Can New Jersey’s Dying Malls Be Saved?

Battered by the Internet, Jersey’s iconic shopping malls turn to yoga studios, escape rooms and wine bars to keep the customers coming.

Anchors Aweigh
With several department store chains in trouble, some mall operators are rethinking the concept of anchors. Onder says anchors are typically given advantageous lease rates because they presumably draw shoppers into the mall. Now, some operators are slicing and dicing former anchor spaces and pulling in much higher rental rates.

To that end, PREIT opened 10 tenants in five former department store spaces last year, says Coradino. This year, they’ll open seven tenants in four former anchor spaces, and in 2019, they plan to open at least 10 different tenants in three spaces previously taken up by anchors.

Still, even smart mall operators may not be able to save what Hughes calls the “dispersed malls,” situated in places such as Sussex, Warren and Hunterdon counties, where populations have begun to stagnate. Malls in such zones, he believes, will be demolished. Others, like Bridgewater Commons and Quaker Bridge in Lawrence Township, between Princeton and Trenton, may have to reinvent themselves as something other than enclosed malls.

That’s exactly what’s being proposed for the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown by its current owners, Kushner Companies, the New York-based real estate operation owned by the family of Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Rouse Properties, a fellow New York-based developer. This spring, the companies presented a plan to redevelop the mall as the Heights at Monmouth. They envision a mix of retail, entertainment, medical, high-end dining and residential spaces. The project has generated a fair amount of controversy—and a pending lawsuit—mostly for its housing component, which some residents fear could burden schools and other municipal services.

Still, Hughes credits the plan “for being ahead of the game in terms of trying to create a 24/7 community attractive to millennials and the like.”

A similar residential/retail development called Riverton has been proposed for Sayreville, where plans for an enclosed mall were recently ditched. As envisioned, the waterfront development would include a marina with indoor/outdoor dining options, low-rise buildings with shops on the ground floor and apartments above, some stand-alone big-box stores, and perhaps small venues for concerts and other forms of entertainment. The Ohio-based developer, North American Properties in partnership with Jersey-based Sayreville Seaport Associates, would be required to assume some of the cost for burdens to the school system; the figure being discussed is $19 million. Joseph Ambrosio, executive director of Sayreville’s economic redevelopment agency, says the project would have “a huge impact on the community in terms of tax revenue and employment.”

If the planned development sounds familiar, it should. Riverton and similar developments—walkable, with a residential/retail mix and a range of amenities, from entertainment to medical care—are essentially old-fashioned towns. In fact, we may well be coming full circle, from a time when enclosed malls pulled shoppers away from traditional downtowns to an era when downtowns regain their luster. Some of those downtowns might even be in repurposed malls.

Correspondent Leslie Garisto Pfaff moved to New Jersey in 1988 and admits that, since then, she’s wasted more than a few hours in the state’s shopping malls.

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