Too Safe For UrbEx! Exploring the remains of The St. Louis Mills / Outlet Mall

Exploring corridors of vacancy and failed dreams

What do you do when you want to explore dead and forgotten properties but don’t feel like trespassing or getting arrested? You do what I call “Too Safe for UrbEx,” explore dead and forgotten properties still accessible to the public! And one property like that in the current St. Louis climate easily comes to mind.

Unlike other malls with a lifespan of decades, the St. Louis Mills Mall – later renamed St. Louis Outlet Mall (everyone still calls it “The Mills”) – is a young’un that’s not even of legal driving age yet. While other malls thrived past adolescence, sadly The Mills peaked at childhood and only went downhill from there.

Rewinding the clock, the St. Louis Mills Mall in Kirkwood opened it’s doors to the public in late 2003. In hindsight, it was rather poor timing opening a brand new shopping mall right as the era of the shopping mall was coming to an end. Regardless, the mall’s opening came with much fanfare and I remember it was impossible to visit during opening weekend as traffic was backed up all the way off the highway.

Honestly, the whole concept of The Mills confused me from day one. Hardly capitalizing on an untapped market or area, all The Mills succeeded at doing was emptying out the nearby Northwest Plaza mall and moving that traffic onto a fresher parking lot. Despite it’s quirky appearance and novelties, The Mills was completely unnecessary and redundant in my eyes.

Fast forward to today. The specter of Northwest Plaza took it’s vengeance and scared off the foot traffic from Mills, leaving it all but a ghost town with an occupancy of around 7-8% (that dash between the numbers is NO typo). In many ways, it doesn’t feel like a mall that declined over time but rather a mass exodus.

So what the HELL happened? Everyone has their opinions, some of which include 1.) being in a remote location, 2.) shoplifting and violence, 3.) the rise of online retail and 4.) the number of alternative outdoor malls opening in the STL area.

There is a reason I picked now as the perfect time to go exploring the mall, but I will talk more about that at the conclusion of this post. I decided to grab some film for this outing, including an eclectic mix of Kodak T-Max 100, Delta 3200 and the newly revived Kodak T-Max 3200.

Outside the mall

Slides: Outside the mall

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Starting outside around the perimeter of the mall, only a scant few major anchor stores remain open: Cabela’s, Burlington and Ross Dress for Less (at least until they can escape the lease). Of the three, Cabela’s seems the least affected by the mall’s misfortunes as their parking lot continues to look busy to me. Should the mall close tomorrow, I think Cabela’s would merely shrug the rest of the property off like a benign growth.

Other stores accessible from the mall’s parking lot includes a discount furniture retailer in the former space of Bed, Bath and Beyond, as well as a church that moved in THIS year (crazy, I know) into the former Books-a-Million store.

The Regal St. Louis Stadium 18 movie theater is very much still open, and surprisingly a Putting Edge indoor golf / recreation facility remains in operation. One amusement NOT running is the NASCAR Speedpark: a business called Rusty Wallace Karting took it over, but vegetation around the track suggests they haven’t been open in some time. (Checking their website, the last sign of life was in the summer of 2017.)

Beyond the mall parking lot, nearly all the satellite businesses and restaurants have shut down, including names like Steak n’ Shake, Babies R’ Us and Sonic Burger. The only two businesses I spotted operating is a Jareds Jewelry and a Longhorn Steakhouse.

Entering The Mills: Neighborhoods 1-3

Let’s head inside now, but we’re not doing it from any of the major anchor stores. All of them have completely barricaded off their rear exits into the mall. The only way inside is to head back outside and walk around to the main mall entrances instead.

The Mills is divided into six various themed sections called “neighborhoods,” though that’s now a flimsy concept with the current occupancy rate. Upon entering the mall, your jaw will drop to see how empty the inside corridors are, void storefronts stretching as far as the eye can see. There are currently only fifteen stores left listed on the Mill’s website, and one of those was in the process of closing and moving out it’s stock as I toured.

Slides: Neighborhoods 1-3

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As you would expect, foot traffic was minimal-to-dead. Aside from the very odd shopper and “waaaay too into it” mall-walkers, others tend to be curious wanderers from the movie theater taking in the current state of the mall.

