As you rush around the mall this weekend, crossing off those last-minute gifts from your list, make sure to pause for a moment and soak in the sights. Look around. It might not be this way for much longer.
Changes are coming to indoor malls at a pace that sure seems unprecedented these days.
Consider what happened within a 24-hour period this past week in Massachusetts: Cambridge’s city council approved new zoning for a massive expansion of CambridgeSide, but one focused on housing and offices. In Hanover, the South Shore town’s planning board handed out permission to convert the Hanover Mall into an open-air shopping center with nearly 300 apartments. And in Worcester, Boston developer Finard Properties announced its acquisition of the struggling Greendale Mall for redevelopment.
The threats to brick-and-mortar retail have never been more real, with Amazon’s ascent into omnipresence. (Side note: New figures out Friday show that the retail sector in Massachusetts shed some 5,300 jobs in the past year, a loss of 1.5 percent, during this booming economy.) Indoor malls represent a particularly troubled part of the shopping world. In the 1970s and 1980s, they were goliaths arriving to stomp on nearby downtown districts. But along came big-box stores, lifestyle centers, the Great Recession . . . Jeff Bezos.
The mall vacancy rate in the Boston metro area remains strong, under 5 percent, according to real estate tracker CoStar Group. But landlords have been forced to rethink their tenant mix in the face of these threats, particularly as once reliable anchors such as Sears and JCPenney retrenched. Even A-list properties, such as Burlington and Northshore, were not immune; Simon Property Group is remaking the old Sears in Burlington into a lifestyle center populated by smaller tenants, and putting a Life Time Fitness where the Sears once stood in Peabody.
Bring on the entertainment, the trampolines and bowling alleys. Bring on the gyms, all those rows of humming treadmills and spin bikes. They’ll even be growing marijuana at the Eastfield Mall, in Springfield.
Then there are bigger changes afoot at other malls, the kind that bring down exterior walls and strip away roofs. The Great De-Malling is under way. Of the three projects advancing this week, only the one in Cambridge has definitive plans to keep at least some of its common space enclosed.
However, New England Development has already walled off the third floor of CambridgeSide, kicking out the shops and building out offices. Now, the developer has the green light for a decade’s worth of construction, adding nearly 600,000 square feet over time of offices, labs, and residences — as well as new shops and restaurants that open onto the street.
But the existing Hanover Mall, acquired by PREP Property Group in 2016, will give way to open sky. Macy’s will remain, as will several outbuildings, although nearly everything else will change by the time Hanover Crossing comes into fruition two years from now. (Another side note: The developer of the four-story apartment section is Hanover Co. out of Houston, named after the New Hampshire town, not the Massachusetts one.) Demolition begins in February.
And in Worcester, Todd Finard says he’s keeping an open mind going into the Greendale project. (His firm spent $7.1 million on the nearly 22-acre property.) The mall’s largest remaining store is a still-thriving T.J.Maxx, after a Best Buy closed in November.
Finard doesn’t know yet whether all of the mall will definitively come down. But it’s easy to picture Greendale going the way of the Hanover project — or maybe the Woburn Mall or the Arsenal Mall in Watertown. Those malls are essentially being blown apart and made into something totally new. The Watertown complex, renamed Arsenal Yards, will even feature biotech labs by the time its metamorphosis is complete.
Whatever happens at Greendale will still feature retail. (T.J.Maxx remains seemingly impervious to the Internet threat.) But Finard will also consider offices or apartments, with a goal of presenting plans to the city in the second half of 2020. His decision to buy the mall was driven by his belief in Worcester’s economic future, as a long-awaited renaissance seems to finally take hold. Like so many developers, Finard hopes a new economic model will rise, out of the rubble of an old one.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.