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Opinion: You can’t always get what you want

NORWALK, Conn. – In July 1970, I was getting ready to start my senior year at Barnstable High School in Hyannis, Mass. The Cape Cod Melody Tent was presenting summer theater versions of current Broadway sensations “Cabaret” with Jerry Dodge and Jenny O’Hara and “Man of La Mancha” with Laurence Guittard. I was working on the grounds crew by day, running the concession stand by night.

Life was good. But for Downtown Hyannis, life was about to go bad for a very long time.

The Cape Cod Mall opened in July 1970, out on the edge of Hyannis, Route 132, near the airport. The Cape’s first fully enclosed, regional shopping center had about 50 stores, including anchors Sears, Filene’s and Woolworth’s – all former downtown Hyannis staples. The mall shops were small shops, but they were enough to send Main Street into a nosedive that lasted about two decades, until the mall itself began wither away from old age.

Then came mall guru Simon Properties, a major makeover, Macy’s, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy and a 400-seat international food court. There’s about 100 shops now, and 800,000-plus square feet of leasable space. On any given day, the parking lot is packed. Meanwhile Main Street, 1.5 miles away, is flourishing.

In July 1977, a newly married couple moved to Silver Spring, Md., and the former Barnstable High graduate took a job in Rockville, Md., at HDO Productions. Right down the street was a brand new, sparkling, state-of-the-art mall, the White Flint Mall. It was anchored by Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, and I. Magnin, and there were highly polished, mirrored escalators, glass elevators, fountains, themed shopping districts and lots of places to eat, including a terrific food court with some of the best burgers I’d ever tasted.

How big was the White Flint opening? Elizabeth Taylor was a special guest. Andrea Mitchell covered it.

Today? Well: Rockville, a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., is getting ready to pay its last respects to White Flint.

The mall is coming down. In its place on the 45-acre site, developers are planning a mixed use development: 5.2 million square feet of buildings, including 1 million square feet offices in three buildings along Rockville Pike, 1 million square feet of retail, 2,500 residential units and a 300-room hotel. The current three-level mall is about 800,000 square feet. Parking will be primarily in garages and underground.

This tale of two malls is intended to show, anecdotally, that the GGP proposal for the former 95/7 site is not some crazed nutbag plan that is doomed to failure as malls everywhere crash and burn. Nor is it a guaranteed success, a glittering, sparkling Emerald City-like destination that will revitalize all of Norwalk just as a rising tide lifts all boats.

For every highly successful Paramus Park Mall (a GGP property) and Mall at Short Hills (in wonderfully wealthy Short Hills, N.J.), both in North Jersey, there is a White Flint or a Shore Mall in Cardiff, N.J.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Internet is doing to retail outlets what it has done to newspapers – made them largely irrelevant to a large segment of the 50-and-under population. And with the millennials said to be eschewing autos and moving back to the cities and downtown areas, regional, car-dependent shopping centers are suffering a double blow.

The problem, though, is apparently not across the board. Malls that cater to upscale shoppers seem to be doing just fine, according to a story at BusinessInsider.com.

Therein lies the question. Are Norwalk shoppers upscale enough to shop at an upscale mall? Are the wealthy folks from surrounding communities interested in driving or training to Norwalk to visit an upscale mall? If so, will they then decide to make a day or night of it and head downtown, or over to SoNo, for dinner and drinks or more shopping?

I can see those same folks making plans to come to Norwalk to shop and combining the trip with a show at the renovated Wall Street Theater, a visit to Stepping Stones, the aquarium or Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum. But how often? I can see some of The Ladies Who Lunch (thanks, Mr. Sondheim and Elaine Stritch) heading in for shopping and a sidewalk nosh on Washington Street. But how many?

I can see people – locals, close neighbors – heading to the mall as a social outing, a little shopping or browsing, a latte, some chat.

It all sounds quite pleasant, if a bit dicey on the financial end. And that’s because I can see the experience getting old for some people. I can see the glittery, shiny new mall being like a Broadway smash – dazzling, brilliant, colorful, full of energy – and losing its luster five years into its run and starting to look like the third road company of “Wicked” – “Oh, but I saw Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth on TV once and they were wonderful! What happened?”

And I can see, in the meantime, the shops and restaurants in SoNo sitting empty, owners cursing the day GGP bought the 95/7 property and the city officials who didn’t vote to keep the bombsite for another 10 or 20 years until Something Better came along – you know, something without shops and restaurants. Something with apartments – most or all upscale, please – and offices, and professional suites, maybe an upscale hotel…

The former mayor, a status-quo kind of guy, seemed happy with any development, a friend to the Big Box culture, someone who wanted to change the rules to grease the skids for anyone with a golden shovel who wanted to dig in Norwalk.

The current mayor said, when trying to get elected, that he was against Big Box development and in favor of mixed use. He was not in favor of a mall. And he would work with developers and other stakeholders to get the bombsites turned into job-creating, revenue-generating properties.

What he didn’t say – few politicians who want to get elected do – was that he is a pragmatist. Oh, he gave hints, like when he told NancyOnNorwalk that he was unhappy that Wall Street Place was languishing, but that going back to square one with a new developer would only extend the process of redevelopment by an unconscionably long time.

