The Sears at Red Bird Mall opened in 1975 and quickly became part of the lifeblood of the community. Residents in southwest Dallas County relied on the big box store for everything from back-to-school clothes to bath towels, lawnmowers to microwaves.
It truly was “where America shopped.”
Fast forward nearly five decades and consumer habits have made a seismic shift. Amazon is a household name. A once-vibrant mall stands mostly vacant. And the Sears shuttered in 2019, one small link in a retail empire chain that is languishing in bankruptcy court.
But out of the empty cinder block, a new tenant – and a national trend – has emerged with the potential to transform the newly reimagined RedBird in ways a retail giant never could in 2022.
This summer, UT Southwestern Medical Center at RedBird will open its doors in the same space that once housed Sears. The 154,000-square-foot outpatient facility will bring nationally ranked cardiology, cancer, and neurology care, as well as other crucial health services, to the doorstep of residents living in Oak Cliff, DeSoto, Duncanville, Cedar Hill, Lancaster, and the surrounding cities.
“UT Southwestern is the premiere medical institution in our community and among the best in the country. Southwest Dallas County is a place that, historically, has not always been provided with the very best of anything,” said Peter Brodsky, the majority owner and one of the visionaries behind Reimagine RedBird, a mixed-use urban development that is attracting restaurants, retail, apartments, and health care services to the former mall space. “Having [UTSW] at RedBird gives us a feeling of great pride. I have no doubt that at UTSW, people will be treated the way they should be treated and, as a result, health outcomes will be improved and lives will be saved.”
The rise of medical malls
RedBird represents UT Southwestern’s first time transforming a former retail space into a regional medical center, but it’s part of a positive trend that has been gathering steam and producing results across the country for the past two decades.
The One Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville, Tennessee, was failing until the Vanderbilt University Medical Center moved in. The Marketplace Mall in Rochester, New York, was revitalized in part because the University of Rochester Medical Center took over a former Sears. According to a national database, more than 32 enclosed malls now house significant health care services.
RedBird will be UT Southwestern’s sixth regional medical center and its largest, providing patients with access to primary care, as well as high-profile specialties such as heart, cancer, and brain care (all three are ranked among the nation’s top 25 programs by U.S. News & World Report). Other key services will include depression and diabetes screenings, a state-of-the-art infusion therapy center, sophisticated imaging such as mammograms, CTs, and MRIs, onsite lab testing, and a full-service pharmacy.
Marc Nivet, Ed.D., UT Southwestern’s Executive Vice President for Institutional Advancement, said integrating the academic medical center's best-in-class health care into the RedBird Mall redevelopment project made sense on many levels.
“Culturally, malls were built to be destinations for the community. They’re centrally located, highly visible, and they have lots of parking – all things we want to deliver for our patients,” Dr. Nivet said. “In RedBird, we recognized an opportunity to expand our footprint in Dallas and to have a vital presence in a community that has traditionally been underserved by the health care industry.”
Escalator out, MRI machine in
Converting a Sears into a top-notch, 21st century medical facility doesn’t come without some challenges, said Keith Taylor, Associate Director of Ambulatory Space Planning for UT Southwestern. For instance, the escalator, which smoothly carried shoppers up from the appliance and electronics section so they could browse in the shoe department, had to go – motor, chains, metal steps, and all.
So did pretty much everything else.
“We removed almost everything between the four walls and essentially took the structure down to the studs,” Taylor said. That included eliminating the garden and automotive centers because UTSW needed only about 150,000 square feet and the Sears had 200,000.
All that space makes the mall anchor an attractive home for a medical facility. But the “big box” structure of Sears lacked one key ingredient for a patient-friendly environment: natural light.
“We ended up looking at three different ways to add natural light into the building,” said Gary Fitzjarrell, Senior Project Manager for Health System Affairs at UTSW, who was part of the team that worked with architecture firm Perkins + Will to create comfortable, empathetic spaces for patients throughout UTSW RedBird. “First, we put as many windows on the outside as we could, and some of the interior walls have what we call ‘clear stories,’ or glass, so you can see more light in the building.
“Finally, we added a courtyard that runs down the middle, separating the building into halves,” added Fitzjarrell. “It’s what we call the bamboo garden, and it should be quite peaceful for our patients.”
Construction crews also made the floors thicker in part of the building’s foundation to accommodate two heavy MRI machines – one that’s already installed and another that will be added next year.
But those few challenges are far outweighed by the benefits of retrofitting an existing structure.
UTSW saved time and money on construction – the project broke ground in October 2020 and will welcome its first patients in summer 2022. The two-story structure has room upstairs for Children’s Health, which is slated to move in next year and combine efforts with the UTSW Pediatric Group.
Reimagine RedBird will also give patients, as well UTSW employees, plenty of nearby options for new shops, restaurants, and entertainment. And for longtime residents, the revitalization of a historic part of their neighborhood should become a point of pride.
RedBird’s location, at the southern gateway to Dallas near U.S. 67 and I-20, is also ideal for UT Southwestern to deliver on its mission of providing access to groundbreaking research and excellence in clinical care closer to home for new and existing patients.
“If we learned anything during the pandemic, it is that access to health care is inequitably distributed in our country, which has a huge impact on health outcomes,” said Mr. Brodsky. “UT Southwestern’s total commitment to providing medical services and a physical space that are second to none in southwest Dallas County sends a clear message to the community that UT Southwestern values it. And I believe that by providing convenient access to this level of health care in this area, it will change lives. And a community.”