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Courting Possibilities

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters at the mall, many of which will now be used for jury trials and other court facilities.

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.

 

Space Exploration

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.”

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms is one of several positive and unexpected developments at Eastfield Mall.

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.”

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson says the COVID-19 vaccination site has brought additional foot traffic to the mall.

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.”

 

Bottom Line

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]

Features

Thinking Outside the Big Box

This Google Earth image of the Eastfield Mall shows how, with the closing of its main anchors, its vast parking lots are almost empty.

This Google Earth image of the Eastfield Mall shows how, with the closing of its main anchors, its vast parking lots are almost empty.

The emergence of online shopping giants like Amazon and changing shopping patterns have spelled doom for giant retailers while also hastening the demise of indoor shopping malls across the country. The Eastfield Mall in Springfield is part of this trend, and so is the ambitious plan for its next life — as a so-called ‘community within a community.’

Chuck Breidenbach says the term ‘de-malling’ — or the verb ‘de-mall’ — while still not officially in the dictionary, has been part of the business lexicon for quite some time now.

That’s because, ever since they started building large, enclosed shopping malls more than 50 years ago, some have occasionally failed and had to be repurposed. This region has witnessed the phenomenon a few times, starting with the so-called ‘dead mall’ in Hadley, which went silent more than 30 years ago, and the Fairfield Mall in Chicopee, which succumbed at the start of this century.

But the pace of de-malling has picked up in recent years, as everyone knows, thanks to Amazon and other online retailers, as well as changing shopping habits, especially among the younger generations. And with those trends, old shopping malls have found new lives as everything from homeless shelters to apartment complexes to mixed-use facilities blending residential, retail, and entertainment elements.

Which brings us to the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, near the border with Wilbraham. The facility is historic, sort of, because it is the first enclosed mall in the region, opened in the mid-’60s. But it is also typical of recent trends, because most all of its big box stores — Sears, JCPenney, and Macy’s — have closed, leaving hundreds of thousands of square feet of vacant retail space looking for a new purpose.

Finding one has been Breidenbach’s day job (or one of them) for some time now, in his role as managing director of MDC Retail Properties Group, a division of New Jersey-based Mountain Development Group, which has owned the mall since 1998.

Mountain Development recently hired the real-estate brokerage firm Cushman and Wakefield to market a joint-venture partnership opportunity for the property’s mixed-use development. The solution taking shape on the drawing board — a work in progress, to be sure — is called Eastfield Commons, a $200 million, mixed-use development that Breidenbach likes to call a “community within a community.”

That’s because it will be just that, a community, a place where — theoretically, but also realistically — if all goes as planned, someone can live, work, shop, eat, take their children to daycare, go to the gym, see a movie, and more, all while walking a few hundred yards at most.

“You want to develop this as a tightly knit, walkable community,” he explained, adding that just what shape this community will take remains to be seen.

At many converted malls, the inclination is to go vertical, with multi-story developments. But at Eastfield, the tact may well be to go horizontal, with one or two levels.

The concept plan taking shape (see rendering on page 8) calls for 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of commercial space (remodeled and new construction) and 23 residential buildings with 12 units each (276 total units). The cinemas will remain, as will the existing food court.

“The idea is to open it up and take it from an enclosed mall to an open-air concept with a lot of public space, a lot of green space … very much the opposite of what you get in an enclosed mall,” he said, adding that this has been the trend nationally, by and large.

“Our vision is to put in a number of restaurants of different types and price points so people have their choice,” he went on. “And to also have some specialty retail, a mix of national and local, so we can give this center its own local flair.”

Flair of any kind has been a missing ingredient at the sprawling site off Boston Road, but as the art and science of mall conversion continues to mature — and Springfield continues its economic recovery — there is considerable optimism that Eastfield can do what it did 50 years ago and get the region buzzing about something new and different.

“The idea is to open it up and take it from an enclosed mall to an open-air concept with a lot of public space, a lot of green space … very much the opposite of what you get in an enclosed mall.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Breidenbach about mall redevelopment in general, and repurposing Eastfield in particular. He noted that, with these projects, the market will dictate what can be done, but imaginative, outside-the-box — or in this case, outside-the-big-box — thinking is always needed.

Setting Sale

Breidenbach has had a long career in retail — long enough to have seen malls come to what amounts to full circle, meaning from being in demand to being in serious decline.

“I’ve seen a lot of things come and go; I’ve lived through the golden years of shopping centers, when you couldn’t put them up fast enough,” he told BusinessWest. “And now, we’re in the gray years of shopping centers, where you can’t redevelop or convert them into something else fast enough.”

The latest cycle — of conversion, or de-malling — began early in this century, he went on, adding that, as was noted earlier, Fairfield Mall, now the site of a Home Depot and other retail outlets, was part of that early wave.

