By Melissa Munoz, Kee Stein and Jeremy Clough
A cotton candy vendor stands outside the partially closed Little Village Discount Mall. (Photo/Melissa Munoz)
Little Village residents felt nostalgic over the years when they walked through the local Discount Mall on 26th Street. This mall has been open since 1991 and sells anything from jewelry and gowns to beach towels, toys and ice cream.
But when Novak Construction bought the mall in 2020, its ambiance changed and vendors and customers were left in the dark about future plans as rumors about a shutdown circulated.
Evelyn Valasquez, an 18-year-old from the Little Village area, is saddened to hear about the sudden changes to the neighborhood mall, which is now partially fenced off. Valasquez has worked in the Discount Mall since she was 14 and she worries that the community built around the mall could soon come to an end.
“First it was shocking because it’s been open for like over 30 years,” Valasquez said. “I’ve been coming here since I was little. This is like a second home. I’ve been here all day – like you work all day so like morning to night.”
Valasquez said that closures in the mall has caused more than just locals to be upset.
“You know, people from Wisconsin and Michigan come here to the mall,” she said.
What’s happening in Little Village is part of a disturbing national trend. A CNBC article cited research that estimates that 25% of America’s malls will shut down in the next three to five years, with an expected 3.6% increase in industrial development.
After Novak Construction’s acquisition, half of the mall shut down, forcing out over 40 vendors.
When it comes to the current state of the mall, many residents say they are unsure whether the mall is closed.
Anyone who accesses the website of the Discount Mall will find an update from April 1, 2023: “We are temporarily closed. Stay tuned for future updates. – Hemos cerrardo temporalmente. Manténganse atentos a esta pagina para actualizaciones futuras.”
The same message to the public appears on Google, although there is no mention of whether the building is closed, and updated hours for the mall are available.
The uncertainty has caused a lot of confusion for customers who have been going to the mall for years. It is only when people drive by the location that they see the mall is actually open and ready for business despite the fences that are up and the construction that seems to be taking place.
Ellen Engel is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at UIC’s Business Department of Accounting with research interests in Corporate Governance. She had heard of the news surrounding Novak’s handling of Discount Mall and Novak could have planned it better and stayed in contact with the vendors who were kept in the dark.
“I suspect it’s a fine business decision on the part of the developers if they’re looking forward to projecting what the best, highest value use of that property is, and they’ve made the decision that it’s not to continue with the current merchants,” Engel said. “But, if any business knows, if you’re operating in a community, there’s more to your business than just the bottom line.
“A big part of any common development strategy, particularly real estate, is to get buy-in from your local community, as do many different communities throughout Chicago.”
Luis Carranza and Morelia Rodriguez, a couple from Little Village and longtime Discount Outlet customers, have taken their younger siblings and nieces to the mall for toys and sweet treats.
“It sucks because people are getting displaced,” said Carranza while shaking his head. “Discount Mall has been there for years and we heard it was sold to someone else.”
Rodriguez said, “Yeah, I remember shopping there when I was younger for shoes and jewelry. It’s sad. And we didn’t even know that people were still shopping there now. Everyone keeps saying it’s closed.”
The uncertainty has caused many of the vendors in the mall to become frustrated with the contradicting information. Hat and souvenir vendor Francisco Villegas spoke agitatedly about his numerous attempts to make sure the public knows that mall vendors like his family are still there.
“I’ve been trying to reach out to Google to try to get that fixed,” Villegas said. “I’ve submitted pictures showing proof that it’s open and that still hasn’t been resolved. There’s a website still but that website is run by the other side that was closed down. Since they’ve been closed down, they’ve been marking it as closed but as you guys can tell it’s not closed.”
Villegas and his family are natives of Little Village. Their business is owned by his parents who have been vendors at Discount Mall for 14 years and are heartbroken by the news of possible full closure.
“We’ve always been in this community,” Villegas said. “A lot of us were torn apart because it’s been our economic resource for our whole lives. We might have a job somewhere else, but my parents? They depend on this place.”
Business owners and families like Villegas’s are experiencing the fear of financial insecurity after witnessing the sudden removal of neighboring businesses.
“We’ve definitely felt the effect as far as sales because there [are] not as many people as we usually see,” he said. “So it’s definitely having an impact economically.”
Vendors said Novak has provided no communication on future plans when it comes to the mall and its occupants. Novak did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
“Obviously, we’re trying to reach out to them,” Villegas said. “There was a committee that was formed from members of that side and this side. They went out to their actual headquarters [Novak] up on the North Side to try to work something out, but it’s never been successful.”
When asked about the state of communication between the company and vendors, Villegas added: “As far as what’s going on right now, there’s never been any communication saying, ‘We’re gonna start doing this’. If you go look outside, there’s construction and crews out there, different vehicles out there. None of that was ever communicated to us.”
Do you think a problem such as this could’ve been avoided?
Where do you see this situation developing going forward?
Is there any hope for a positive outcome once this is all over?