A dying Crystal Mall is destined for a non-mall remake
Imagine my surprise recently when I visited the Crystal Mall, long the retail behemoth of the region, and discovered that there are so many empty storefronts it looks almost as abandoned by merchants as downtown New London.
COVID-19 was not kind to malls, which were already devastated by online shopping when the pandemic hit.
The good news for Waterford, given the prospects of the mall's shrinking tax liability, is that a new chapter is already being written, with talk of new mixed-use development at the site, including things like housing, entertainment or hotels.
The other existing nearby retail centers, Home Depot and Target, could become anchors for what is developed anew at Crystal Mall, says one concept being considered.
Some Tennessee investors recently plopped down $4 million to buy the shuttered Macy's store in Waterford, one of the bigger components of the mall property, which is owned in several separate pieces, like condos, by different players, such as the owners of the Macy's building, the closed Sears store and the main mall management company, which owns the largest piece.
The Macy's building was purchased in early October by a prominent Tennessee investor, Charles Jones, whose daughter, Lynn Golden, is listed as the agent for CRJ Waterford LLC, the Tennessee entity that closed on the property.
Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule said a representative of the new owners told him the appeal of the property was its size, close to 8 acres with the included parking areas, in a strategic location near Interstate 95.
The job growth in the region driven by Electric Boat appears to be helping to draw outside investment to the prospects of a new development at the Crystal Mall property, Brule said.
The town has applied for a federal grant to study the idea of redeveloping the site, a process that likely would include rezoning it.
I wasn't able to reach Jones or his daughter, but their consultant for the Waterford property, Dean O'Neill of National Development Advisors, which specializes in the redevelopment of underperforming real estate, like malls, told me it is unlikely the Macy's store will ever be a department store again.
He said the owners will work with the town in trying to rezone the Crystal Mall property and repurpose it.
"No one wants to go to a dead mall," O'Neill said.
He said no specific new use for the property has been identified yet. He said his clients are encouraged by the development possibilities in the region created by the jobs growth.
I learned from Tennessee news stories that the Waterford Macy's is actually Jones' second purchase of a closed Macy's store.
He paid $1.6 million for a Tennessee Macy's in 2013 and leased parts of it to a church and hotel development group. He sold it three years later for $5.3 million.
He used the proceeds of that sale to purchase a shuttered hospital, which he proceeded to redevelop into office towers and a day care/preschool facility.
One of his most prominent properties is the Milky Way Farm, the former estate of Franklin C. Mars, founder of Mars candies. The historic farm is now used as an events venue.
I am old enough to remember when the Crystal Mall opened in the early 1980s and was embraced by consumers as a glamorous new retail opportunity, providing the region's first modern department stores, with things like cosmetics counters.
A centerpiece of the new mall was an elaborate crystal chandelier made by the famed Waterford Crystal company in Ireland.
The chandelier survived an interior renovation in 1997, when the owners had to bow to public pressure and scrap plans to eliminate it from the new design. It looks like the chandelier's days as a mall centerpiece may be numbered again.
When it opened, the mall was a final nail in New London's retailing coffin, and the city even won a settlement to compensate for the business it lost to the latest development in the suburbs.
And now, too, the mall is a victim of changing retail trends.
I hope Waterford has more luck than New London did in coping with its empty storefronts.
This is the opinion of David Collins.