Business & Tech

Downfall of Sears may boost a major development project at CambridgeSide

The Sears at the CambridgeSide mall is among the many stores the troubled retailer is closing.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The Sears at the CambridgeSide mall is among the many stores the troubled retailer is closing.

The Sears in East Cambridge will soon close. But while its demise marks the end of an era, the closing also means something new may rise in its place.

The fading retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday and marked another 142 Sears and Kmart stores for closing by early next year, including the Sears at the Natick Mall.

Not on Monday’s list, but also scheduled to be shuttered, is the Sears at CambridgeSide. It has anchored down a key chunk of First Street in East Cambridge since the mall opened in 1990. Signs for a going-out-of-business sale began appearing in the store’s windows last week, and a CambridgeSide spokeswoman said it is set to close in December.

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That move could help boost an even larger project that CambridgeSide owner New England Development has been planning in recent months. It includes office space and housing along First Street, where the Sears and the mall’s massive garage now stand.

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Details of the project are still fuzzy. But in recent weeks New England Development executives have met with neighborhood groups and city officials to pitch new buildings, perhaps as tall as 175 feet, that would open up the western side of the mall — now a wall of brick and concrete — and add a substantial amount of new office space and housing.

A New England Development spokeswoman said more specific plans will be finalized in the next few weeks, but that the closing of the longtime anchor highlights the need for the company to think creatively about what a mall will look like in the decades to come.

“The Sears closing reinforces the need to reinvigorate and reinvent what CambridgeSide can be and provides us with a great opportunity to plan for the retail project of the future,” spokeswoman Deborah Black said in an e-mail. “And the future of retail is a mix of uses.”

The plan, Black said, will probably include fitness, retail, housing and office space. That last piece is especially valuable in a part of the region where life sciences and technology companies have been growing rapidly. The blocks around CambridgeSide, from Binney Street on the south to Cambridge Crossing north of the nearby Lechmere Green Line Station, have lately sprouted a wave of office buildings that fetch some of the priciest rents on the East Coast.

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City officials expect office space as part of the project, but will push for housing as well, and better connections between the massive site and the banks of the Charles River, said Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development. The site will likely need to be rezoned, a process that will spark months of debate, she predicted.

“Once a project like this gets to the City Council, there is almost always a lot of discussion about what’s the best mix of uses,” Farooq said. “Our key is to make sure that whatever outcome we get is something that’s advancing the city’s goals.”

Mall owners have grown increasingly creative in recent years as old-line anchors such as Sears, Macy’s, and JC Penney have closed stores at a rapid clip. For instance, the new owners of the Hanover Mall are planning a dramatic makeover that could include nearly 300 apartments. Brookfield Properties, which owns Natick Mall, replaced a closed JC Penney with a giant Wegmans supermarket.

Brookfield now will have to find a new use for Natick’s Sears, but when the retailer downsized its Natick Mall store by about one-third earlier this year, restaurant chain Dave & Buster’s quickly filled the void.

Monday’s bankruptcy filing was the latest step in a long slide for the once-storied retailer, which has been overtaken both by online retailers and more nimble brick-and-mortar competitors. The closings announced Monday will bring Sears down to about 700 Sears and Kmart locations, from more than 4,000 in 2012. And the company also has sold off a string of valuable assets, such as its Craftsman tool line, to stay afloat.

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One of those assets is the CambridgeSide store itself. Sears sold the 120,000-square-foot building last year to Northwood Investors, a Denver-based real estate firm, for $55 million. The store is owned separately from the mall, but Black said Northwood is working closely with New England Development on the redevelopment plans.

When it sold, Sears also signed a deal to lease the store back, until September 2019, according to Middlesex County property records. That date, it turns out, was overly optimistic.

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com.