For those of you into malls, you will happy to know that there is a glut (too many, pues
) of shopping malls in the formerly-white city of Merida. Wherever you turn, there is another mall! This is in addition to the already gazillion little placitas
that people keep building on any available corner that feature independent and sometimes chain business that quite often are doomed to fail as a result of over-supply. This is the mall panorama at the time of this writing:
- Plaza Dorada – The ‘family’ mall as they like to advertise themselves. This mall was one of the first malls on this side of the city and is an early architectural design by the now famous Augusto Quijano. It looks severely dated now, however, and is comprised of a series of independently owned shops for the most part along with one or two chains including a supermarket. The feel is cheap, and their market could be described as lower middle class. Not a place you would want to spend any more time than necessary in. The arrangement in the mall is that all commercial space is privately owned, so any renovations or improvements have to be agreed upon my all the owners, which, in Merida, is a challenging prospect to be sure.
In addition, Plaza Dorada was eclipsed by the construction of the Las Americas mall right next door, which put the nail in the Dorada coffin – a nail that had been placed there by the burning (some say intentional) of the Dorada cinemas, run by Ramirez who were opening a mini-plex at the new Las Americas across the street.
Plaza Dorada is not a happy place.
- Plaza Fiesta – Once Meridas premiere mall, before the opening of La Gran Plaza, Plaza Fiesta manages to hang in there after years and years of operation and several ambitious renovations. Built in the square, boxy style common at the time, Plaza Fiestas latest reno made the interior more curvy and a little more modern. Hard economic times have hit Plaza Fiesta where it counts and many many commercial spaces are vacant making the ambiance more depressing than it was. Sin embargo, locals from the area still go there to do there shopping at the supermarket and there are several bank outlets as well, making it a functional plaza but not a destination for people who like to stroll the malls
- Plaza Oriente – As its name implies, Plaza Oriente is in that part of town known as the Oriente, which is not an oriental reference in the sense of anything Chinese, but rather that it lies in the eastern part of town. Not exactly an upscale neighborhood, the area around Plaza Oriente is middle to low income families and the minimal offerings at this shopping center reflect the low level of discretionary income available to be spent within its severely aesthetically challenged interiors. A few shops, a bank or two and that’s about it. One of Meridas first malls, this is one place you would never feel compelled to visit for any reason.
- La Gran Plaza – the construction of this new, modern mall was announced with much fanfare in 1994 and its moniker is ‘the fashion mall’. Just like that; in English. And when it was finished, in its initial phase, it was indeed the place to go and Merida was excited to have a mall just like the ones in the US and Canada, all fancy and upscale. Shops were charged an arm and two legs to get in and the rents were the highest ever charged for commercial space in an enclosed shopping environment. The Gran Plaza became THE destination mall to stroll around in and the businesses that catered to this strolling market made a killing.
Now when I say ‘destination’ mall I mean that it took the place of the traditional zocalo or main square that is a central fixture in every Mexican town and small city; where the populace comes to see and be seen, where young folks of opposite sexes glanced at each other furtively under the watchful eyes of aunts or mothers or perhaps a chaperon in the form of a little brother or sister; where old men came to gossip and leer somewhat discreetly at the young females in their best and flirtiest outfits; where entire families strolled, ice cream cones in hand and greeted one another warmly. This social environment has not been eradicated in spite of the best efforts of Televisa, Dish Network and DirecTV. It has simply moved indoors, where a climate controlled environment makes for a much more pleasant outing. Mothers and fathers routinely leave their barely pre-teen children in the mall, to hang out with their friends, perhaps go to a movie and just chill, thinking that the mall security will keep an eye on them. Those of us who have children who grew up during that time can remember vividly the masses of people congregating at Wendy’s (now Starbucks) directly across from the Gran Plaza and where parents would pick up their offspring after the mall closed.
- Plaza Las Americas – As I alluded to earlier, Plaza Las Americas was built directly across the street from Plaza Dorada under the auspices of the owners of Chedraui, who own similar projects throughout Mexico, always with one of their supermarkets as an anchor. Plaza Las Americas was a ‘big deal’ at the time since it actually looked pleasant and had some interesting stores, a cinema (the Ramirez company who used the insurance money from the fire at their Plaza Dorada location to finance the new theaters) and a food court with real gringo franchises like KFC, McDonalds and Burger King. It is however, a small mall and not much fun to stroll around in since the distance to be covered from one end to the other is too short and the layout is a Y which makes it difficult to go in circles.
