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by Hui-yong Yu

Vacancies at U.S. malls and shopping centers rose to their highest in more than 10 years as consumer spending fell and stores closed in the recession, according to first-quarter data released today by Reis Inc.

More empty stores and lower rents are ahead “unless conditions change dramatically,” said Victor Calanog, director of research at the New York-based real estate research firm. He forecast the declines would last through next year.

“This outlook assumes positive job growth and an increase in consumer spending beginning in early 2010,” Calanog said in a statement.

More than a dozen retailers, including Circuit City Stores Inc., Linens ‘n Things Inc. and Sharper Image Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008 as the credit squeeze and recession hurt sales. Confidence among U.S. consumers stayed near a record low last month and a survey of purchasing managers showed business deteriorated further.

Retail vacancies at shopping centers were the highest since Reis began publishing quarterly data in 1999 and reflected a net decrease in occupied space of 8.7 million square feet, the biggest drop for a single quarter and more than the 8.65 million square feet given back during all of 2008.

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