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Mall of America opens first phase of expansion

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The Mall of America built a new main entrance.
The Mall of America built a new main entrance for visitors, part of a renewed effort to turn the mall into an experience beyond just shopping.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The Mall of America's latest expansion opened Monday morning, just ahead of the holiday shopping season. It's the mall's biggest update since it opened 23 years ago, and paves the way to nearly doubling its size.

A giant skylight, nearly the size of a basketball court, spans a 5,000-square-foot atrium that has become the mall's new main gathering area. It will eventually be ringed by dozens of upscale retailers, setting the new area apart from the original 4-million-square-foot shopping district. This first phase of expansion cost about $350 million.

There was no grand ribbon cutting, but mall spokesperson Dan Jasper said visitors will notice the difference immediately.

  "On the left-hand side you'll see the JW Marriot, a 342-room hotel," Jasper said. "On the right-hand side is a new 10-story building, which is an office building, fantastic holiday decor and then retail and eating options."

For now, a squad of 11-foot plastic holiday nutcrackers are the most visible tenants on the mall's ground floor expansion. On the expansion's top floor, a few restaurants — but no stores — have opened so far.

With the expansion, the mall hopes visitors will appreciate being there more than ever before, as opposed to shopping online.

"One thing you can't get on the Internet, is you can't smell the product," Jasper said. "You can't feel the sweater and what it looks like on your body. It's those tactile experiences that people are always going to want. But you need to be able to provide a really good experience for those guests, and that's what we're focused on."

There's a lot going on behind the scenes, as well: New bathrooms and a 600-stall underground parking ramp. An entrance loop between the mall and the nearby IKEA store will make drop-offs easier. 

The mall also introduced a new $10 phone-based valet parking program. Drop off your car, text the mall when you want it back and wait in an underground lounge for it to pull up.

It's that kind of retailing that will survive Amazon, says University of St. Thomas marketing professor David Brennan.

"I think there will always been shopping malls, but only the really strong ones are going to survive," Brennan said. He counts the Mall of America among them, because it is has diversified.

"It has really become a mixed-use mall, it's not just about shopping, because you have the office space," Brennan said. "You're going to have an upscale shopping area, and you'll have other venues as well. So I think it keeps expanding not just from the retail, but expanding out into more of community needs."

New atrium at the Mall of America's north entrance
A new atrium at the Mall of America's north entrance will anchor an upscale shopping area and a link to another expansion planned where the old Met Center used to stand.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

And there may be more to come. In October, the mall submitted plans for an even bigger $500 million expansion — another half-million square feet of retail and another hotel, edging farther north onto the site of the old Met Center, which is now home to some roads and parking.

There's no date on that project yet, but Bloomington officials say it's a realization of the mall's original intent — to turn the so-called "South Loop" district into more than a mall.

"It's about two-thirds of the city's projected growth in commerical development, and that includes hotels, office, and we're working on bringing more residential to that neighborhood," said Schane Rudlang, the Bloomington Port Authority administrator.

The next big opening will happen later this month: the JW Marriot is expected to welcome its first hotel guests in two weeks, just in time for the Black Friday rush.

Correction (Nov. 9, 2015): The 11-foot holiday nutcrackers can be found on the mall's ground floor, not on the top floor as a previous version of this story stated.