General Growth, which owns more than 200 malls including Faneuil Hall in Boston and the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, said shoppers at its malls will not be affected by its bankruptcy filing.
The company operates four malls in the Atlanta area - Cumberland, North Point, Perimeter and Southlake.
The Chicago-based company is paying the price for its aggressive expansion at the height of the real estate boom. General Growth, like many homeowners during the frenzy, bought several properties at top dollar and now is finding lenders unwilling to refinance.
The real estate crisis has been slow to affect the market for retail, hotels and office buildings. But the delinquency rate for commercial loans, while still relatively low, is creeping up and could deepen the economic recession.
"While we have worked tirelessly in the past several months to address our maturing debts, the collapse of the credit markets has made it impossible for us to refinance maturing debt outside of Chapter 11," Chief Executive Adam Metz said in a statement.
The news sent the real estate investment trust's stock down 16 cents, or 15 percent, to 89 cents in midmorning trading. The stock traded last spring as high as $44.23.
The move by the General Growth had been widely anticipated since the fall, when the company warned it might have to seek bankruptcy protection if it didn't get lenders to rework its debt terms. Efforts to negotiate with its creditors ultimately fell short late last month.
Chapter 11 protection typically allows a company to hold off creditors and operate as normal while it develops a financial reorganization plan.
The company had about $29.6 billion in assets at the end of the year, according to documents filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York.
The company noted that some subsidiaries, including its third party management business and joint ventures, were not part of the bankruptcy petition.
General Growth said it intends to reorganize with the aim of cutting its corporate debt and extending the terms of its mortgage maturities. The company has a financing commitment from Pershing Square Capital Management of about $375 million to use to operate during the bankruptcy process.
Last month, General Growth said it got lenders to waive default on a $2.58 billion credit agreement until the end of the year.
But its Rouse Co. subsidiary failed to convince enough holders of unsecured notes worth $2.25 billion as of Dec. 31 to accept a proposal that would let the unit avoid penalties for being behind on its debt payments and give it some time to refinance its debt load.
In February, the company reported lower-than-expected fourth-quarter funds from operations and a dip in revenue amid weaker retail rents.
The company has suspended its dividend, halted or slowed nearly all development projects and cut its work force by more than 20 percent. It also has sold some of its non-mall assets.