Now he is saying the same thing at 95/7. He is not crazy about the mall idea, but the company that owns the land wants a mall. The city can say “no, bring us something else,” and GGP can say OK, we’ll get back to you in five years to start the process that will take another five to 10 after that to make happen, provided we don’t have another financial downturn. Or they can say “our way or we’re out of here” and sell the property, which takes time, and the new owner would then have to come in and figure it all out. So the mayor is willing to play ball while getting GGP to make concessions that will, at minimum, help mitigate the impact on local businesses and traffic.

Will it be enough? If the mall happens, will it be like Cape Cod or Paramus, where, after some ups and downs, everything flourishes? Or will it be like Rockville, Md., or Cardiff, N.J., where a glittery new mall becomes a blighted, deserted relic and winds up on the business end of a wrecking ball 20 or 30 years from now? And, if so, is that, perhaps the new normal?

As the Rolling Stones sang, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Comments

10 responses to “Opinion: You can’t always get what you want”

  1. Casey Smith

    Well, I can’t predict how well a mall would do but I can list some businesses that have tried and died: Cold Stone Creamery, Black Bear Grill, Sassafras, Jeff’s Cuisine, Soup Alley, Silver’s, and Roly Poly. All of them were within a 2 block radius of the Maritime Center. The majority of them are restaurant/food establishments, which of course has a high rate of failure. The last time I drove down Washington Street, there were a few vacant store fronts. I haven’t been that way recently because of all the construction going on by the Maritime, but can’t imagine much has changed. And of course, let us not forget the fate of the mall that was in the center of Norwalk where the Avalon now resides.

  2. John Hamlin

    Very thoughtful commentary.

  3. Aunt Bea

    So, in other words, to make a long story short,
    “take what you get and smile or get nothing.”
    .

    Well maybe, than again maybe not.
    .

    Rilling is correct to try and leverage the location with the property’s current owner to protect the interests of both downtown
    retail business districts, however, not sure many buy the “this or nothing” scenario.
    ,

    The three words in real estate, so they say, are “location, location and location. And 95/7 is pretty good location leverage in the business and not just real estate.
    .

    There is a mall in Atlanta called the Omni. It’s a mall/office building/Hotel/entertainment venue. The malls anchor is, not Macy’s, not Sears nor even JC Pennys yep you guessed it, it’s CNN. Although shops in the mall sell CNN merchandise, CNN doesn’t actually retail anything in the mall but you can eat in the food court and watch CNN in umteen languages and if your lucky you get on TV from a long shot going into a commercial. But CNN headquarters is a draw for all ages. Schools do field trips there regularly.
    .

    Next door is the Atlanta Journal Constitution, where they still run the old fashion ink and paper presses and the trucks roll out at 4 am to deliver the news.
    .

    Across the street is Centennial Park, where the Olympics were held in 96. A mere couple hundred feet from CNN’s door to Olympic stadium where Eric Rudolf set off his first of three bombings in the Atlanta metro area and one in Birmingham Alabama, than escaping into the Smokey mtns eluding capture, by federal, state, local authorities, the national guard and hundreds of bounty hunters, for five years before being captured dumpster diving at a Piggly Wiggly by a rookie cop at 3 am. Rudolf is now doing life in a super max. Anyway back to the mall, the area around the Omni for the most part was run down warehouse’s and ramshackle row houses. The mall/office/hotel wasn’t doing that great, until the Olympics and the stadium came in. The area is now revitalized with many new buildings and is doing very well but it wasn’t the mall, nor even CNN alone, that were the golden key.
    .

    The Omni stadium and the nearby Turner Field, built right after the Olympics in 97, btw is now being also torn down for a new location from the bottom of Atlanta to the top, in Cobb right next door to an upscale mall and wont carry the Turner name any longer.
    .

    What can be taken away from Atlanta’s success? Well, its not just a mall that makes an area successful. Has to be more than just a retail shopping center to draw people again and again.

    .

    When some pitchman starts talking all these pie in the sky numbers, a flag goes up. When the pitchman says a mall will bring business to the small downtown shops and eatery’s, a bigger flag goes up. When there is no draw, besides some unnamed upscale clothes retailer, well, the flags keep getting bigger and bigger. Wonder what New Cannan and Westport retailers think such a mall will do to their business districts no less Norwalks’s?
    .

    The owner wants ideas and input well here is great question for the developer to ponder; What is the draw? Where is the entertainment, the social interaction that people seek and can not find online that bring people out again and again? Using the old Globe or the aquarium as the draw, is disingenuous and frankly a lame distraction of the obvious lack of foresight, blinded by dollar signs but of course.

    .

    As the current design is presented, without some human entertainment draw, some human interaction, perhaps some robotics of some sort that interacts with people, something that people will have fun and want to return again and again to, without that draw the design is majorly flawed. Not saying a mall wont work but this one, as purposed in the currently designed concept, lacks some common sense thinking, no less is in dire need to return to the CAD for a much better design that interacts with the decor of the town and the draw aka anchor aka entertainment venue.
    .
    The proposed jewel glass towers may not be an ideal choice, considering weather and proximity to the harbor, no less the carbon foot print such a design will have. Is this building going to be Energy Efficiently Integrated? Plenty of tax breaks for solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and train loads of LED’s.
    .

