As malls around the country slowly decline, visitors wax nostalgic at the University Mall in South Burlington
The shopping mall: quintessentially American. Totally ubiquitous. But across much of the country, on the decline. The number of malls in the U.S. has gone down 23% since 2005.
In Vermont, which didn’t have many malls to begin with, the ones that remain have seen better days. The one on Church Street was mostly torn down a few years ago. The Diamond Run Mall in Rutland shut down in 2019.
But there is one in South Burlington, where people travel from all over the state to shop: the University Mall.
After six years in foreclosure, it was sold to new owners earlier this year. And now that the holiday shopping season is in full swing, we went to the U Mall to see how it’s doing.
“There's a lot of memories here. It's almost every time you go around the corner, you can picture one of your buddies doing something stupid, or they were looking at you doing something, you know?”John Rao
Under a skylight and near AT&T, we found Santa Claus. He was sitting in an armchair in front of a huge Christmas tree, flanked by giant ornaments. This was early December, prime time for kids to come whisper in his ear.
But there was no one there to see him. A few shoppers hurried past Mr. Claus, presumably on their way to one of the mall’s more than 70 stores. Holiday tunes of the Muzak variety wafted through the air.
One of the few people nearby was John Rao.
“You couldn't walk without running into somebody, years ago," he said. "Now you got to go out of your way to run into somebody. I mean, you got to run across the mall to hit somebody!”
Rao stopped by the mall with his wife after a medical appointment. They live in Fort Ticonderoga, New York, but he used to live in Vermont, and frequented the U Mall back in the day.
“There's a lot of memories here. It's almost every time you go around the corner, you can picture one of your buddies doing something stupid, or they were looking at you doing something, you know?” Rao said.
Maybe you have memories like this, too — after all, the U Mall has been around for over 40 years. It opened in 1979, despite Vermont’s resistance to large retail development.
It looks like most malls, with long, tiled hallways lined with a mix of big-box stores and smaller vendors. There’s an IHOP, big parking lots, potted plants and skylights.
The U Mall was Vermont’s first large shopping center, and it was like any other mall in the country — which meant it was unlike anywhere else in Vermont. You could escape from your small-town closet full of items from mail-order catalogs and hand-me-downs from your neighbor’s friend’s daughters, and feel like you were participating in something distinctly American.
The U Mall is something of an institution, says Jessie Baker, South Burlington’s City Manager.
“I'm a Vermont kid — I grew up in Waterbury Center — and the University Mall was always where we went school shopping or Christmas shopping,” she said. “[It] was a destination retail location for the state.”
People drive an hour or more to come here — like Bonnie Sanders, who lives in Northfield. She used to bring her kids when they were little.
“First of all you could get a Cinnabon, that was worth the trip by itself," she said. "You know, it was fun sitting at the food court and having a snack or lunch with your family. There was a lot of selections, everyone could get what they wanted, whether it was Asian or pizza or whatever."
But those days seem to be gone. When we met Sanders, she said she only stopped in because she was killing time before picking her grandson up at the airport. She said she hadn’t been to the U Mall in at least six years.
“It's pretty — it's pretty dead in here,” Sanders said. “I couldn't believe there was nothing per se in the food court. I just can't believe it.”
She’s right about the food court. When we visited, there was just one place open. There were a handful of people seated at the tables — a pair of friends playing dice, a couple small groups, a few people sitting alone. One of them was Jim, who did not want to share his last name. He lives nearby and walks to the mall often.
“I know a lot of people that come here. They just come here to walk in the mornings, sit down, have coffee. Whether they shop or not it's totally irrelevant," he said. "They just like coming here because it's open."
Jim said there are a lot of regulars. They all know each other.
“You see each other in passing just about every day, you know, or every weekend or whatever," he said.
But he said the mall is nothing like it used to be.
“Yeah, there's nobody here. Malls just are dying, you know?” Jim said.
It’s a common conception that malls are on the decline — and to some extent, they are. Various studies have heralded their demise, and there was some speculation that the increase in online ordering during the pandemic would be another nail in the coffin.
The U Mall has seen its share of struggles. It went into foreclosure in 2016, and stayed in limbo until March of this year. That’s when two companies, Eastern Real Estate and Taconic Capital Advisors, bought it for $60 million.
“Our hope is it will continue to be the really successful retail hub it is,” said Jessie Baker, the city manager for South Burlington.
Baker says the bigger businesses at the U Mall still do pretty well — we’re talking Target, Kohl’s, H&M. But the city hopes its downtown can become more than just a place people visit for big-box stores.
The University of Vermont and UVM Medical Center plan to build housing in the city center, Beta Technologies has planted itself at the nearby airport, there’s a new city hall and a library. And in the middle of it all is the University Mall.
“We really see it as a lynchpin property in that future development of our city center,” Baker said.
The city hopes the new owners will contribute to that development and add more than just retail to the property — like housing, offices, or entertainment spaces.
The new owners have said they want to “re-energize” the U Mall. But in a statement to Vermont Public, they said they’re still in the “early evaluation phases” of that process and declined to share any specifics. The companies also tout the mall’s assets: It gets nearly 4 million visitors annually — the most of any shopping center in Vermont — and it was 95% occupied as of March.
One of the storefronts is occupied by the Vermont Gaming Academy, where 21-year-old Ari Jordan works.
“We sell Pokémon, we sell Magic, we sell Yu-Gi-Oh!, we sell video games, old and new,” he said.
The store also hosts tournaments for these games, which Jordan said can attract up to 50 people.
“Our hope is it will continue to be the really successful retail hub it is.”Jessie Baker, city manager for South Burlington
He grew up in Essex, which means he grew up coming to the U Mall. He says it’s changed a lot since he was a kid, but at the same time, it hasn’t. There’s a corner by the IHOP he walks by every day, where his favorite store was as a kid. It was Yin’s Collectibles, which is now called Yin’s Glitterz, and is now in a different place.
“It's just that specific corner. Walking down there makes me feel really happy. And memories come rushing back,” he said.
Jordan — and everyone else we spoke to — shared that nostalgia for an era of the U Mall that feels long gone. The halls are a bit more empty now, one of the storefronts is being used as a COVID vaccine clinic, and there’s no Cinnabon. But the mall is still here. Hot Topic, American Eagle, Victoria’s Secret and all. And despite their misgivings about its current state, people like John Rao still stop by.
“I hope they can make this place work,” he said, “because without it, people are starting to diminish.”
Rao said the new owners have their work cut out for them. He stood just a few steps away from the former Sears, which is now an empty storefront covered with a metal grate. Santa Claus sat in his armchair nearby, waiting for visitors.
“I mean, I don't know what's going on with Santa over there, but there’s really not a whole lot happening over there. I almost felt like I should go sit on his lap!” Rao said, laughing.
But before we left, two kids finally showed up.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.