Since the collapse of retail began in earnest a decade or more ago, the future of the Eastfield Mall in Springfield has always been shrouded by question marks. They certainly remain today, but some recent COVID-related events — creation of a vaccination site and moving of jury trials to theaters in the malls — have certainly changed the landscape at the facility on Boston Road, while providing more proof of just what’s possible there: almost anything.
By George O’Brien
The latest map of the property at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield tells an intriguing story about just how that property is emerging — and will continue to evolve in the months and years to come.
Indeed, now positioned in the center of the huge space that connotes where several cinemas once operated is the logo for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court System, which will soon conduct jury trials in several of those theaters. Meanwhile, in the massive, 125,000-square-foot space that was a Macy’s store, there’s a logo for the Curative COVID-19 vaccine site now operating there, as well as the logo for Diem Cannabis, which hopes to soon operate a cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution facility at that site. And in the former Sears site, now owned by Eastern Retail Properties, there is the promise of additional retail development, the scope and nature of which is not yet known.
“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will.”
These logos and the operations behind them show how the mall’s owners have been aggressively, and imaginatively, seeking and often finding new uses for huge retail spaces at a time when retail is retrenching — to put it mildly. They also show how the mall has benefited from good luck and some unanticipated twists and turns — many of them COVID-related, at a time when COVID has made retail a very challenging proposition. Still.
“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will,” said Dave Thompson, property manager at the mall. “But we’re a pretty creative bunch here, so we’ve been able to do that; in fact, we have a waiting list for in-line tenant spaces — we’re 100% full.”
Overall, the mall is in the midst of a massive, 10-year (at least) redevelopment plan that will dramatically alter the look and feel of the landmark — yes, it can be called that — that opened in the mid-’60s to considerable fanfare. The rebranded property, to be called Eastfield Commons, will include a mix of commercial and residential spaces — roughly 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of the former, and 276 units of the latter.
The pace of progress on this redevelopment has definitely been slowed by COVID, said Chuck Breidenbach, managing director of the Retail Properties Group for Mountain Development, which owns most of the Eastfield Mall site, noting that many in the development community have taken a breather of sorts during the pandemic, especially those involved with retail.
“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future,” he explained. “It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”
The situation has improved slightly, nationally and locally, but the retail picture remains cloudy in many respects. In the meantime, though, the mall is taking full advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves. Together, they have provided foot traffic, some revenue, and also some insight into what’s possible at this site, meaning … well, just about anything that makes sense, a broad concept, to be sure.
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening at the mall — and what could happen in the years to come at a complex with an intriguing past and a future dominated by vast potential — and a large number of question marks.
Just after the COVID vaccine site opened, Thompson told BusinessWest, he would plant himself in the many common areas at the mall and pick up on the conversations being had, many of them involving people waiting in line to get a vaccine or wandering around the mall after receiving one.
What he heard verified what he already knew — that people who hadn’t been to the mall in years, or decades, had pretty much lost track of what was happening there; they may have taken in some headlines, but they didn’t know the full story.
“We’d hear people say … ‘I didn’t know there were still stores in the Eastfield Mall,” he said, adding that these comments were deflating in some ways — the mall still maintains a broad mix of 80 local and national retail outlets ranging from Old Navy to Hannoush Jewelers to Milan Menswear — but somewhat encouraging, at least from the perspective that people are learning, becoming more aware, and coming back to the mall for shopping visits.
“We’ve seen a good upward swing in foot traffic,” he explained. “I think we have a lot of return patrons who have gotten vaccinated and now realize there are stores here, so they’re coming back.”
That’s just one of a number of developments that have come about, somewhat unexpectedly, and that bode well for the mall, for both the present and the future. The COVID vaccine facility is bringing large numbers of people to the site every day and, as noted, giving them a chance to update themselves on all things Eastfield Mall. The courts moving into the old theaters, meanwhile, will bring in much-needed revenue from a site that was abandoned and trashed by theater operators Cinemark and in need of major renovations if it was to be leased out again.
Meanwhile, the Diem Cannabis operation, now winding its way through the licensing process, will fill a building that has been mostly vacant for some time now, bringing new energy and vibrancy to what has been a tired retail site.
As noted earlier, some of this has been good luck, circumstance, and having the right space at the right time, while much of it has also been hard work and creativity.
