Retail is in a period of heavy transition. Malls across the country have been clobbered by store closures, slowly losing business, and becoming empty. Mall reinvention is not a new phenomenon. Locally, as new malls such as the Galleria and McKinley malls were constructed and anchor stores were lured away, the cannibalization process began. Appletree, Thruway, and Seneca malls are long gone.
Appletree became a business park, and Thruway and Seneca malls were demolished and replaced by big box stores, some of which are already empty. Reuse plans are in the works for Boulevard and Eastern Hills malls, and McKinley Mall in Hamburg may be next. Online shopping, stores such as TJ Maxx, Kohls, and Target, and over-stored suburbs, have upended the local retail sector. Galleria Mall is the lone survivor.
Downtown retail’s death spiral started in the mid-1980’s. There’s a common myth that light rail construction and the pedestrian mall killed downtown retail. While the multi-year construction project was disruptive, downtown’s retail share had been shrinking for years. Downtown used to have a lock on shopping, restaurants, theaters, and night life. It was where most offices were. Suburban growth, and the middle class and wealthy exodus out of the city, lessened downtown’s importance. Malls became America’s new Main Street.
Downtown retail hung on for a while. Local department stores such as AM&A’s, Hengerers/Sibley’s, L.L. Bergers, Sattler’s, and Hens & Kelly’s all had downtown locations. They were generally their largest stores with the widest selection and even with slipping sales, were kept open due to local owner’s loyalty to downtown, likely propped up by sales at their suburban locations. Suburban malls contributed to the ongoing failure of downtown retail with their controlled environment, convenience, free parking, and shiny, new buildings.
Consolidation in the department store industry sealed downtown’s fate. Sattler’s in the Main Place Mall closed in 1982. Buffalo almost joined the mall party by floating plans to construct a retail center north of and in front of the library with upper level walkways that would connect AM&A’s on the south to Sibley’s on the north (below). May Department Stores closed Sibley’s in 1987 and downtown’s last department store, AM&A’s, closed in 1995.
Fewer department stores simply meant less reason to shop downtown. The smaller stores that fed off of the department stores followed. So did the fast food restaurants: Arby’s, McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s all had downtown locations. No more.
The demise of downtown retail is evident. Former department stores have been turned into a mix of office and residential space with little to no first floor retail. The 500 block of Main Street emptied out and only in recent years have its buildings been brought back to life with residential and mostly restaurant space. And Main Place Mall is a shell of its former self.
As recently as 1989, Main Place Mall was 90 percent occupied with national retailers such as Footlocker and The Limited. The mall weathered the closure of Sample by carving the anchor stores space up for smaller stores on the first floor and the Greenhouse Food Court on the second level. When AM&A’s closed it was 21 percent vacant but by 1998 it was 50 percent occupied.
Owner Main Place Liberty Group has mostly filled the 171,000 sq.ft. mall with telecommunications companies. Former storefronts are walled off, hiding computer equipment and employees that have been drawn to the building due to its technology infrastructure. A few budget retailers and restaurants are scattered throughout the first floor and the second floor Greenhouse Food Court looks to be doing fine serving the office worker lunch crowd.
Downtown is reinventing itself. It’s become an entertainment destination again, with a mix of restaurants, cafés, bars and clubs, sports venues, theater, and waterfront attractions. They cater to downtown dwellers, employees and others living throughout the region.
As downtown and adjacent neighborhoods repopulate, the lack of retail represents an opportunity. Downtown is under-retailed. But one of the problems with downtown’s residential boom is that the projects are small and are scattered throughout downtown. Braymiller’s Market will be opening on Ellicott Street and will be a draw. None of the building’s around it have retail space that can build off of it.
Which brings us back to Main Place Mall. It’s lack of presence on Main Street is depressing. Combined with the on-again, off-again redevelopment of the AM&A’s store across the street, it’s a big black hole of emptiness. But there lies the opportunity. Main Place has enough space to create a nucleus of shopping. Opening up to Main Street and filling its first floor, or roughly 80,000 sq.ft. of space, isn’t impossible if an anchor tenant is found.
Empty or “ghost” malls have found success by updating what the best malls have always done: give people a reason to come beyond shopping. While downtown has lost its shopping pizzazz, entertainment is a proven draw. “Shoppable entertainment” is all the rage these days in real estate circles. Open air retail is seeing a renaissance as seen in plans for Eastern Hills Mall and the former Northtown Plaza. Light rail ties together Canalside, Seneca One Tower, the Medical Campus and other downtown draws. Main Place has a chance to be relevant again with the right plan.