But the pace of conversion really picked up roughly a decade ago, he said, as the Great Recession, coupled with the emergence of online retailers and some changing shopping patterns, took a huge toll on traditional retailers, a trend that continues today.

“There was a change in generations,” he explained. “The Baby Boom generation was and still is, in many ways, a very shopping-oriented culture. The Millennials and Generation-X folks are not.”

Some facilities — Breidenbach calls them super-regional malls, or fortress malls (the Holyoke Mall is one of them) — have been more resilient to the forces of change, because of sheer volume of stores, location (the Holyoke Mall certainly has that), and other factors.

“Holyoke has multiple levels, multiple anchors, parking decks … it’s made to do a massive amount of business,” he explained. “And retailers have pulled back into those fortress malls really as a means of protection.”

Meanwhile, those same retailers are leaving smaller facilities such as Eastfield, he went on, adding that the handwriting was pretty much on the wall for many of these malls years ago. And major real-estate companies, such as the Rouse Co., which developed and owned Eastfield for many years, saw that handwriting and sold off many of those properties.

Today, Eastfield’s huge parking lots fronting Boston Road are barren wastelands. Cars, and not many of them, are clustered near one of the main entrances where a few retailers still do business, such as Old Navy, the 99 Restaurant, O’Donnell’s Restaurant, and others.

Changing this landscape is an involved process, said Breidenbach, adding that, when it comes to how malls are converted these days, it’s generally a function of what the market in question wants, needs, and will support. In other words, while there are models that be studied and perhaps borrowed from, each property is unique, and so is its conversion.

Opened in 1967, Eastfield was the region’s first enclosed mall.

Opened in 1967, Eastfield was the region’s first enclosed mall. Today, it is part of an ongoing trend that is seeing these facilities put to new and imaginative uses.

“Your market studies will lead you to specific strategies and different amounts of space devoted to different types of uses,” he explained. “Those studies will determine how much you need for multi-family rental, multi-family condominium-style properties, retail uses, restaurant uses, entertainment uses, personal services, medical uses, health and fitness — it all depends on what the market will bear, what’s missing in the area, and what people are leaving the area to try and find because they’re dissatisfied with what they get, or it’s not being supplied.

“We have to follow the numbers very closely,” he went on, adding that market studies are followed up with surveys of various constituencies (including residents, small-business owners, and restaurateurs) in the area in question asking people what they want to see and what they’ll come to that location for.

At Eastfield, the emerging solution is a what Breidenbach calls a ‘live, work, play’ atmosphere, one that is seemingly internet-resistant.

This rendering shows the proposed components of Eastfield Commons.

This rendering shows the proposed components of Eastfield Commons.

In other words, one can’t live on the internet, or eat a meal there, or have their haircut there, or take dance lessons there.

And that’s the general idea as one goes about repurposing a mall, he went on, adding that the goal is to create a destination that will hopefully appeal to all generations, but especially those who seem to like this model — empty-nesters and the younger audiences that are less inclined to shop than their parents or grandparents.

“These younger generations would much rather pay for an experience than an expensive pair of jeans,” said Breidenbach, adding that ‘experience’ is a broad term that covers everything from a movie to a meal out to laser tag.

And these sentiments are reflected in some of the statistics relayed to attendees at the latest Shopping Center Convention in Las Vegas, a massive gathering Breidenbach has attended religiously for decades now.

“We heard that restaurant sales in the U.S. had surpassed grocery stores for the first time in history,” he said. “That means more people are eating out — they’re spending their time and money in that direction, as opposed to eating at home and then buying things.”

The Shopping Center Convention, staged annually in May, has seen discussion gravitate in recent years toward the internet and, more specifically, how to survive it, with a big focus being on just what to do with traditional malls, like Eastfield, that have been marginalized (Breidenbach’s word) by the fortress malls and online shopping.

Mixed-use developments — vertical and horizontal alike — have become the answer in many cases, with individual components varying, as stated earlier, with identified need and demand.

Breidenbach believes there will be a need for housing at that site, particularly the multi-family variety, because there haven’t been any new developments of that type in that area in decades, and there is apparent need for such a product.

“We see a huge a huge opportunity there for up-do-date multi-family housing,” he told BusinessWest. “And we also see a need for up-to-date, current retail space, meaning junior anchors, stores up to 20,000 to 25,000 square feet; this is an opportunity to think differently.”

Registering Results

Or to think outside the box — the big box, he said in conclusion.

Such thinking is necessary at Eastfield, a once-vibrant shopping area that has become part of an ongoing trend in this country — one that is seeing the enclosed shopping mall turned into a relative ghost town.

Now, Eastfield wants to be part of another trend — bringing new life to these deserted or nearly deserted areas.

If things go as planned, a property that made some history a half-century ago can make some more.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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