disconcerting for the neighborhood, which is used to seeing it as a retail hub. But you’re not going to have another department store in there.”
The mall today
In addition to bringing in SeaQuest, Ridgmar also has spent about $3 million renovating the Cinemark Ridgmar 13 and XD. Also, popular clothing retailer H&M recently opened one of just three Tarrant County locations at Ridgmar Mall.
But overall, Ridgmar mall has been in a steady decline for years.
A recent walk through the mall revealed that nearly 40 percent of its storefronts were empty (19 of 50 stores on the second floor). Anchors Neiman Marcus and Macy’s are shuttered — and Dillard’s has closed its first floor and converted its second floor into a space for clearance-only racks.
The other two anchors, J.C. Penney and Sears, remain open. But those companies are having well-publicized struggles with declining revenues nationwide, and the long-term future of their stores is uncertain.
Gone (at least for now) are the days when Ridgmar was the place to be — a destination where teenagers whiled away their summers sipping Orange Julius drinks and flirting with passers-by, and people from various walks of life bought their clothes, jewelry, appliances and, of course, the occasional black-light poster from Spencer Gifts.
Even at nearby Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, workers seem to prefer patronizing the big-box retailers surrounding Ridgmar rather than stepping into the mall itself.
Several shoppers eating lunch at the food court on a recent afternoon said it was their first visit to the shopping center in years, and they had only stopped in because it was convenient.
“We’re replacing power lines in the parking lot. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here,” said a Burleson man who identified himself only as Steve while he dined with a co-worker on sandwiches from Phil’s Philly Grill.
A.K. Kassam, who works at the Marquise Jewelers near the second-floor food court, said the foot traffic in his area of the mall was actually not too bad.
The store has been a Ridgmar feature for about 10 years, he said.
Kassam looked forward to the mall’s renovation and predicted that shoppers who once frequented the area but have since left would return.
“It has a history,” Kassam said of the mall. “They will come back.”
Providing a retail spark
SeaQuest is a private company based in Idaho. It is relatively new, but has plans to open as many as 20 aquariums in the next few years, Wood said.
The company opened its first two aquariums in the Salt Lake City area and Las Vegas late last year.
The Fort Worth location will be the company’s third.
In Las Vegas, SeaQuest also came into a struggling mall and sparked a retail renaissance, company officials said. After the aquarium opened, a theater, bowling alley and other tenants opened.
The Fort Worth aquarium will be the company’s largest, with nearly 28,000 square feet of space.
In addition to marine creatures, there will be snakes, bugs and other land critters. Also planned are a “Sounds of the Amazon” area and an “Egyptian Tomb” area, Wood said.
Although prices haven’t been set yet, generally guests can expect to pay about $15 for general admission, or perhaps $40 to put on a wetsuit and step into one of the tanks. Guests might stay at the aquarium for as little as 45 minutes, or as long as six hours, Wood said.
“Malls are having to redefine themselves in the modern marketplace, and at Ridgmar Mall we’re just part of phase one,” said Alui Hernandez, a SeaQuest spokeswoman based in San Antonio. “Ridgmar Mall in a couple of years is going to be a really cool place to go.”