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Chestnut Hill mall hopes new exterior adds to high-end experience

The Mall at Chestnut Hill is redesigning the entrance to feature automatic doors, new finishes, glass lanterns, and an expanded vestibule.
The Mall at Chestnut Hill is redesigning the entrance to feature automatic doors, new finishes, glass lanterns, and an expanded vestibule. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The boxy concrete exterior of The Mall at Chestnut Hill is a fashion mismatch with the upscale retailers inside.

From the outside it has all the charm of a corporate data center.

Inside, shoppers walk along marble floors looking for designer handbags at Kate Spade, Michael Kors, and Coach and to buy expensive jewelry at Tiffany & Co. New England’s only Bloomingdale’s, the luxury department store, anchors both ends of the property.

Simon Property Group Inc., which owns the 41-year-old mall, is in the midst of a renovation to create a similar high-end ambience outside. The company is also renaming the mall “The Shops at Chestnut Hill,” hoping the new title will better reflect the luxury stores and smaller size of the shopping center.

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“The outside is very dated,” said Brian Nelson, regional vice president of New England at Simon. “It looks a bit like an old Russian building that you would see in movies. It certainly doesn’t reflect the tenancy in the mall.”

Simon is trying to distance the property from the “mall” label as traditional malls across America lose cachet amid stiff competition from lifestyle centers, designer outlets, discount stores, boutiques, and the Internet.

The Chestnut Hill area in particular is swarming with new shopping options at The Street down the road and Chestnut Hill Square directly across Route 9. The outdoor lifestyle centers draw crowds with a convenient mix of hot restaurants, supermarkets, salons, and popular retail stores.

“There’s a lot of new stuff happening around here that we certainly want to keep up with,” Nelson said.

Simon, the nation’s largest mall management group, declined to provide sales or traffic data for the Chestnut Hill property. The local project is one of 24 redevelopment and expansion plans costing $2.1 billion underway at the Indianapolis-based company.

Robin Kropf, of Cambridge, strolled through the mall with her granddaughters, Madeline (left) and Kate Rhodes- Kropf.
Robin Kropf, of Cambridge, strolled through the mall with her granddaughters, Madeline (left) and Kate Rhodes- Kropf.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Construction at the Chestnut Hill mall began in late May and is expected to conclude in September. Simon is redesigning the entrance to feature automatic doors, new mats and finishes, glass lanterns, and an expanded vestibule. The mall will receive new signs throughout the property and upgrades in the parking area. Simon declined to say how much the project will cost.

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The changes come as malls all over the United States try to rebrand and differentiate to compete in a new era of shopping where consumers have unlimited choices.

In 1970, there were 310 malls in the United States, according to data from the International Council of Shopper Centers.

At the time, air-conditioning, ample parking, and the idea of one-stop shopping appealed to consumers, said Michael Tesler, a retail professor at Bentley University in Waltham. Many malls sprang up in suburban areas, matching population patterns as residents moved outside cities.

Now the reverse migration of residents back to cities is bringing more business and development to urban shopping areas, said Leonard A. Schlesinger,a Harvard Business School professor and retail industry veteran.

Schlesinger said the growth of inequality in the United States is also squeezing retailers in the middle of the pack, while high-end malls and discount stores continue to flourish. Shoppers also have more ways to shop, which is increasing competition.

More than two times as many lifestyle centers and outlet centers have opened compared with traditional malls since 2010, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“Whether it’s a print catalog or a website or a mobile device, there’s a proliferation of ways for customers to scan, browse, and shop,” Schlesinger said. “Stores have to fight harder to win in that mix.”

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Tesler said the Chestnut Hill mall is located in a popular area with lots of affluent, fashion-conscious, and upwardly mobile consumers. The mall has a strong mix of high-end retailers that appeal to the nearby residents and the Bloomingdale’s store drives traffic from all over New England.

“The Mall at Chestnut Hill has done a good job of remaining relevant,” Tesler said. “It’s quite aware that a lot of its cachet has been stolen by The Street and Chestnut Hill Square. This is a forward-thinking and a positive response to all that’s happening around them.”

Upgrades at the mall are expected to conclude in September.
Upgrades at the mall are expected to conclude in September.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.