    If you build it, they don’t always come, back and back and back.
    Like mentioned, it gets old quick. So what will keep em coming back, short of a Mini Madison Square Garden? And no, indoor golf range or put put course is not the ticket. Chill, oak hill boys.

    .

    Anyone seen that indoor tunnel theatre bazzar/mall in Vegas? What about that new indoor water park mall in Dubai?
    .

    The Sawgrass Mall in Sunrise, Fla, opened in 1990 and was touted as, at the time, the worlds largest mall with more than 3 million sq ft and over 300 shops and four food courts. Plenty of anchors and space, in fact way, way too much space. Place is a tube that is nearly a mile round. Imagine spending 4 hours walking and shopping and finding yourself on the opposite side of the huge octagon and zapped of all strength and feet giving out, with all those packages. Taxi!! Now add small children. Seniors?
    .

    Some things sound good and may look good on paper but in practice, lack, well, common, $ents.
    .

    An upscale glass mall that doesn’t target the locals but the surrounding elite sounds like a shattering, excuse the intended pun, idea that just may work, than again without that draw, may just be another failed attempt by a little town trying to act like a big city and never quite making the transition because no one seems to grasp Norwalk is not a big city, it’s a small, family, working class town.

    .

    Can be spun and touted by big dollar pitchmen and locals who sold out as the best thing since air condition but is it? Really? Or is it the death knell of both small retail/eatery districts? What happened to all our owner operated hardware and paint shops when Home depot hit town and not just here but Westport, Darien, New Cannan. Think this one through. Ben and Jerry’s $5 bucks a spoon ice cream anyone? Yeah that will get em to keep coming back, right?

  4. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    EXCELLENT!
    The zinger in Mark’s column is when he asks, “Are Norwalk shoppers upscale enough to shop at an upscale mall? Are the wealthy folks from surrounding communities interested in driving or training to Norwalk to visit an upscale mall? If so, will they then decide to make a day or night of it and head downtown, or over to SoNo, for dinner and drinks or more shopping?”
    I think not, or not often. With our overabundance of Big Boxes, Norwalk already has a reputation for being a great place to come for discount shopping (a.k.a. “cheap” shopping) and not a likely preferred destination for the “ladies who lunch”.
    We don’t have the “ambience” for that. We are an integrated community–economically, culturally, racially–and by no means are we a ghetto of wealth and privilege. We do welcome and accommodate individuals and families from all walks of life. We do have a vital educational system for our children (getting there after some bumps). We do have outstanding boating/marina facilities that are a regional attraction. We do have a proud history (important enough for Imperial Britain to burn us down to the ground some years ago). We have all the attributes of a middle-class community that in many ways is a model of the reality of life in America in the 21st century.

    We do not need to prove anything to anyone. Much less do we need to indulge in an over-reach for the transitory, economically risky, faux glitter that “jewel box” shopping might bring to Norwalk.

  5. EveT

    “Are Norwalk shoppers upscale enough to shop at an upscale mall? Are the wealthy folks from surrounding communities interested in driving or training to Norwalk to visit an upscale mall? If so, will they then decide to make a day or night of it and head downtown, or over to SoNo, for dinner and drinks or more shopping?” I’d say the answers are no, no, and no.

    There was a time, about 25 years ago, when people from Greenwich and Westport would come to SoNo for the ambience of the restaurants and other retailers on Washington St. — remember, there was even a bookstore? Then it got more and more seedy and the attitude of many was that you’re taking your life in your hands to go down there.

    In gatherings of people from around the state, listen to how people from the wealthier towns refer to Norwalk. They may come here to shop at Costco, WalMart and Home Depot, but the upscale mall concept without any offices or apartments mixed in is a loser, IMO.

  6. Oldtimer

    Some highly visible entertainment attraction could be a big draw. People are still lining up for a chance to pay for the elevator ride up to the observation deck at the 52 year old space needle in Seattle or going to the restaurant just below the deck. It rotates giving diners an amazing 360 degree every 47 minutes view of Puget sound and downtown Seattle.

  7. LWitherspoon

    Candidate Rilling was against a mall at 95/7. Mayor Rilling is now for it. “Pragmatism” sounds to me like a nice way of saying that once elected, Rilling changed his tune completely.

  8. Aunt Bea

    The Norwalk Needle? Hmmm. Some interesting ideas coming up.
    Keep them coming. Hopefully the powers that be are paying attention to the natives that know the lay of the land, the culture and most importantly the needs.

  9. LWitherspoon

    A Norwalk Needle at 95/7 would imperil my plans for a dirigible airfield there.

  10. Suzanne

    L Witherspoon, You crack me up! This article forgot the rest of one of the best songs in rockdom, “But if you try sometimes well you might find you get what you need.” (Now can’t you just hear Mick wailing?) I would rather see Norwalk get what it NEEDS as opposed to what GGP WANTS. The mall concept needs re-vamping to meet the community’s needs not the other way around.

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