It has been painfully obvious for many years that Waterford’s Crystal Mall is one of the hundreds of “dying malls” now dotting the landscape of America.
Creative redevelopments of some of these older mall sites are occurring across the country. Southdale Center in Minnesota, the first indoor shopping mall in the U.S., had slipped into such a deteriorated condition, losing many of its retail tenants as shopping moved on-line, national chains went bankrupt or merged, and suburban indoor malls simply fell out of fashion. Simon Properties has been in the process of redeveloping Southdale Center as just the sort of vibrant, mixed-use, neighborhood that many would like to see emerge on the Crystal Mall site. Among the new uses at Southdale Center are a fitness center, a public library, and new multi-family housing.
Other mall owners are proceeding with similar redevelopments closer to home, like at Stamford Town Center.
Unfortunately, available reporting indicates that Namdar Realty Group, the new owners of Crystal Mall (excluding the old Sears and Macy’s buildings, which have different owners) do not typically take this kind of innovative approach. If Namdar, and the owners of Sears and Macy’s, intend to keep the mall in its current condition, or allow it to deteriorate further, it is not too early to begin thinking about other means to facilitate the redevelopment of this site.
To begin, the Town of Waterford should, without delay, initiate a planning process to determine what land uses are appropriate for this site and, frankly, the entire commercial strip of Route 85, between I-95 and Cross Road, much of which is showing similar signs of economic obsolescence. This would include evaluating existing infrastructure like utilities and roads, what uses can be supported by existing infrastructure or how they would need to be upgraded, and understanding what land uses will be in demand in the future – housing, of course is one that is receiving a lot of attention lately.
But land-use planning alone, or even the adoption of new zoning rules for the area, does not mean that the owners of Crystal Mall, or of neighboring sites, will redevelop them.
A more direct government intervention may be required to make that occur, including acquisition of the property through a negotiated purchase, or by eminent domain. The adoption of a redevelopment plan under Connecticut law for the 85-acre site or, even better, the entire commercial strip, would enable the town, or the state, to acquire property within the redevelopment plan area.
The Town of Waterford could establish a redevelopment authority and adopt a redevelopment plan. But because the site is of such regional significance and municipal resources are often limited, the Connecticut legislature might instead create a state entity for this purpose, like the Capitol Region Redevelopment Authority which was used to redevelop the area where the Connecticut Convention Center and the UConn Hartford campus are now located.
Once acquired and prepared for reuse, the properties can be marketed to potential new developers, who would be required to redevelop them in accordance with the redevelopment plan. The source of funding for the acquisitions is, of course, no small matter, and would probably need to involve all three levels of government – municipal, state, and federal – but the goal would be to recoup much of these funds through the sale and redevelopment of the parcels.
New London has prior experience with this sort of thing, and that experience has not been particularly good. The “model cities” urban renewal program of the late 1960s and early 1970s (together with the expansion of the interstate highway system) wiped out entire residential neighborhoods, and big chunks of downtown, leaving us with a city that is still struggling to recover from the assaults.
Then, of course, the redevelopment plan for the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, involving the acquisition and razing of 115 properties, including many homes, brought us the U.S. Supreme Court case of Kelo v. New London, and the “Little Pink House.” As anyone who follows New London events knows, things did not work out quite as planned at Fort Trumbull.
Fortunately, Connecticut lawmakers did not get swept up in the national political backlash that the Kelo case unleashed, and which led to significant undermining of government powers to promote redevelopment in other states. Redevelopment plans can still be adopted and implemented here, and eminent domain remains an option when negotiated purchases fail.
While the scars of the Fort Trumbull experience remain etched on our collective memory, we should not allow them to inhibit a vigorous approach to a reimagining of the Crystal Mall site and its environs. Crystal Mall is nobody’s “Little Pink House.” But with some vision, a well-conceived redevelopment plan, and the necessary political will, it could become a new home to many as part of a reinvigorated, mixed-use neighborhood.
Peter O’Connor of Mystic is a lawyer and former municipal and state government official.