Outside, cars swarm the parking lot in front of Target and Home Depot, and customers line up outside the In-N-Out Burger. But inside El Con Mall, occasional shoppers wander past roughly two dozen vacant storefronts and marvel at the eerie stillness.

On a walk down the mall's virtually empty east corridor, visitors might hear little but the sound of their own footsteps and the low hum of lights overhead.

"The way the mall looks to me is like it should be torn down," said 59-year-old Suzanne Stewart, a shopper who ventured inside the mall recently after having lunch at nearby Claim Jumper Restaurant.

That may happen.

Next month marks the opening of a Ross Dress For Less, the first tenant to open in the main mall in years. Details of the Ross building suggest bigger changes might be in store for the nearly 50-year-old shopping center.

The Ross store has been built with outdoor-style details, including decorative overhanging lamps, on the inside facade. Ross real estate executives "believe the mall at some point in the future might become an open air center," said Ross spokeswoman Katie Loughnot.

In the past, mall representatives have provided few specifics about what, if any, long-term plan the mall has for revitalization. Converting the mall to an outdoor shopping complex is one option, but that has been far from decided, said mall spokeswoman Susan Allen. Although there are conceptual plans for redevelopment, giving the mall a "streetscape" look, the outcome will depend on which tenants sign leases, she said.

"Some portions are going to be refurbished. Some will have to be rebuilt, and some will have to be remodeled," she said. "The strategy is to speak to as many qualified national retailers as possible that are compatible with the Tucson market … and in the end, the people who agree to come to El Con will determine what the eventual mix will be."

Next to the Ross, the mall has plans for an additional 16,000 square feet of retail space, but that will not be built until leases are signed, Allen said.

Tenants say they're not sure what will happen to the mall, but they have high hopes Ross will bring about a turnaround.

A year from now "you won't even know the place," said Carol Mendelson, owner of Carol's Yogurt Shoppe, which has been in the mall for 23 years. "I really believe this year is just going to be a dynamic year."

Split personality

Once a premier shopping destination, the mall at 3601 E. Broadway has taken on a split personality in recent years. The roughly 93-acre property, nestled along a busy East Broadway corridor near upscale Midtown neighborhoods, has attracted many big-name tenants, including Target, Home Depot, Century Theatres and In-N-Out Burger. But all have picked parcels surrounding the mall, not directly connected to it.

Meanwhile, the mall's interior has languished to a point where only a handful of tenants remain: Macy's, J.C. Penney, Champs Sports, the Poster Warehouse, a barber shop, a cobbler, Carol's Yogurt Shoppe and a Piercing Pagoda.

There have been a number of past attempts at revival for the main mall, but they have done little to attract retailers' interest.

In the 1990s, one former shop owner, Peter Beren, tried to turn part of the mall into an artisan marketplace, but that soon failed, he said.

Later, mall representatives and local real estate experts said they expected the addition of a movie theater, Home Depot and Target would bring more foot traffic into the mall, but to no avail.

Target opened in the former Montgomery Ward store at the mall's east end, but has no entrances to the mall itself.

Another flop was the construction of a "food court." The surreal-looking addition has no occupants, but pictures of happy people buying food have been painted on the walls in some of the food-service tenant spots.

A high vacancy rate, and a lack of a compelling revitalization plan, could be factors in keeping retailers away from El Con's main structure, said Melinda Burke, director of the University of Arizona's Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing and a former manager at Goldwater's department store in El Con.

"I think it's unfortunate that there is a potentially vibrant piece of real estate right smack in the middle of Tucson that doesn't seem to have a more comprehensive plan for growth," she said.

Park Place called the villain

To some long-time observers of El Con, the stage for its current predicament was set decades ago, when one of the mall's partners, the late Joseph Kivel, built Park Mall, now called Park Place, about 3 miles east of El Con.

In 1996, the Kivel family sold Park Mall to Chicago-based General Growth Properties, the country's second-largest mall operator, which poured millions of dollars into redeveloping the property from 1998 to 2001.

