Pandemic is latest challenge for Crystal Mall and its kind
Waterford — If there was an industry that didn’t need a coronavirus pandemic piling on, it was retail.
Already reeling from the public’s continuing migration to online shopping, stores in the region and across the country had to close for months this spring and then reopen amid public-health protocols requiring customers and employees to wear masks and avoid one another.
On a recent Friday at Crystal Mall, the social distancing came easy, which is to say the crowd was sparse.
Restaurants in the takeout-only food court had less than a smattering of takers, while chickadees flitted from level to level on the concourse near Macy’s, one of the mall’s struggling anchors. JCPenney, its future uncertain amid the chain's bankruptcy proceedings, still was closed. The nameless space left vacant by Sears, which pulled out in 2018, was dark.
Stacked one on top of the other in the mall’s remaining anchor position, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Christmas Tree Shops, though hardly bustling, were doing some business.
“It’s always been like this,” said Kaylene Henault, a 19-year-old shopper from Montville. “I’ve been coming here since I was young. This is the first time I’ve been here since the coronavirus. I don’t like online shopping because I like to try stuff on.”
She said she occasionally visits the Tanger mall at Foxwoods Resort Casino but isn’t a big fan. Her shopping companion, Tiffany Mullins, 18, also of Montville, noted that Clinton Crossing, another mall on the shoreline some 20 miles west, is “an outdoor venue,” which she said might have an advantage in the age of coronavirus.
Simon Property Group, the real estate investment trust, or REIT, that owns and operates Crystal Mall and Clinton Crossing, made news a few days ago when it backed out of a $3.6 billion merger with Taubman Centers, a competitor whose holdings include Stamford Town Center and Westfarms in West Harford. Struck right before the coronavirus surfaced in the U.S., the deal collapsed because, Simon has said, Taubman’s properties, especially its indoor malls, were newly vulnerable due to the pandemic's effects.
Simon’s plans for Crystal Mall, long rumored to be up for sale, are largely a mystery.
“We’re always hearing things, but never anything specific,” said Abby Piersall, Waterford’s planning director. “We’ve had conversations with the previous mall manager.”
An attempt to reach a Simon representative Friday was unsuccessful.
Piersall said town officials have sought to make themselves available to Simon and to Seritage Growth Properties, the REIT that took over Sears’ real estate holdings, should they seek to repurpose the mall property.
“We want them to be aware of ways we can help them with zoning, with the flexibility to do things,” she said.
During the coronavirus-induced shutdown, the Shoreline Church of Old Lyme held services and hosted a fundraising concert in the mall's parking lot. Proposed changes in the town’s outdoor entertainment regulations have been designed to accommodate such activities as drive-in movie screenings, food truck festivals and car shows. As for other long-term uses of the mall property, such as housing or medical facilities, nothing has gotten beyond the conceptual stage, according to Piersall.
Crystal Mall opened in 1984, a target of opponents who feared it would irreparably harm downtown merchants in New London as well as existing shopping centers around the region. Its original anchors were Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, JCPenney and Sears. For a time, it thrived.
“Oh, it had a great run,” said Tony Sheridan, Waterford’s first selectman from 1991 to 1999 and now president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. “Every mall in the country is having issues. They’ve kind of outlived their usefulness in some ways.”
He said he wonders if online shopping might turn out to be a fad, in which case lots of people, being “social creatures,” might go back to shopping at stores. He fears the loss of jobs for young people, if malls do disappear.
If current trends hold, on the other hand, Sheridan believes there are options.
“There’s a lot of infrastructure in place,” he said. “Developers could go in there and divvy it up. In the Northeast, housing for seniors would be suitable for malls. Crystal Mall could be turned into really great, progressive housing for seniors, with doctor’s offices and gyms. It has that kind of potential. It could be a very interesting place to live.”
Whatever its long-term fate, Crystal Mall continues to pay some heavy freight as one of Waterford’s top taxpayers. After Simon went to court to press an appeal of the town’s assessments on five Crystal Mall parcels in connection with a 2017 revaluation, the parties settled on an assessment of $38.5 million.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year, that translated to a tax bill of $1.1 million.
Seritage, which owns the former Sears space, filed suit a year ago over the town’s $5.4 million assessment on the property. The suit is pending.