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Longmeadow Facility Continues to Grow and Evolve

Shop Class

Steve Walker

Steve Walker says the recently completed expansion at the Longmeadow Shops is an example of ongoing evolution at this retail destination.

The Longmeadow Shops recently completed an ambitious 21,000-square-foot expansion project, continuing a process of growth and evolution that has been ongoing for more than half a century.

Steve Walker says that, almost from the start, the Longmeadow Shops has had the location, the access, and a solid mix of retail that attracts both visitors and, well, more retail.

The ‘almost’ is because Interstate 91, or at least the Massachusetts portion of it, had not been completed by the time the shopping plaza, created at the east end of Bliss Road near the East Longmeadow line by Friendly’s co-founder S. Prestley Blake, opened its doors in 1963.

But even then, the location was still ideal, said Walker, partner and regional property manager for Grove Property Fund, LLC, current owner of what he called “a special piece of real estate.” That’s because the shopping complex is nestled in one of the region’s most affluent communities, sits less than a mile from the Connecticut border, and is a short ride from several other affluent suburbs, including East Longmeadow, Hampden, and Wilbraham.

I-91 simply made it more accessible, and therefore even more attractive, to a variety of retailers that are local, regional, and national in nature.

But the times have certainly changed since 1963, and the shops have changed right along with them, said Walker, citing, as examples, everything from the coming and going of Blockbuster Video to the eventual exodus of Friendly’s itself, to the demise of the Steiger’s chain of department stores, one of which was the anchor of the shops and left a gaping hole to be filled when it closed in 1994, coincidentally just a few days after Grove acquired the property.

“We got a letter two weeks after we bought the property informing us that Steiger’s was leaving,” he explained, adding that the roughly 20,000 square feet of space left vacant by Steiger’s, and other spots within the complex, have been filled in over the years, and in ways that reflect societal and retail changes.

Elaborating, he referenced developments such as gourmet coffee outlets (represented by Starbucks), specialty retail (as evidenced by several recent arrivals), and even the rise of the gourmet hamburger (embodied by the coming of Max Burger).

And the process of evolution continues today, Walker noted, citing, as exhibit A, the rise of pharmacy chains and the changing, growing needs of such enterprises.

Indeed, it was CVS’s dire need for more and better space (complete with a drive-up window and easier access) that gave rise to a recently completed, 21,000-square-foot addition to the plaza and expansion and redesign of its parking lot, said Walker.

Constructed after Grove eventually received the needed support for a zoning modification from residents at a town meeting (the process took a while), the expansion, at the east end of the property, welcomed its first tenant, J. Crew Mercantile, in late January. Verizon Wireless opened its facility just a few days ago, and CVS is expected to open its new doors on March 12, said Walker.

“It’s been a fun journey … it’s really rewarding to see our improved shopping center taking shape,” he said of the expansion effort, put on the drawing board in 2014, adding quickly that, while that project is nearing completion, the broader journey involving a constantly changing retail landscape continues.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Longmeadow Shops, the center’s evolutionary process, and how it is still ongoing.

More in Store

You might call it multi-tasking.

That’s certainly what Walker was doing as he left his office at the far west end of the shops for the walk — maybe a quarter-mile or so — to the addition at the other side.

He was getting some exercise (or more of it, to be exact; he’d already made this trek two or three times earlier in the day), posing (eventually) for some photos, giving a tour, serving up a chronology of the shops, and offering a tutorial of sorts on how retail has changed and the shops reflect those changes.

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He started by pointing to Max Burger, created partially out of the old Blockbuster Video and what once was a small courtyard/garden at the shops. He cited that business as an example of an emerging trend in retail (the aforementioned gourmet burger), as well as a growing regional chain (Connecticut-based Max’s), a business that scouted several area locations before deciding the Longmeadow Shops was where the search would end, and a tenant that the shops would work to accommodate.

“We took out the garden area and put in a 1,500-square-foot addition because they needed more space than we had available at the time,” he explained, adding that there was a major expansion (roughly 12,000 square feet) to the shops in the ’70s, and several minor ones in the decades since.

The multi-tasking, and especially the lessons in the history of the shops and the evolution of retail, would continue as Walker passed the storefronts and occasionally stopped ever-so-briefly to make some points.

He did so at the former Steiger’s footprint to show how it was filled with the Gap and Gap Kids, Ann Taylor, and other shops; at Delaney’s Market, to point out another of the more recent arrivals, a store created by the owners of the Delaney House restaurant to provide high-quality meals to go; at Oksana Salon & Spa to show how there are many locally owned ventures at the shops; and at Starbucks to show how the arrival of one retailer can create momentum and attract other tenants.

“We had a CVS and a Blockbuster, and that caught the attenntion of Starbucks,” he explained. “And once we had a Starbucks, we attracted interest from the Gap, and when we got the Gap here … Ann Taylor and Chico’s would follow the Gap around.

“It’s like a domino effect — these national retailers tend to follow one another,” he went on. “And the goal from the start was to get the best local, regional, and national tenants we could find.”

Dialogue continued at the storefront that will soon house Great Harvest, a bread bakery and sandwich shop, to show that there is nearly constant change at the facility; and at the current CVS, to explain, well, why there will be a new CVS.

“We recognized that this was a busy shopping center and there were some parking issues, because of the way the lot was laid out,” he explained. We approached CVS, and there was interest from them; CVS is a very busy tenant, and they draw a lot of foot traffic, so you want them at the end of the shopping center. And they were undersized, and a community like Longmeadow should have a first-rate CVS pharmacy.”

It will get one with the new, 13,000-square-foot facility, which will nearly double the size of the current store.

Walker said the expansion of the shops was considered both a necessary step and solid investment for Grove, which owns retail properties — many of them similar in scope and even look to the Longmeadow Shops — in several states, as well as a number of industrial holdings as well.

The retail portfolio includes Old Towne Village in Charlotte, N.C.; the Wharf Building and the Corner Block, both in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard; Portside Center and Bowman Place in Mount Pleasant, S.C.; Drake Hill Mall in Simsbury, Conn.; and what would be considered an outlier — the Powder Horn Building in Bozeman, Mont.

There are pictures of many of those facilities on the walls of the Grove office in the Longmeadow Shops, which is considered one of the jewels in the portfolio, said Walker, because of its location, consistently high occupancy rate, and steady demand for the spaces that do become available.

This is evidenced by the fact that there is already considerable interest in the existing CVS space, which will likely be subdivided into two spaces.

“I’m waiting to hear back from a national retailer on 5,200 square feet of it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t expect any of that space to be vacant for very long, even as Grove searches not just for a tenant, but one that will help create an even better mix.

Space Exploration

As he walked back to his office, thus getting still more exercise, Walker said the owners of the Longmeadow Shops have now filled out all the land available to them.

But the process of evolution and change within that footprint will continue unabated, he said, because society and retail are always changing, as anyone who has ever been in a Blockbuster Video can attest.

It has been this way since 1963, when S. Prestley Blake had a vision, he said, and it continues to this day, because now, as then, this is a truly special piece of real estate.

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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