Southwest Plaza evolves with 'experiential' attractions

Aquarium is latest addition to mall's day-out offerings


The indoor malls of yesteryear that once played host to department stores and shoe stores, with food courts and dark corridors, are largely gone. In their place have arisen mixed-use outdoor lifestyle hubs like Streets at SouthGlenn in Centennial, which replaced the long-struggling Southglenn Mall.

Southwest Plaza, in southern Jefferson County at West Bowles Avenue and South Wadsworth Boulevard, however, is banking on a new strategy for an old-school indoor mall: creating a place worthy of a full day out, with attractions like the newly-opened SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium.

“We've got to be more open-minded about malls and what goes into them, and anything is fair game,” said Greg Sims, Southwest Plaza's general manager. “Indoor malls were dying because owners thought 'if you build it, they will come,' and you don't have to do anything else. But you have to keep evolving. You need ownership that's willing to adjust and be flexible. Those that are stuck are stuck. Those willing to break out of the box are going to be here.”

Southwest Plaza underwent a massive $70 million renovation that wrapped up in 2015, which sought to reinvent the stuffy indoor mall design left over from the hair band era. Aside from significant infrastructure upgrades, the renovation pushed the mall's storefronts farther back, creating more airy walkways and better lines of sight.

But the more fundamental change is coming to fulfillment, with the mall now boasting a slew of attractions beyond chewy pretzels and Orange Julius. Besides the aquarium, Southwest Plaza now hosts Round 1, a bowling alley and arcade; Yoga Pod, a fitness and yoga studio; fast-casual eats like Modern Market; and sit-down dining like a gleaming Cheesecake Factory.

The mall, with 1.2 million square feet of floor space and 94 storefronts, is proving to be resilient and versatile, even in the face of a retail landscape shifting increasingly online.

“We'll work with retail while it's trying to figure itself out,” Sims said. “But we've got other options now too.”

The gambit seems to be paying off, Sims said, with vacancy rates below 10 percent, down from a high of nearly 30 percent in the waning years of the recession.

Southwest Plaza is well-positioned to be a vital community hub, said Bob Golden, the CEO of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce.

“The southwest side of the Denver metro area has seen so much activity, spending and growth,” Golden said. “Southwest Plaza Mall represents and reflects that."

Golden is optimistic about Southwest Plaza's prospects.

“When we were there to cut the ribbon on that aquarium, there were a hundred people in line,” Golden said. “Experience is what people are looking for. If it's blizzarding or really hot out, it's a nice place to go. There's plenty of parking, and it's in the neighborhood. Those people are going to shop, too, and they can go to Southwest Plaza instead of Park Meadows or Cherry Creek.”

It's too soon to know whether the experiential strategy will work long-term, Golden said.

“It's business,” Golden said. “Sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don't. Even at Southglenn and Park Meadows there's turnover. People still want that mall experience.”

The experiential trend is a natural next step for indoor malls, said Josh Goldstein, an architectural designer and mall historian, who is currently working on a project to digitally re-create Englewood's long-gone Cinderella City mall.

“Experience-oriented tenants might find a more interesting or creative use for a huge amount of space than a traditional merchandise-oriented tenant might,” Goldstein said by email. “I do think this new focus will work, at least for a while. Some of the experiences they're targeting really can't be had at home, so they are offering unique incentives to get customers through the door, at which point they might actually buy some merchandise too.”

Goldstein, whose work often focuses on creative reuses for old buildings, said Southwest Plaza's renovation could have gone further by incorporating a blend of indoor and outdoor areas which could offer more insulation against future market fluctuations.

“I think a lot of the indoor centers have to fight harder to avoid the 'dead mall' feeling than outdoor centers,” Goldstein said. “Imagine a few retailers leave in an enclosed corridor, and you've got the makings of a dead mall.”

The new experiential strategy seemed to be paying off on a recent weekday morning, when a line to enter SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium snaked far back along a corridor, with eager toddlers on tiptoe, trying to sneak a peek at the animals ahead.

“Southwest Plaza is just a great place to bring the kids,” said Mattie Lord, who was in line with several relatives. “It's safe, there's a lot to do, and we live just down the street. Plus, it's not Park Meadows. I can afford to shop here.”


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