After a few years of stability in the mall market, someone heard something and a spate of construction began that created the current mall glut in Merida.
- MacroPlaza – built in that area behind Los Pinos, near the monument to the Xtabay, this tiny strip mall is another shopping only kind of mall with not much to offer beyond a supermarket, some stores, a nearby WalMart and a cinema. There is a tiny food court but nothing exciting that would lure you to come and have a look.
Major malls soon followed.
- Altabrisa – a joint venture by the group that built the Gran Plaza, along with Carlos Slims company (one of them, anyway) and two other investors, this mall is probably Meridas most ambitious mall to date, easily out doing the Gran Plaza in terms of fashion-ability and status symbol stores. Everything from Haagen Dazs to Zara to Starbucks to Nine West to Benetton can be found within the walls iof this huge, high ceilinged collosus that is run like a mall would be run in the US or Canada. That is to say: all the stores, or at least 80%, are occupied, the air conditioning works, there is music from the moment you step out of your car and in general it’s just a pleasant place to be on a hot Merida day. All the upper middle class to upper class folks from Merida, young and old, come to this mall to do their walking around and the cinemas are probably Meridas best. Unlike movie theaters in the US or Canada, these cinemas are packed when a blockbuster movie comes out or on a Saturday night.
A quibble I have with this mall is its awful food court, which resembles an unfinished airport hangar with food stalls on either side of it. The space in the middle is gigantic, full of metal and plastic chairs and tables and completely devoid of any charm. Eating there is an exercise in self control, as you want to run from the place, it is so uncomfortable.
Points go this mall for its mall-ness, its location; ideal for buying a gift or waiting for someone to get better (or die) at the Star Medica hospital next door, the fact that it has a Chili’s and those deliciously decadent top shelf margaritas, a great cinema experience, Starbucks coffee and almost every upscale store you could want.
At the same time that Altabrisa was being built, a group from Mexico City announced the construction of yet another mall, because Merida – hooray – really needed another mall.
- Galerias – owned by the folks who run Liverpool the department store, this is another high end mall, complete with a central ice skating rink, a Ghandi bookstore (big deal if you are from Mexico City, although it has absolutely nothing on a Borders or Chapters) and even a Hugo Boss boutique. I don’t know of anyone who would buy anything at retail in a Hugo Boss store here, but then that’s just me. This mall, as a shopping experience, is probably a failure judging from the business closing there in the last year or two. The big draw is the air conditioning, the casino and the skating rink. Oh and the fabulous margaritas and consistently mediocre service that characterize the American chain restaurant, Chili’s. The food court at Galerias is off in one corner on the second floor, almost as if it were an afterthought and is as unattractive as the one in Altabrisa, but with even less options.
Another group of businessmen, from somewhere up north, smelled opportunity (how or what, quien sabe) were building, at the same time:
- Plaza Senderos – another giant project that would serve that part of the city previously attended to by the tiny and outdated Plaza Oriente. Unfortunately this mall never really took off and is struggling at the moment.
- City Center – If the above were not enough, the Hines Group out of Texas (Gallerias in Houston is one of theirs) and their Mexican affiliates had the brilliant idea to also build a shopping mall, but with a different concept in mind. Theirs would be half outdoors and strollers would be able to shop and dine al fresco since to get from one shop to another you needed to stroll around outside. With retail giant WalMart as their anchor, they ambitiously launched their advertising campaign. Fridays came on board (under a different franchise owner than the Fridays on Montejo, btw) as did Los Trompos who opened their most ambitious taqueria yet, complete with a giant revolving sign. Unfortunately here too, the demand for this mall did not meet expectations and the shopping center is mostly empty. The food court, for example, has not a single occupant.
I think I have hit most of the major shopping malls in Merida with this little write-up; hopefully, as a newcomer to Merida, you will find it useful when deciding where to go to escape the heat, which is what a great majority of Meridanos use their mall time for.