Denver, CO

Could Interactive Museums Help Save Denver's Malls?

Brittany Anas

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The Unreal Garden brings an augmented reality experience to Denver.Enklu

By Brittany Anas / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, CO) In Denver’s newest augmented reality gallery, you’ll see interactive holographics and fantastical, fable-like 3-D animals appearing in the air and on the walls. That is if you’re wearing the special headset that comes with the $30 general admission ticket. If not, you’ll see people wandering around in the former Victoria’s Secret space grabbing at the air in an attempt to pick up a carrot and feed it to the rabbit that’s appeared before them.

Presented by mixed reality company Enklu, The Unreal Garden exhibit is an immersive AR experience that set up its gallery space in the Denver Pavilions. It's also part of a trend in Denver that could help save malls as shopping continues to shift online. Still people have an increasing appetite for interactive, Instagram-worthy museums.

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Interact with 3-D, holographic images at The Unreal Garden.Enklu

Malls —as we know them — are endangered. Coresight Research in 2020 predicted that 25 percent of the United States’ malls would close within three to five years, with COVID accelerating the trend. But even before the pandemic, malls faced significant hurdles with the rise of e-commerce and shrinking foot traffic.

One of the main challenges that malls face is the mass departure of anchor tenants, the sprawling department stores that draw in customers and command a lot of square footage.

“Losing an anchor tenant causes a very high vacancy for the malls and could potentially result in shutting down the mall entirely,” says Jigar Shah, partner at Berdon LLP, an accounting and financial advisement firm that represents mall developments and commercial real estate companies around the country.

To stay relevant in the current market, many of the American malls have re-purposed themselves either completely or partially by converting the property into entertainment hubs, experiential retail centers, hotels, co-working spaces, and residential, industrial, and office spaces to attract more people, Shah says. (In the Denver metro, three shopping malls are reducing retail space and adding housing).

At last count, there were 750 anchor vacancies in the United States, according to Deloitte. This has malls rethinking their tenant mix. Sawgrass Mills Mall in Florida added a hotel and, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, CBL Properties replaced a former anchor department store with a casino. Quebec City’s solution for Galeries de la Capitale? An amusement park, complete with a rollercoaster.

But in Denver —and perhaps most noticeably at the 16th Street Mall Pavilions — interactive museums are taking over the spaces retailers have abandoned. The former ground-level space that was once filled by fast-fashion chain Forever 21 is now an interactive showroom for Greely-based monster maker Distortions Unlimited. At Distortions Monsters World, ticketed guests can get an up-close glimpse of Hollywood-quality aliens, vampires, gargoyles and creepy dolls. It’s a haunted house-meets-art gallery kind of place for theater geeks and Halloween enthusiasts alike.

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The Unreal Garden augmented reality gallery takes up a former Victoria's Secret space in the Denver Pavilions.Enklu

Also at the Pavilions, Earth Illuminated is a self-style gallery with neon-lit vignettes. And, over in Cherry Creek, The Friends Experience is inviting the show’s fans to snap photos in set recreations like Joey and Chandler’s apartment, Central Perk and Monica and Rachel’s kitchen.

As malls look to reinvent themselves, though, high inflation and a tight labor market could be cost-prohibitive for owners and developers, Shah says.

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The Central Perk set-up at The Friends ExperienceSuperfly

“What is clear is that the traditional American mall, as well as the retail industry, has likely changed for good, and the current environment is rife with both opportunities and challenges,” he says.

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Brittany is a journalist in the Denver metro area with more than two decades of writing and editing experience. She covers travel, restaurants and other lifestyle topics.

Westminster, CO
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