Having two malls so close together meant many tenants were forced to choose between them, said Don Reinhart, former El Con manager and a professor of retail real estate development at the University of Arizona.

"If I were at Park Place, with a first-class store, I may look at why would I want to be (three) miles away," he said. "That's a tough sell. It should have been anticipated."

Even before redevelopment of Park Mall, retailers started gradually leaving El Con because it was not updated quickly enough, and lost its cachet, former tenants said.

"El Con just got lost in the shuffle. It missed the boat," said Quinta Peterson, daughter of boutique owner Cele Peterson, who owned a store in the mall for about 30 years. The shop moved out of the mall about 12 years ago, Quinta Peterson said.

Not owned by large corporation

Most malls throughout the country are owned by large corporations, such as General Growth or the Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, which can use their vast portfolios of property as leverage in gaining tenants, said Greg Furrier, a broker with Picor Commercial Real Estate Services and former investor in Foothills Mall.

El Con has remained under the control of the heirs of its original partners, Kivel and the Papanikolas family of Salt Lake City. Single-mall operators might find it difficult to negotiate with retailers in an arena with competitors who own dozens or hundreds of malls, Furrier said.

El Con's owners might also lack the expertise of big mall owners, which was evident in slow decision-making in past failed revitalization plans, Reinhart said.

"I'm not sure that they have a grand plan," Reinhart said. "I think that's obvious in the number of vacancies."

In a phone interview, Allen said El Con does not suffer from being a family-owned property, noting that it is represented by a national real estate firm, CB Richard Ellis.

Calls placed to the offices of Joseph Kivel's sons, Lee and Foster Kivel, were not returned. Reached in Salt Lake City, partner Bill Papanikolas referred calls to the spokeswoman, Allen.

In a statement, Allen said shoppers and retailers are moving away from indoor malls and showing more preference for outdoor centers.

"El Con must keep current with the demands of retailers and consumers in order to say competitive in the marketplace," she wrote. She also said there are "significantly fewer department store chains today," leaving fewer options for filling El Con's empty spaces.

Ross impact debatable

Some real estate brokers in Tucson said the opening of Ross Dress For Less might make a difference, while others were less certain.

"It's just kind of more validation that the concept is viable," said Craig Finfrock, of Commercial Retail Advisors, about the addition of Ross. But he added: "It's not going to tip the scale."

Reinhart, the real estate development professor and former El Con manager, said malls often have to make hefty improvements and remake themselves as shopping destinations.

"A new successful concept is the mixed-use mall" with features such as office space and hotels in addition to retail and restaurants, he said. "That takes vision and agreement."

Timeline

1959-1960: El Con Mall is built adjacent to the El Conquistador resort hotel on East Broadway. Initially, developers say the El Conquistador will be integrated into the shopping center.

1964-1968: The hotel is closed and demolished.

1975: Park Mall opens three miles away from El Con Mall. The builder was Joseph Kivel, one of the partners in El Con Mall.

1995: Joseph Kivel dies, leaving commercial property, including his El Con Mall stake and Park Mall, to heirs.

1996: Chicago-based General Growth Properties purchases Park Mall from the Kivel family, and later pours millions into renovating the mall.

1999: Century Theatres opens on El Con property. Later the mall also constructs a neighboring food court, but it has yet to attract a single tenant.

2001-2004: Home Depot and Target open on the east side of the mall.

2003: Krispy Kreme opens in a separate building along Broadway.

2006: Krispy Kreme closes.

2005-2007: Restaurants Claim Jumper, Rubio's, Starbucks and In-N-Out Burger open in buildings outside the mall. Radio Shack also moves from the mall's interior to an exterior building. An Office Depot is under construction on the south side of the mall.

October 2007: Discount clothing store Ross Dress For Less is scheduled to open inside the mall.

Sources: Star archives, El Con Mall spokeswoman Susan Allen.

● Contact reporter Christie Smythe at 434-4083 or csmythe@azstarnet.com.