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Jeff Reinartz: Put Oak Park Mall at top of redevelopment list

Well, it sure has been a long time coming, but sometime this summer you’re finally going to be able to drive through Oak Park Mall’s parking lot without feeling like you’re driving a lunar excursion module through the Sea of Tranquility. As it is, any money you might have saved at Younkers you’re going to spend on repairs to your axles.

The mall’s owner, M H Graff & Associates, announced plans this week to repair the gaping potholes that have become some of the retail center's most prominent features.

The mall’s ability to survive has been a matter of debate around these parts for a number of years, so it’s no surprise that the repair of those potholes is big news around here, too. Both local newspapers had the story on their front page Monday, and I could hear people talking about it from the other break tables at work.

Sure, maybe it was a slow news day, but I think the fact that Austin’s residents discuss Oak Park Mall so frequently and passionately is that we want the mall to rebound and be relevant again. We root for its survival, and an announcement like this shows us somebody actually cares.

If you’re like me, you remember fondly the mall’s early days, when every retail space was occupied by stores with names like Trouser Works, Land of Oz, Sound World, The County Seat, White Drug and Eat at Joe’s, and its corridors were filled with people who were actually shopping, as opposed to exercising.


But, as has happened in towns across the country, the mall has been affected by "big box" stores, the rapid growth of a certain nearby city and other factors. Though it’s hard to imagine Oak Park Mall ever being the same place it once was, I think there's potential for it to endure in some form or another.

But getting back to the parking lot, I think we can all agree that the lot was designed to handle a fully occupied and thriving retail center, which the mall obviously no longer is. Today the parking lot is, by a generous estimate, about 75 percent empty most of the time.

That’s why I think the mall could benefit from selling off some of its parking space. Not only would they make money on the real estate, but they'd save money by not having to repair quite as many potholes.

I’m just spitballing here, but the real estate adjacent to the north parking lot seems ideally suited to the fast food restaurants that currently occupy it. Wouldn’t new restaurants such as Chipotle or Jimmy John’s look nice to the immediate south of KFC?

Yes, it would cut into Younkers’ current parking, but has anyone parked that far from Younkers’ door in the past decade or two?

If I’m not mistaken, farmers markets are or used to be held in that same area, which goes to show that Younkers could do without it. There would still be plenty of parking for their customers.

Whatever happens to Oak Park’s parking lot, it will be an improvement, and repairing it can’t hurt the mall’s efforts to build upon the seven new stores that management says they've added since September.

Vision 20/20 is going to whittle its list of ideas down to 10 on April 18. One of the top 30 ideas was to redevelop existing buildings. What better existing building, and parking lot, to redevelop?

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