WATERFORD — With the future of shopping malls uncertain, town officials are considering what the next stage of the Crystal Mall’s property could be if it closed.
Abby Piersall, Waterford’s planning director, said the mall is a “property in limbo.”
“There’s been some shifts in investment priorities and commitments from Simon (Property Group),” she said of the owners. “As we look at vacancies and anchor stores moving and those kinds of things, there’s still viable businesses in there and folks who are doing well.”
Simon Property Group, the company that owns most of the property at the mall, recently announced plans to turn its lease back over to its lender. Representatives of the company did not respond to requests for comment.
“In the context of where retail is going throughout the country, plus the recent news we heard about corporate plans, we have a challenge on our hands — as a community, as partners with those businesses — to say, ‘How do we look at those businesses for the future,’” Piersall said. “Where should it be in 5, 10, 15 years?”
Since opening in 1984, the mall has included the anchor stores Filene’s, J.C. Penny, Macy’s and Sears, among others. Filene’s closed in 2006 and Sears followed in 2019. And in January, Macy’s announced it’s closing in Waterford.
The Crystal Mall’s last remaining anchor store is J.C. Penny, which has been closing stores for years.
A stroll through the mall shows many smaller stores have also closed. The mall’s management did not respond to Hearst Connecticut Media’s requests about the vacancies.
“That’s usually a sign that something is on the horizon, or it’s a struggle to fill those spaces,” Piersall said.
Waterford First Selectman Bob Brule said the town is “100 percent” behind the shareholders of the property.
“We’ve been proactive,” he said. “We’ve been proactive in reaching out to the owner of Sear’s — Seritage. We’ve been proactive in reaching out to Simon, and the bank, continually, and our regional partners.”
But Brule said the town also needs to consider a plan for the future without the mall.
“We also need to ensure that our future is bright. That we are being proactive and are thinking ahead,” he said. “While all the while never forgetting that these are Waterford businesses — that we are going to give them 100 percent support, as much as we can.”
Piersall said the town and its partners have been working toward a feasibility analysis for the mall. She said the application seeking a grant for the analysis will be submitted to the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
“What it’s intended to do is provide a sense of what the community would best support, how one might get there in terms of development opportunities and what the path to get that implemented might be,” she said. “Also, looking at a marketing strategy and ways to partner with whoever is taking the property to the next level.”
To receive the grant, Piersall said, the town needs matching funds in place. She said the appropriation has cleared the Board of Finance and went before the Representative Town Meeting this week.
As a town, Piersall said, Waterford needs to compile information about the property such as land use processes and legal background. The information will help potential developers understand what types of uses are of interest to locals.
“To really say, ‘We understand that it might not be a strictly retail environment in the future’ and, as we go forward, ‘what are the right mixes for our town, for the region,” she said. “We want to make sure that it continues to be so and grows in the future.”
Brule said it’s an opportunity to be “creative” in determining what purpose the mall property can serve in the future.
Piersall said other Waterford developments like Hartford HealthCare and United Way coming to town have helped to offset possible losses in mall tax revenue.
“Those are sort of offsetting some of the potential loss,” she said. “It’s not as if we’re sitting still waiting for the mall to close. The entire town is rising together and, while we’re all rising, we’re putting this other set of tools in place to help the mall continue to be a major pillar of that equation.”
Brule said the process is complicated due to the many landlords involved in the mall property.
“There are actually parcels of land that are owned by completely different entities,” Piersall said. “They have cross-agreements in easements and other elements ... whether its energy, or parking or travel. There’s a huge, huge complexity in how it all comes together. It’s not like Simon owns an entire parcel and Macy’s leases a space.”
Piersall said redevelopment is possible, but will take a lot of legal agreements to make it happen.
Brule said that is why Piersall has been working to get all the landlords and stakeholders at the table.
“So we can have these next-level conversations about how we can help organize and choreograph all of this,” he said. “We’re going to continue to answer the phone when the developers call. We’re going to continue to make the zoning regulations as clear and as business friendly we can under the law and under our ordinances.”
“There’s been a great deal of thought into this,” he said. “We are not going to be sitting there reacting to something.”