Tired Old Chestnut

Chestnut Hill used to be the peak of suburban shopping decadence. Now? Well, there’s plenty of good parking available.

Photo by Bob O'Connor

Photo by Bob O’Connor

A MILF, A DOCTOR, and three grade schoolers walk into a mall. A few years ago, that would have been merely the setup for a joke. Now it counts as a busy day in Chestnut Hill, where there are two malls and a shopping center right on Route 9, in the middle of Boston’s toniest suburbs, but, alas, an apparently dwindling number of shoppers to support them.

The 22-year-old Atrium and the 37-year-old Mall at Chestnut Hill (pictured), both of which used to brim with the western ’burbs’ most sought-after customers, now overflow with all the ebullient consumerism of a morgue. In the past couple of years, both Williams-Sonoma and Abercrombie & Fitch have closed at the Atrium — and now its anchor, Borders, has closed, leaving a 25,600-square-foot hole. At the Mall, Barneys New York has long since migrated most of its marketing efforts and staffing resources to its larger, flashier Copley location. And in the nearby Chestnut Hill Shopping Center, Macy’s will shut down this month, leaving 130,000 more empty square feet.

How to explain all of this? First, of course, there’s the recession. And then there’s the competition from the Natick Collection, which opened farther down Route 9 in 2007, with more cutting-edge stores.

Then again, maybe indoor malls are just tired. After all, the parking lots at newer outdoor “lifestyle malls” Legacy Place (in Dedham) and Derby Street Shoppes (in Hingham) are consistently crammed. Brian Sciera, vice president of WS Development — the company that owns and runs Legacy Place — attributes that to the “organic” feel of the pedestrian model. “Shoppers would rather be out in the fresh air, not confined within walls,” he says.

If WS has its way, those walls may soon be tumbling down at the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center, which it also owns. The company is currently hashing out a plan to gut and rebuild the Macy’s as a handful of smaller high-end stores. “It will be more like Legacy Place — a street scene,” Sciera says. “We find that it’s a better-heeled customer who appreciates that more.” Cue the MILFs.