Home Fairfield Malls facing an uncertain future – even before SoNo Collection arrives

Malls facing an uncertain future – even before SoNo Collection arrives

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A rendering of the mall currently under construction in Norwalk.

Even as the area anxiously awaits the much-hyped opening of the SoNo Collection megamall in Norwalk, there are conflicting signs about just how healthy the shopping mall sector is.

In Fairfield County, this has been evident at the Stamford Town Center, which has seen a flurry of exits over the past few months. Some of those were due to corporate bankruptcies — Charlotte Russe, Gymboree and Payless ShoeSource — while The Walking Co. has been in and out of bankruptcy twice in the past decade, and the latest casualty, Kona Grill, has had its own financial troubles.

Others, including Williams-Sonoma and its affiliated brand Pottery Barn, Armani Exchange, J. Crew and Ann Taylor, simply moved out.

Dan Stolzenbach, general manager of the four-floor, 853,000-square-foot mall, put a positive spin on the exodus.

“Obviously, the recent announcement of closures of various national retailers is not welcome news,” he said. “But tenant vacancies create an opportunity to bring in new merchants that will better connect with our customers. Our leasing team is actively speaking to a variety of potential tenants and we will be opening some exciting new stores in the next few weeks.”

They include a showroom for luxury automaker Genesis Motor, the luxury vehicle division of South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group. Although there is a Genesis dealer at 85 Magee Ave., less than a mile from the mall, the showroom will, as its moniker indicates, serve only as a means of marketing, not selling, its 2019 G70, G80 and G90 sedans.

Custom Candle Co., based in Bedford Hills, opened earlier this month and several new stores are on the way. Among those are: The Fix, a cell phone repair and accessories chain that is replacing the similar Cellairis, which left the mall in February; wireless company Boost Mobile; and a Kung Fu Kitchen restaurant.

A hosiery/shapewear company and a children’s play space are on the way. There will also be a “completely reimagined” Perfumania, which has been experimenting with what it calls “an interactive fragrance hub” since last fall. It emerged from Chapter 11 in 2017.

Enzennio Mallozzi, managing director, investment services in Colliers International’s Stamford office, said while the level of activity at Stamford Town Center is unusual, “it’s also par for the course at this point. A lot of companies are going bankrupt and malls in general are being faced with a new paradigm in retail.”

The so-called “Amazon effect” on retail — and some chains’ overly optimistic expansion plans — continue to be felt as never before. According to Coresight Research, through April 12 U.S. retailers announced 5,994 store closings, already outpacing 2018’s total of 5,862 closures. Store openings totaled 3,239 in 2018, compared with 2,641 so far this year.

A January report by Reis found the shopping center vacancy rate in 2018 stood at 10.2%, compared with 10% in 2017 and 9.9 percent in 2016.

“They’re being asked to reimagine themselves,” Mallozzi said, confirming what Richard Latella, executive managing director of Cushman & Wakefield, told the Business Journal last year: “The days of the cookie-cutter mall are gone. The bigger ones, as well as the ones being built, are generally looking to become more of a destination with something to offer beyond just retail.”

Mallozzi gave the Stamford mall credit for “trying something new” with Genesis. “Mall owners are willing to try something a little more experiential when it comes to retail to attract people into their space,” he said. “That’s not going to be enough by itself” to significantly drive foot traffic — especially given that the models on show carry an MSRP of $34,900 to $69,350.

The Colliers executive said the operators of the 1.13 million-square-foot Westfield Trumbull mall were also showing “a willingness to try to figure things out” with its stated interest in altering the town’s zoning regulations to allow it to build 290 apartments on its 76-acre site.

But that plan has run into opposition from some citizens, and Trumbull First Selectman Vicki Tesoro dedicated a portion of her March 21 State of the Town Address to the subject. Noting that the mall had originally sought 580 apartments, Tesoro said the town was continuing to work with the mall to accommodate its plans while listening to residents’ concerns.

She noted that no official application regarding the construction of the 290 units has been filed with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Macy’s at the Danbury Fair Mall, which at nearly 1.3 million square feet is the county’s largest, is considering expanding two of its pads there. One would result in a single-level wing of 37,000 square feet while the other would involve a separate building on an access drive that would total 22,000 square feet.

As for the 700,000-square-foot SoNo Collection, it is still on target for a mid-October opening to take advantage of the holiday season. Anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, the mall announced that women’s retail chain Chico’s is taking two spots, for a Chico’s and Soma, its intimate apparel chain. Other recently announced occupants include international beauty chain Sephora, apparel retailer J. Jill and restaurant Yard House.

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