Malls bring a vibrant center to many towns — new restaurants, specialty shops and something for people to do on weekends or to swing by for convenience. But when a mall goes south and becomes abandoned, it’s not only an eyesore, it’s also an economic trap for cities. That’s where Christopher Carrerio sees a huge opportunity.
A Swansea, Mass., selectman, Carreiro watched as his city’s mall went from being a bustling epicenter of town to a largely abandoned shell of what it used to be.
“We have a mall here that’s been rapidly deteriorating for the last decade,” he said. “After one of our largest anchor stores closed, they were never able to find another tenant. We’re in danger of that happening again with the Sears store location now and I don’t want to see that.”
With the deteriorating space in the back of his mind, Carreiro started brainstorming on some other town projects that needed attention. Then, the Sears branch located in the mall announced it would be closing in April of this year. That’s when it clicked.
“We have some huge municipal capital needs that the city needs to get taken care of, and at the same time, we have this mall that’s just sitting there,” he said.
Carreiro started putting together a proposal that sounded crazy — using the abandoned space in the mall to fulfill the city’s capital needs.
Swansea’s municipal affairs are currently operating out of two town hall facilities, as the division had grown too large to be housed in one. The highway department is in great need of a new garage for its vehicles, and the local animal shelter has been on the hunt for a new location for a while. Not to mention, Swansea has very little recreational space for citizens, and lacks ample storage for municipal supplies.
In Carreiro’s proposal, each of these concerns is addressed.
The abandoned Sears store in Swansea mall leaves more than 100,000 square feet of space unoccupied. According to Carreiro’s estimate, this would be more than enough room for all of the city’s needs, with room to expand in the future.
“We could buy the building,” he said. “Sears already has a fully operational car facility, so that’s a plug-and-play for the highway department. The store has an open floor plan, so we’d be able to do a minimal buildout to create office space for our town hall needs, and we could dedicate between 20,000 and 30,000 square feet to storage alone. There’s also a portion of the building that’s detached that could serve as the new animal shelter.”
In addition to being convenient, the proposal would save the city major dollars in the long run.
According to Carreiro, the municipal needs for Swansea would total nearly $12 million if they were to build new facilities. His proposal would eliminate that cost and expedite the time it would take to make those changes.
“Cost is definitely a driving factor here,” he said. “Think of the millions of dollars this would save taxpayers if we did this. If the municipality wanted to build new construction, it’d cost about $550 per square foot, multiplied by the 10,000 square feet minimum we’d need. This facility is already there and, at 100,000 square feet, is plenty large.”
While Carreiro’s idea might seem off the wall, it’s not totally unheard of.
The Alton Square Mall in Alton, Ill., faced similar problems with anchor stores failing to thrive.
In an effort to avoid storefronts sitting abandoned, the city constructed the Hayner Public Library in Alton Square Mall. Still surrounded by other shops as well as eateries, the library has brought new life to an otherwise deteriorating space.
According to a March article in The Telegraph, Alton’s local newspaper, additional plans are being made for the mall, including a major renovation from the traditional mall concept to an enclosed mall, featuring smaller, up-and-coming stores. The proposal also features the construction of a movie theater, the demolition of the former Macy’s building and the relocation of small stores on the top floor to ground level.
John Mulherin, vice president of Government Relations for Hull Property Group, which is handling the construction, said this project has been a long time coming, but uncertainty about the future of the mall’s anchor stores has slowed progress.
“You aren’t very stable when you don’t have an understanding where you are,” Mulherin said in an interview with The Telegraph. “We now have a little more clarity.”
The Alton Square Mall lost Macy’s, leaving 135,000 square feet of abandoned space. That space, which isn’t easily filled, would not only be an eyesore but also compromise the integrity of the mall itself.
“(The store) can remain empty, and then it is an empty appendage on an otherwise full mall,” Mulherin said. “It could cast a negative pall on the rest of what is being successful.”
Abandoned malls aren’t a problem unique to Swansea and Alton, either. In fact, abandoned malls across the nation and what’s being done with them are tracked by websites like deadmalls.com, which follows the death and “rebirth” of thousands of former mall spaces.
But sometimes, it’s best to take a shot in the dark and see what happens.
“Unconventional is the way to go,” Carreiro said. “You’ve got to think outside of the box and see what would work for your city. Although nothing has been set in motion yet, we’ve received a lot of positive feedback on our proposal, and I’m looking forward to revitalizing the center of town once again.”