“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future. It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”
Indeed, Thompson says he isn’t exactly sure how the state found the Eastfield Mall and started pursuing it as a vaccination site. “I don’t know, and sometimes it’s better if you don’t ask a lot of questions,” he said with a laugh, adding that he took the phone call roughly three months ago (he doesn’t remember from whom) that set things in motion.
Recalling that conversation and those that followed, he said the state was impressed by the ample amounts of parking and a location that, while not ideal, is close to Mass Pike exit 7 and easily accessible to a number of communities, including Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow.
The state isn’t paying rent for use of the property — something Thompson certainly laments — but it has brought exposure and a boost for many of the retailers as some getting vaccines have stopped to shop or get a bite to eat.
And this new life, as temporary as it is likely to be, represents just one of a number of positive steps forward at the mall. The relocation of court trials to several of the old movie theaters is another. That was another call that seemed to come from out of the blue — and a desire to move along many of the trials that have been delayed by COVID.
The state will use three of the 16 theaters for courtrooms and several of the others for other purposes, said Thompson, adding that the initial lease is for a year, but the hope is that the state, as it looks for permanent solutions to a host of problems at the Roderick Ireland Courthouse downtown, will give serious consideration to the mall and its theaters.
“Talking with the individuals that have been here from the state, they believe that if the powers that be decide to land here on a more permanent basis, that would be fine,” he told BusinessWest. “They love the way it’s set up.”
What’s in Store?
As for some of those other spaces … a long-term lease with Friendly Ice Cream, headquartered just down the street, to use the former JCPenney location as warehouse space, recently expired, said Thompson, adding that there have already been discussions with many parties about using that space for the same purpose, which represents one of the more logical future uses for that site.
Breidenbach concurred. “We’d like to find another retailer, but if not, we’d would certainly be open to office, residential, or medical uses,” he said, adding that JCPenney moved out nearly a decade ago, and there have been a number of short-term tenants in the interim. “We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”
While dealing with the short-term and immediate answers to the many questions hovering over the mall, the main focus is on the long term, said Briedenbach, adding that the facility will obviously become mixed-use in nature, with that mix still being a work in progress.
The goal is to create a facility where individuals can live, work, shop, eat, and attain needed services, he noted, adding that the pieces to this puzzle will come together over a number of years, depending on the appetite of the development community.
The east side of the property, which runs along Kent Road, is being eyed for residential development, he said, adding that a recent zone change of that area from residential B to residential C should help these efforts. As noted, 276 units are being eyed for land on the east side of the property, with 23 buildings of 12 units each. Meanwhile, that JCPenney site could be retrofitted for senior housing, student housing, or related types of uses, he noted.
As for other components of the live/work/shop puzzle, Breidenbach said the Diem Cannabis project could provide several of those qualities, including jobs and some retail that would bring more foot traffic to the site, possibly inspiring still more retail. The hope, and also the expectation, is that, as pieces to the puzzle come together, the broad Eastfield site will become more of a destination — for many different constituencies.
“We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”
For inspiration when it comes to what’s possible, this region can look to another Mountain Development project, this one at the Eastern Hills Mall in Buffalo, N.Y., a similar initiative that is further along in the development process, said Breidenbach, adding that a local developer has been secured, and plans are now in the design stage and headed for the environmental-review process.
“That site is much larger — it’s 100 acres — and we’re looking at retail, restaurants, entertainment, hotel, office … you name it,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can be done there.”
And at Eastfield as well, he said, adding that the project is moving forward step by step, with the next one being to secure a development partner for the residential aspect of the project. After that, and once that part of the project comes off the drawing board, he expects other pieces to the puzzle to fall into place.
“This is going to be a 10-year project, and right now, we’re just taking it one piece at a time,” he said. “We’re going to go one step at a time and do what’s right for the mall and the community.”
These days, there are far fewer lines for people to get their COVID shots. Indeed, Curative has improved the process, and now, people can arrive just before their scheduled injection.
This doesn’t leave as many opportunities for Thompson to gather intel, if you will, from those now finding their way to the mall. But in his mind, he’s already gathered enough. He knows there is still much work to do when it comes to telling the mall’s story — and an equal amount of work when it comes to filling in the canvas with regard to the long-term future of this landmark.
Thus far, through some good fortune and creative thinking, the picture is starting to fill in, and the full extent of the opportunities that exist is coming increasingly into focus.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]