Eden Prairie’s Asia Mall Adds to a Minnesota Legacy

The state’s malls are answering shoppers’ calls to center community and culture—which may have been the original point of shopping malls
Mall of America
Mall of America


Time and time again, we hear that shopping malls are on life support. Shopping centers around the country have faced a decline in annual visitors since the mid-2000s, amid the dawn of online shopping and the 2008 recession. And recent times have felt even more dire. By the end of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had reduced mall visitation across the country to less than half of what it was in 2019, according to a shopper analytics company. Pandemic-era consumers have become used to the perks of shopping online, and malls continue to deal with vacancies and lost revenue. In Minnesota, shopping centers have lost anchoring department stores and need new tenants and new draws.

But forget what you heard. In a new book, design critic Alexandra Lange says malls have a lot of life left. “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall” argues that the future of malls lies in the inclusion of community-oriented experiences, such as diversified food courts, health care clinics, recreation centers, and cultural events.

Lange appears to have a point. Earlier this year, CNBC reported that retailers had net store opening increases in 2021 after several previous years of net declines, and suburban retail center traffic has nearly returned to 2019 levels. 

Locally, Minnesota malls are defying expectations with new offerings and openings. In Eden Prairie, the Asia Mall is set to become the Twin Cities’ first pan-Asian mall, anchored by an Asian grocery store, decorated with East Asian designs, and home to a Japanese gift shop and restaurants serving food from China, Vietnam, and Korea. Marshall Nguyen, one of the lead agents in its development, told the Star Tribune he hoped the mall would serve as a centralized location for Asian groceries and a “one-stop shop for family gatherings and parties.” 

In the context of Lange’s book, the Asia Mall may join a lasting lineage of Minnesota shopping centers that have set the template for malls—and have worked to keep it relevant since then.

Lifestyle Centers

For many who grew up pre-internet, shopping malls were a first taste of freedom. Parents approved of these sheltered community areas, and kids flocked there to work first jobs and exercise newfound purchasing power. Here, teens could get their ears pierced, pick out prom dresses, see fledgling pop stars like Britney Spears—or simply waste time, like the characters in 1995’s “Mallrats” (filmed at Eden Prairie Center). For older Americans, malls have provided a weather-proof public space with access to food, escalators, benches, and bathrooms, which make them perfect for daily walks—hence the moniker “mall walkers.” 

This has all gone more or less to plan, Lange says. In tracing the history and cultural significance of American shopping malls, she outlines their original, lofty goal. After World War II, the United States saw exponential growth of suburban neighborhoods, but these areas lacked central gathering places—especially for women and children, who were otherwise isolated in the home. Malls were intended to fill that void.

Minnesota helped lead the way. The nation’s first enclosed shopping mall was Edina’s Southdale Center, a project that opened in 1956 and was commissioned by the Dayton Company. For the design, the Dayton family, known for department stores, brought in “the father of the shopping mall,” Austrian architect Victor Gruen. Functionally, it had to be enclosed because “[Minneapolis] was either buried in snow and bitter cold in winter, or scorching hot in summer, or rained out in spring and autumn,” wrote Gruen when describing the project. 

Lange writes that Gruen imagined a climate-controlled community hub with access to many shops as well as medical centers, schools, and even residences. While that dream was not fully realized in the mid-’50s, many American malls have continued to strive toward Gruen’s multi-purpose model in their own ways over the last 70 years, Southdale included.

Today, mall visitors can get a workout at the Life Time fitness center at Southdale, right after seeing a movie at the mall’s AMC movie theater. Life Time has proposed a 32-story residential high-rise at Southdale, too, to develop a “curated living project.” Other malls have similarly made the transition into “lifestyle centers,” a term referring to multi-use entertainment and retail spaces that rose in popularity in the late 1980s and ’90s. 

The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove has a day spa and a Planet Fitness, plus an indoor play area for kids. Roseville’s Rosedale Center has hosted several fashion shows in the last year that center on different themes—such as the religious holiday Eid and differently abled models. This is part of Rosedale’s push for inclusivity at the mall, says representative Lisa Crain. Decades after Southdale opened, Mall of America, the largest retail and entertainment center in North America, has reeled in shoppers with attractions like the Nickelodeon Universe theme park, Sea Life Aquarium, and two upscale hotels attached to the mall. 

Eden Prairie Center has added several new entertainment options for shoppers, in hopes that the mall will serve as a community gathering space. “As we move into this next phase of retail, we have been thrilled to introduce a growing list of entertainment offerings,” says the mall’s senior general manager, Nancy Litwin. That includes Sandbox VR, Tactical Urban Combat, Hi-Five Sports Zone, and Safari Adventures. Local malls have also hosted drag shows and Halloween events.

Looking to the near future, Lange hypothesizes that instead of department stores, food halls will anchor the modern mall. Rosedale Center recently finished a $100 million renovation that includes Potluck, a food hall celebrating Minnesota’s culinary greatness and offering an opportunity for “local operators that are looking for a venue to try out their concepts or open a second location,” Crain says. Similarly, Mall of America started offering Minnesota State Fair food year-round at the dining and entertainment hub The Fair on 4.

Food-centric malls also provide an opportunity to appeal to suburban ethnic minorities, an underserved but powerful part of the suburban community, Lange writes. She notes that malls can diversify by appealing to the “ethnoburbs,” or residential areas with large minority populations. In the Twin Cities, that means reaching the many families who have roots in Latin America, Somalia, Laos, Vietnam, and other countries. And that’s where the Asia Mall comes into the picture.

Lange writes, “By the 2010 census, 62% of Asian Americans lived in the suburbs of the 100 largest U.S. cities, making such malls a necessary and ubiquitous part of 21st-century suburban life.” Whether it’s by celebrating culture, developing food halls, or investing in entertainment options, the malls that survive are the malls that center community experiences. Focusing on the social and wellness needs of shoppers may just be the future of malls.