Mall shopping is evolving in CT; where biggest are headed

The Enfield Square mall — a shopping destination for decades after its opening in 1971 — lost all but one of its anchors in recent years and store vacancies took over hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space.

Deterioration was so severe that the town threatened to shut down the enclosed mall last year, after partial roof collapses compromised sprinkler systems.

‘Give me something interesting to do’

But a sale of the mall is now likely to an as-yet-unnamed buyer who reportedly has expertise in turning around rundown malls like Enfield Square. The town’s vision for the mall is a mixed use campus with shops, restaurants, entertainment and housing.

How a redevelopment in Enfield unfolds is sure to be well watched. Connecticut’s largest enclosed malls — some teetering on the brink, others appearing to be thriving — are looking to reshape themselves in a changing landscape where visitors are seeking more than just shopping.

Most are looking to increase restaurants and entertainment venues, with one, Stamford Town Center, promoting what is thought to be the largest pickleball complex in the country.

Others are looking to add housing and other amenities. At Danbury Fair mall, there is a vision to create a 24/7 environment with housing a key component, possibly in a vacant anchor store space.

And at least one mall, the Meriden Mall, has plans for a satellite health care center led by Yale New Haven Health.

Macy's, one of the last major retailers at the Enfield Square mall, closed its Enfield store in 2016. The mall has now been sold to a Long Island-based realty group.

Cloe Poisson / Hartford Courant

Macy’s, one of the last major retailers at the Enfield Square mall, closed its Enfield store in 2016. (Courant File Photo)

The stakes are high for towns and cities who host major enclosed malls and, they are watching their steps at transformation. Often, the malls are among the largest — if not the largest — payer of local property taxes.

In Manchester, The Shoppes at Buckland Hills has survived some rocky financial times. But town officials say their conversations with the mall’s management indicate that business is now “fairly steady.”

“It’s clear that markets are shifting and have been shifting for some time,” Gary Anderson, Manchester’s director of planning and economic development, said. “We want to be out in front of that as much as we can.”

The mall is privately owned, but the town’s recently completed plan of conservation and development, “Manchester Next,” includes potential ideas for future redevelopment.

The Shoppes at Buckland Hills in Manchester on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Portions of The Shoppes at Buckland Hills in Manchester could be redeveloped in the future. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

They include smaller storefronts attached to blank exterior walls to enhance the mall’s attractiveness; the addition of multi-family dwellings and mixed-use buildings; a track-and-field venue behind the mall for attracting sports tournaments; and land to the rear of the mall is dedicated for local food production.

Anderson said some of the ideas may appear “pie-in-the-sky,’ but anything may be possible in the future.

“I’ve personally always thought residential, especially on the south side of the mall looking at the Hartford Valley would be a home run,” Anderson said. “The view is beautiful from there, and there is a ton of surface parking.”

‘Give me something to do’

The heyday of the major malls in Connecticut and throughout the country was in the 1980s and 1990s.

Michael Goman, principal in Goman+York Property Advisors in East Hartford, said studies have shown an erosion in how much time is spent at the mall.

Three decades ago, shoppers were making three or four trips to the mall a month and spending as much as 12 hours hanging out and making purchases.

“Part of that was recreational shopping as an enjoyable pastime,” Goman said. “Then that just started to fall. By the late 1990s, that was under 10 hours. And nowadays, the last time anybody has even tried to track that, it barely registered. I mean it’s under three the last time I looked. And that’s even if you are a mall shopper.”

With the rise of online purchasing, there has been a shift away from recreational shopping to seeking out entertainment options. Those alternatives may include restaurants and bars or an activity paired with them.

Jordan's President Eliot Tatelman invites the media and guests into the store after passing by the Jordan's Wall during a sneak peek of the new Jordan's Furniture store in December. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Jordan’s President Eliot Tatelman invites the media and guests into the store after passing by the Jordan’s Wall during a sneak peek of the new Jordan’s Furniture store in December. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

“So, I think what’s happened in Connecticut is what we’ve seen everywhere,” Goman said. “Shopping is no longer perceived as an interesting way to spend a few hours. Now, everything’s about feed me something interesting and give me something interesting to do. It’s more vastly more driven by experiential interests than shopping for merchandise.”

Goman said the malls that can shift their focus to entertainment will have the best chances of thriving because visitors also will likely end up doing some shopping at the same time.

Some malls are already making the transition. For example, the 27-court pickleball complex at Stamford Town Center is effectively an anchor, right alongside Macy’s and Barnes and Noble.

Malls, including Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, also are embracing the idea of a “live-work-play” atmosphere, borrowing a page from the urban redevelopment playbook.

