The Fall of the Mall

Once a shopping mecca, Omni International has gone from bustling to busted

Perhaps no one is feeling more lost at the Omni these days than Victoria Tang, the 54-year-old owner of Oriental Gifts, a shop near the carousel which specializes in Chinese and Japanese imports. When you enter her store a motion detector triggers a recorded message that welcomes you. Recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Tang says she probably has only six months to live. This may be her last Christmas. What will she be doing? Packing. She is hustling to move merchandise to her husband's shop, Oriental Imports, west of Miami International Airport. "I feel pain inside," says Tang, who can communicate in seven languages. She notes business began really slowing down only in the past three or four years. "Before people from South America spent up to $1000 here," Tang explains. "Now they have problems themselves. They don't come so much."

A few doors down at The Stockroom, a women's clothing store, employee Eneida Muñoz is awaiting customers. "I don't know where I will go when this closes," says the Hialeah resident, who has worked in the shop for the last two years. "I don't speak English." A rare customer walks in and the interview is cut short.

Although most shops are gone, some of the signs remain: Electronic Boutique and Amigo Toys, for example. But beyond the locked gates there is the look of an abrupt exit. In one store a red ladder rises into the ceiling behind a cash-register counter. Wires, bolts, and brackets protrude from spaces where other placards once hung. Radio Shack, located on the first level near the north stairwell, is brightly lit. The store's red-neon R buzzes constantly and loudly. Lights, computers, and television screens are on. Boxes of remote control Intruder trucks are piled on the dark, debris-strewn carpet. But there are no clerks and the storefront gate is down.

Up the stairs to the right is Great Expectations hair salon. A stylist who identifies himself as Kenny, casually dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, snips away at the hair of Robert Trinka, an insurance broker. Trinka is six feet, five inches tall. Since J.C. Penney moved out, he has gone elsewhere to find the tall-man's sizes he needs. For the resident of North Bay Village, who is employed downtown, there was no more convenient stop than the Omni. Now Trinka must fight traffic to get to Dadeland or trek north to Aventura. Trinka has a five-year-old daughter, whom he used to bring to the mall on weekends. He would get a haircut, buy her an outfit, and take her on the merry-go-round. His little girl was a big fan of the horses and the pictures of sky and fauna. "I might be the last customer," quips Trinka as Kenny grooms his sideburns with electronic clippers. "Maybe I'm supposed to get something; maybe I get to turn out the lights." Adds Kenny: "I hate, really hate [Continental Real Estate Cos.] for what they did to the mall. The people try to make a living and they don't care. They just close 'cause that's better for them."

Mall manager Peter Marrero says Continental executives have instructed him not to discuss the shopping center. Warren Weiser, Continental's chairman, declined to discuss the mall until the spring of 2000. What will become of it? A new mall would not be the best use of the property, comments Norah Schaefer, a prominent realtor. "Where are the shoppers? That's the problem with it. A demographic study should have been done in that area before it went up." She believes owners should rent or sell it for alternative uses. "A television production company might be good," Schaefer says. "Or maybe some of the space could be used for a nightclub."

Now it's closing time. From the height of the balcony a lone clerk at Lerner is visible below. She bends down, inserts a key into a spot on the lower wall, and the shop's gate rolls down. The view of sky through a large, slanted wall of glass includes exactly the same colors as the Omni carousel. Violet-blue open sky bathed in pinks, lavenders and blues, and trimmings of gold.

victor.cruz@miaminewtimes.com

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