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Finding a future for Waterford's Crystal Mall

A 2020 report by the National Association of Realtors reveals various case studies about what might be done with former mall properties, those temples to suburban retail consumerism that have fallen victim to changing buying habits in the era of Amazon.

Some attempts have been successful, some not, others remain fanciful but as yet unfulfilled.

In the Nashville neighborhood of Antioch, for example, the former Hickory Hollow Mall was supposed to be repurposed as a skating rink, community college campus and library. But in late 2019 the whole deal collapsed. Recently a new owner stepped in but has not announced plans.

In Denver, the Cinderella City Mall was demolished and redeveloped for a mix of uses including housing, government offices, a light rail station and an art museum. Plans for other empty big-box stores and malls throughout the U.S. have included repurposing as vertical farm sites, churches, charter schools and corporate headquarters.

Closer to home, the Worcester Center Galleria in Massachusetts was redeveloped, via a public-private partnership, for a mix of uses that include residential, retail, office, hotel and medical.

There can be new life for empty, or rapidly emptying, malls. But converting lifeless shopping centers requires local officials to have a solid, sensible vision, sound planning, creative thinking, and developers who are willing to invest in the plan. Ideally, such planning should take place long before the shoppers and retail jobs fully disappear or go into steep decline.

Waterford is facing the possibility of losing what was not long ago a regional retailing powerhouse and huge contributor to the town’s tax rolls. Down to a single anchor store from the four on which its business model was designed, the future of Crystal Mall is uncertain at best.

With revenues from the mall unable to support loan obligations, owner Simon Property Group is transferring the title of the mall back to the commercial mortgage trust that provided it a $95 million loan in 2012.

The mall’s long downward slide didn’t begin only recently. The proverbial writing has been on the wall for years for Crystal Mall and other bricks and mortar retail centers. Opened to much fanfare in 1984, long before the internet and online shopping existed, Crystal Mall once was anchored by the retail giants of Sears, JC Penney, Macy’s and Filene’s. Shoppers filled its parking lots and crowded its stores and restaurants.

As the retail landscape changed, Filene’s was the first anchor to leave. In 2018, Sears turned out its lights. Macy’s recently announced it would be closing. Though still standing, JC Penney has for years been in financial trouble. Many of the smaller retail spaces in the mall also stand vacant, along with restaurant space in its food court.

The COVID-19 pandemic that temporarily shuttered the mall was a last financial straw. Bricks and mortar shopping already was in steep decline before the pandemic, and COVID-19 only accelerated the exodus to online retail. Coresight Research, a global firm that analyzes retail and consumer trends, now predicts a quarter of all retail malls in the U.S. will close in the next five years. That may prove optimistic.

Dealing with vacant retail space is hardly a new phenomenon for local officials. Many once-thriving downtown retail centers still have not recovered from retail moves to the suburban malls. Older strip shopping centers such as those along Groton’s Long Hill Road have an abundance of shuttered storefronts.

Lessons can be learned from these earlier experiences. Creative thinking and planning for repurposing vacant retail space should begin when market trends warn that the free-market landscape is changing, and long before windows are boarded up and lights shut off.

For the sake of Waterford and the region, we urge local officials to dig into the task of planning for a repurposed Crystal Mall. Some form of incentives may be necessary to encourage reuse.

The 2020 National Association of Realtors Study points to “the vital role of the local (state, county or city) government in leading the repurposing effort to bring back economic activity” and the importance of “public support through infrastructure, financial incentives and streamlining the process for investors."

Even if a new owner keeps the mall open as a retail center, it’s not likely shoppers will return there in the numbers they once did. Creative repurposing of the mall would be a better financial option than a lackluster, struggling retail center.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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