Ken Sterba, Connecticut Post’s general manager, said the mall has preliminary plans to incorporate apartments into the mall, and designs are expected later this year.

The Connecticut Post Mall in Milford plans to add apartments at its mall to create a "live work play" atmosphere. File photo from 2023. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
The Connecticut Post Mall in Milford plans to add apartments at its mall to create a “live-work-play” atmosphere. File photo from 2023. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

A new tenant, 8 Thousand Pizza, gives patrons the option of wearing an electronic bracelet to access a “self-pour” beer wall with nearly three dozen selections

“And his distinction is he has the second self-pour wall in the state of Connecticut,” Sterba said.

At Connecticut’s newest large-scale mall, the upscale SoNo Collection in Norwalk, the owners have carved out a niche alongside more traditional shopping.

“We also have large open spaces for people to gather,” Matt Seebeck, SoNo’s senior general manager, said. “We have what we call the M&T Bank Magnificent Room on our second retail floor, which is a space where we’ve had danceathons with our partners at Connoisseur Media. We’ve had art shows with The Norwalk Art Space. And we have zumba on Tuesday nights.”

Seebeck said, “We like to think that we contribute to the walkability of the neighborhood and contribute in tandem with the downtown improvements and the waterfront improvements that the city has done that connect us to the maritime center.”

‘Difficult to do the math’

The health of Connecticut’s major, enclosed malls is difficult to gauge, given what owners include in their publicly-reported statistics.

Mall owners can include anchor store spaces — typically owned by the store that occupies them — in overall square footage counts or not. Month-to-month leases can make space availability appear better than it actually is.

But, in general, Goman, who specializes in mall and shopping center trends, said the top tier includes SoNo Collection, Westfarms and Danbury Fair. Goman’s assessment is based on number of anchor stores, population density and visibility from highways and other well-traveled routes.

Below the top tier, most malls have had some level of distress, partly from the loss of anchors such as Sears and Lord & Taylor, Goman said.  According to statistics from Goman+York based on data reported to CoStar Group, the Crystal Mall in Waterford has the highest amount of space available, at least 33%.

The SoNo Collection in Norwalk is carving out a niche as a community gathering place in addition to traditional retailing.(Courtesy of SoNo Collection)
The SoNo Collection in Norwalk is carving out a niche as a community gathering place in addition to traditional retailing.(Courtesy of SoNo Collection)

The owner of the Crystal Mall — Namdar Realty Group of Great Neck, N.Y. — also owns the Enfield Square and Meriden malls.

The challenges faced by the large malls also have trickled down to smaller retail properties.

In Bloomfield, the town council is considering acquiring the Wintonbury Mall in the center of town. Once a centerpiece, the property has deteriorated with soaring vacancies and structural problems, including a partial roof collapse.

And along the Connecticut shoreline, there is now an ambitious, $425 million plan by Hartford-based Lexington Partners to raze the struggling Westbrook Outlets. The plan, still in its earliest stages, calls for nearly 600 apartments, 100 townhomes and 75,000 square feet of restaurant and entertainment space.

“Interestingly, we had looked at the Crystal Mall very early on,” Chris Reilly, Lexington’s president, said. “It’s a lot trickier at first sight than most people would give it credit. ”

First, there is the complication of multiple ownership, for the main mall and then, the anchors. Buying just the anchor properties leaves the uncertainty of what might happen to the rest of the mall.

Another option — buying the entire property — is expensive because of the time it would take to secure redevelopment approvals. Some — or more likely — all of the mall would have to be razed, given mall space does not easily convert to housing, Reilly said.

“So, it makes for a really big challenge,” Reilly said. “And I think it is difficult to do the math.”

Here’s a look at some of Connecticut’s largest enclosed malls and what’s in store for them. Space availabilities for some properties were not immediately available.

Danbury Fair Mall (Courtesy of the Connecticut Office of Tourism)
Danbury Fair Mall (Courtesy of the Connecticut Office of Tourism)

Danbury Fair

Town: Danbury

Opened: 1986

Size (square feet): 1.2 million

% Available: 6%

Anchors: Macy’s, JCPenney

Owners: Macerich, Santa Monica, CA

Looking ahead: In 2023, the town approved a plan by mall owners to redevelop a vacant anchor store space for up to 200 apartments. The plan is part of a larger vision for creating a 24/7 environment with non-retail uses such as a hospital and a hotel.

