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2018-06-20 / Featured / Real Estate

Tossing bricks: Dire predictions premature, mall managers say

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


After a slow start, Westchester Commons’ Main Street-style design is gaining traction with shoppers and restaurant-goers. 
JAMES HASKINS After a slow start, Westchester Commons’ Main Street-style design is gaining traction with shoppers and restaurant-goers. JAMES HASKINS If you follow the news, you’ve probably seen headlines foretelling the demise of brick-and-mortar retailers in this increasingly digital age.

In the past year, Sears, J.C. Penney and Macy’s each announced the closing of more than 100 stores. Toys R Us, RadioShack and Sports Authority recently filed for bankruptcy. Analytics firm S&P Global Market Intelligence warns that Sears, Neiman Marcus and J.Crew could be among the next major retailers to go bankrupt.

Put simply, malls and shopping centers are dealing with a different reality than they’ve previously faced, with online sales slowly leeching away their customer base. Robert Gibbs, president of Gibbs Planning Group and author of the book “Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development,” says that of America’s 2,000 suburban malls, some 1,500 will close in the next five years.

The managers of three local shopping centers, however, say it’s not all doom and gloom.

At last week’s “Recipe for Success” luncheon, hosted by the Greater Southport Business Association, representatives of Chesterfield Towne Center, Westchester Commons and Stony Point Fashion Park protested mightily the notion that brick-and-mortar retail is dead.

“I won’t say the word, but it’s bull,” said Westchester Commons’ Mark A. Bowen, allowing those assembled at the lunch, held at Midlothian’s Four Points by Sheraton hotel, to fill in the rest.

In a world where seemingly any good can be purchased online, the three managers stressed the importance of malls and shopping centers evolving past their traditional roles. Across the country, many malls and shopping centers are adding new entertainment and dining amenities, apartments and gyms to attract customers.

“Consumers are becoming better educated, and they’re expecting more,” said Vincent Mistretta, general manager for Stony Point Fashion Park, located just outside of Chesterfield in Richmond. “They want higher-end restaurants, and they want to be able to go to the mall and have an experience.”

Built in 2003 by Taubman Centers Inc. with luxury retailers in mind, Stony Point has historically had a hard time gaining traction with consumers. Purchased by Starwood Retail Partners four years ago, the open-air shopping center is currently undergoing a $50 million renovation to appeal to a broader range of customers.

Mistretta explained that part of Stony Point’s current business approach is to mix in more services instead of relying solely on retailers. Though he couldn’t discuss them, Mistretta says Stony Point has new, fully executed leases with health and fitness companies. Ravenchase Adventures, which owns Escape Room RVA, will soon open an escape room facility called Gnome & Raven at the center.

Emphasizing the goal of being “the center of the community,” Stony Point also provides free spaces for nonprofits and charities, and is working to build an 18,000-square-foot indoor space as part of its renovation.

“We want to be able to retain our customers when the weather doesn’t cooperate, like it did this spring,” Mistretta said. Two new restaurants will also open soon at Stony Point: Latitude Seafood and a sit-down Mexican restaurant.

Bryon Wall, general manager of Chesterfield Towne Center, gave a brief overview of his mall’s recent history, including its 2016 purchase by Brookfield Properties. Since 2013, the mall has added a number of retailers, including H&M, Kirklands, BoxLunch, Shoe City and White Barn. The mall, which opened in 1975, has managed to survive more than four decades of economic swings and shifts.

While acknowledging that some consumers are now making more purchases online, Wall said that online purchases picked up at most traditional stores are still credited to the physical location.

“Even though you’re not purchasing directly from the store, the store is still benefitting,” he said.

While the mall does include a Sears – one of the stores S&P Global Market Intelligence warns could default on their debt – Wall said that the Chesterfield location was one of the company’s top performers.

Upcoming tenants include Sketchers (at an adjacent outparcel), Earthbound Trading Co., as well as two new restaurants, Shrimp Shack and Casa del Barco. The restaurants are the handiwork of Kevin Healy, owner of The Boathouse locations and Casa del Barco in Richmond, and are expected to open March of 2019.

For Westchester Commons, Bowen explained they’ve tried to become a “community center” by hosting events such as the Westchester Shamrock 5K and Kid’s 1K Fun Run, National Night Out and live music concerts.

Bowen, marketing and operations manager for Westchester, said that planned apartments nearby will bring both millennials and empty nesters to shop at the center. He also mentioned the recent addition of new tenants as a sign of the shopping center’s health: on July 9, Your Pie, a chain that specializes in custom-made pizzas, will open a location at Westchester, which also recently scored a new Asian fusion restaurant, Ocean Blue. Bowen says Ocean Blue will have the largest sake selection in Central Virginia. Furthermore, Bowen said Westchester had inked a new deal with a national retailer that he couldn’t yet name.

Though it’s been in business nine years, Bowen inferred that Westchester Commons was still just getting started.

“We’re still the new kid on the block,” Bowen said. “People are discovering us every day.” ¦

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