One thing I noticed about the mall is that it’s been preserved quite well. With few stores and foot traffic left, it would be easy to throw in the towel but the entire mall remains clean and cared for. I spotted a cleaning woman working diligently as I walked around. I can only assume the restrooms are just as clean, because an adult male hanging in a mall bathroom with a large camera doesn’t set the best narrative here.

A couch sits smack dab in the middle of an empty mall corridor, because…well, couch.

Aside from the remnants of yesteryear, there wasn’t a whole lot to see in the first three neighborhoods. Amongst other sights was additional showroom space for furniture, an income tax place (not open during my visits), a hair-braiding studio, an empty information booth and random spots being used for storage.

Neighborhoods 4-6

Things are a bit more “lively” (using that term loosely) right around the sports-themed neighborhood. Ice Zone remains open as it’s currently still the official practice facility of the St. Louis Blues, but apparently the team is scheduled to depart for a new location very soon.

Right across from Ice Zone is a Wetzel’s Pretzels, which appears to be surviving on the ice rink traffic. Kids and parents were buzzing around the storefront like hornets to the point that I had to leave and come back later just to grab a soda. If Ice Zone were to shut, short of opening an outdoor food stand in the parking lot of Cabela’s there would be no point for Wetzel’s to continue at Mills.

Slides: Neighborhoods 4-6

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The skateboarding park at Mills has closed and reopened and closed again through the years….this time, the park was actually OPEN when I went. However, operating hours seem to be a bit spotty: during a subsequent weekend visit I found them closed this time. If shredding half-pipes isn’t your deal, grab a golf club instead and give the employees at the nearby Putting Edge something to do.

By the way, I hope you ate a full meal before visiting The Mills. If you didn’t, your stomach won’t appreciate the sight of the 1904 World’s Fair food court.

That’s right, it’s completely void. Void as in no Sbarro or overcooked Asian food. Void as in “I sat for fifteen minutes while taking a break and never saw another living soul.” Void as in there are likely more food vendors left over from the actual 1904 World’s Fair than working here.

So if hunger strikes you, you’re either backtracking to Wetzel’s, raiding a vending machine (if it works) or visiting the concession stand at the movie theater.

The Mills still has open playground equipment beyond the food court. The church took over Chandelier Court in Neighborhood 6 and repurposed a number of vacant storefronts into what seemed to be play areas or daycare for their youth, naming them things like “Heir Force One” and “Power House.” For some reason, the creepy visual of the metal gates and observation-like glass reminded me of plot elements in the Bioshock games.

Beyond here, nothing unexpected…it’s much of the same vacant hallways with the last spatter of businesses still operating here and there. The rear entrance of Burlington is barricaded, with the entire back half of the store noticeably bare.

The end…or a new beginning?

There’s honestly not much more I can tell you about the current state of The St. Louis Mills Mall. It’s a sad story filled with a surreal atmosphere of empty storefronts, past memories and failed dreams. Unless Duck Dynasty licensed upholstery, men’s sequined jackets and hair-braiding is your thing, there is little reason to visit the mall interior today beyond mere curiosity.

However, there is a reason I chose this time to visit the mall, and that’s because this is likely the final days of the mall as we know it. One more place operating here I haven’t mentioned yet is POWERplex: a venture of former newscaster Dan Buck of Big Sports Properties and is essentially a plan to redevelop the property into a youth sports complex and entertainment district.

Unlike the city of Chesterfield who shot down the project (like they needed another development), Mills is an ideal spot as the property is in great condition and already has the infrastructure for a number of sports. According to what’s been said in articles and online, some current businesses like the movie theater and Ice Zone will remain (giving them a much needed shot in the arm).

But you know how these things can go…I hope this doesn’t end up being one of those lofty community plans that gets everyone excited, only to be indefinitely delayed and the property merely becomes a business park in the end.

So until the official announcement to break ground comes, you can take one last walk down retail memory lane. Or…if you’re more of an outdoorsy type, there’s always other natural wonders that other area malls have left behind, such as Mount Crestwood.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.