Shoppers walk the Westfarms Mall looking for Black Friday deals on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Westfarms mall. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

Westfarms

Town: West Hartford/Farmington

Opened: 1974

Size (square feet): 1.3 million

% Available: n/a

Anchors: Macy’s, JCPenney, Nordstrom

Owner: The Taubman Co., Bloomfield Hills, MI

Looking ahead: Jordan’s Furniture recently opened a 120,000 square foot store in the former Lord & Taylor space with plans including a Sally’s Apizza that will have an 80-foot high LED screen, kiss cam, full bar and expanded menu options.

The Shoppes at Buckland Hills in Manchester on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
The Shoppes at Buckland Hills. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

The Shoppes at Buckland Hills

Town: Manchester

Opened: 1990

Size (square feet): 1.1 million

% Available: 13%

Anchors: Macy’s JCPenney

Owner: Spinoso Real Estate Group, Syracuse, NY.

Looking ahead: Eastern Mountain Sports and Bob’s Stores will team up to offer sporting goods and outdoor apparel in space formerly occupied by Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Meriden Mall (Courtesy of the Connecticut Office of Tourism)
Meriden Mall (Courtesy of the Connecticut Office of Tourism)

Meriden Mall

Town: Meriden

Opened: 1971

Size (square feet): 1.4 million

% Available: 25%

Anchors: Boscov’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods

Owner: Namdar Realty Group, Great Neck, N.Y.

Looking ahead: Yale New Haven Health System has plans to turn the former two-story Macy’s anchor space into a satellite ambulatory center.

The Connecticut Post Mall in Milford onThursday, March 9, 2023. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Connecticut Post Mall. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

Connecticut Post Mall

Town: Milford

Opened: 1960; enclosed in 1981

Size (square feet): 1.7 million

% Available: n/a

Anchors: Macy’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target

Owner: Centennial Real Estate, Dallas, TX

Looking ahead: In 2023, the town approved zoning changes that would allow Centennial to replace the former Sears store and make significant changes to the mall to create greenspace and as many as 750 units of housing over the next decade.

 

The SoNo Collection (Courtesy of the Connecticut Office of Tourism)
The SoNo Collection (Courtesy of the Connecticut Office of Tourism)

The SoNo Collection

Town: Norwalk

Opened: 2019

Size (square feet): 717,000

% Available: 1.3%

Anchors: Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Zara

Owner: Brookfield Properties, New York, NY

Looking ahead: Connecticut’s newest regional mall plans to cultivate an image as a community gathering spot for events, taking the SoNo Collection beyond the mall industry’s sole traditional focus on stores.

 

Stamford Town Center (Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism)
Stamford Town Center (Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism)

Stamford Town Center

Town: Stamford

Opened: 1982

Size (square feet): 763,000

% Vacant: 4%

Anchors: Macy’s, Barnes & Noble

Owner: Yaraghi Realty, Port Washington, New York

Looking ahead: Last year, the 27-court Pickleball America opened at Stamford Town Center, a complex that is said to be the largest pickleball venue in the country. The courts are seen as a new type of mall anchor as focus shifts away from solely offering visitors shopping.

.

Shoppers Flock To Stores For Black Friday Deals
(Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

Trumbull Mall

Town: Trumbull

Opened: 1964

Size (square feet): 1.1 million

% Available: 19%

Anchors: Macy’s, JCPenney, Target

Owner: Namdar Realty Group, Great Neck, NY

Looking ahead: The town of Trumbull is studying potential future improvements and uses for the mall, part of a larger study of the surrounding area.

The Brass Mill Center in Waterbury on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Brass Mill Center. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

Brass Mill Center

Town: Waterbury

Opened: 1997

Size (square feet): 1.1 million

% Available: n/a

Anchors: JCPenney, Burlington

Looking ahead: Struggling with the loss of two major anchors and a movie theater in recent years, Brass Mill Center recently got a boost with the opening of an Ashley Furniture Outlet on one floor of the space formerly owned and occupied by Macy’s.

Crystal Mall (Courtesy of the Connecticut Office of Tourism)
Crystal Mall (Courtesy of the Connecticut Office of Tourism)

Crystal Mall

Town: Waterford

Opened: 1984

Size (square feet): 922,677

% Available: 33%

Anchor: JCPenney

Owner: Namdar Realty Group, Great Neck, N.Y.

Looking ahead: The mall — once considered a prime shopping destination in southeastern Connecticut — is suffering from the loss of anchor tenants, including Sears and Macy’s. The majority of the mall was sold last year to a new owner who has yet to reveal plans for the future.

SOURCES: Goman + York, CoStar Group, mall websites, Courant reporting

Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected].

Ed Stannard can be reached at [email protected].

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