BonTon stores announced today, March 13, 2007, that it will close its location at the Medley Center (formerly Irondequoit Mall)in Rochester NY. Previously, the JC Penney Store there closed. This now leaves Sears, Macy's, Steve & Barry's, and an out-parcel Target store as the principal anchors.
Phillip Dampier's Commentary:
June 28, 2005 (user submitted April 9, 2007)
Medley Centre began life as Irondequoit Mall, located along the busy Route 104 corridor on the northeast side of Rochester. It was Rochester's latest traditional enclosed mall, built by the omnipresent local retail developer Wilmorite, opening for business in 1990. The mall offered area residents its first fully two-story mall, designed to offer lots of wide open space with natural light coming from its massive glass roof. A showcase carousel, visible from the highway, offered rides to children while parents relaxed in the adjacent food court. At the time, Irondequoit Mall targeted residents in the northeastern city and the growing east-side suburbs of Webster, Irondequoit, and Penfield. The mall also attracted attention from the wealthier suburbs Brighton and Pittsford which divided their shopping attention between the then-dreary and outdated Eastview Mall in Victor and Marketplace Mall in Henrietta.
It opened with great fanfare with original anchor stores Sears, JCPenney, Sibley's, and McCurdy's, and all the usual national chains that turn up at malls. Irondequoit Mall was late to the area mall party, but established itself as a popular shopping destination, especially for those who disliked the extensive walking required to navigate other area malls which sprawled on and on with their single story designs.
As the 1990's progressed, significant changes occurred in the big box department store business model that existed for nearly 100 years. Smaller, regionally-based, family-owned department store chains began to be consolidated by a national wave of mergers. In Rochester, Sibley's was the first to go, selling its entire chain of stores to the May Department Stores, based in Pittsburgh, which rechristened Sibley's under their Kaufmann's store brand. (May itself would later be absorbed into the enormous Federated Department Stores, owner of Macy's among many other super-regional chains, in 1995.)
Very soon thereafter, the McCurdy family saw the writing on the wall and sold their entire chain of stores to Bon-Ton of York, Pennsylvania which operated as a regional chain across the northeastern states.
At the same time, the growing income of residents in eastern Monroe county, and the tremendous growth occurring in nearby Ontario county by suburban sprawl meant it was time to take another look at the then-aging Eastview Mall, located just across the Monroe-Ontario county line. It had not seen a major overhaul since the 1970's, right down to the avocado green wall-to-wall carpeting and the burnt orange accents. Ironically, the downfall of Irondequoit Mall would come primarily from the actions of Wilmorite itself, which also managed Eastview.
THE DECLINING YEARS
It wasn't just one factor which would put Irondequoit Mall into the category of a "deal mall." Several factors conspired to bring down the area's youngest mall in just a few short years.
The most important was the aforementioned redevelopment, expansion, and reopening of Eastview Mall, which has attracted premium upscale retailers, a healthy occupancy level, and operates in an area perceived as low crime and a safe destination day or night. Eastview immediately drained Irondequoit Mall's largest percentage of customers from the eastern side of Monroe county, especially Brighton and Pittsford. Wilmorite succeeded, perhaps too well, in its efforts to reintroduce Rochester to Eastview Mall.
At the same time, a demographic shift in customers shopping at Irondequoit began to play on latent fears some shoppers had about Irondequoit Mall and those who frequented it. Midtown Plaza, the nation's first traditional mall, was already relegated to the "dead mall" category. Shoppers from the city of Rochester defected from Midtown, with many northside residents now turning to Irondequoit Mall, which has plenty of free parking and frequent bus service. Rochester's vibrant Latino community adopted Irondequoit Mall as a popular destination as well. That Spanish was now being spoken openly and frequently at the mall concerned more than one of the sheltered suburbanites I overheard in my very frequent visits to the mall at the time. Groups of younger people loitering around the mall and its parking lots didn't help the image much either. A whisper campaign about the mall and its shoppers began.
Soon, the urban legend that Irondequoit Mall was a "high crime" area with shoppers being harassed by gangs and car theft rings operating openly would eventually reach the local press. Rumors of a rape in the parking lot even surfaced. That none of this was actually true didn't seem to matter, despite Wilmorite's efforts to beef up security, launch a public relations effort to reassure customers, establish a code of conduct, and several positive articles in the same press that reported earlier "concerns." Once a perception is established, even if disproved, many customers end up staying away with a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive, "why take a chance?"
In truth, Irondequoit Mall never suffered the crime rate or the problems that the urban legend proffered.
As customers fled, so did the retailers, starting with the national chains operating smaller stores in the mall. At first, the defections were manageable, but as Eastview gained more and more prominence, what began as a trickle soon became a flood, especially with the announcement that JCPenney was leaving in 2003. By the time the fixtures and displays were liquidated at JCPenney, Irondequoit Mall had now firmly been established as a dead mall, with a 20% occupancy rate.
By early 2005, it was possible to spend an hour power walking the first floor of Irondequoit Mall and literally pass not a single customer. Bored employees routinely brought paperbacks to read, mall security coffee-klatched with the maintenance workers, and the mall was literally populated with more store employees than shoppers. The only "regulars" tended to be mall walkers.
The writing was on the wall. In that year, Wilmorite abandoned Irondequoit Mall, putting the property up for sale.
A NEW OWNER, AND PROMISES OF A NEW BEGINNING
In 2005, Adam Bersin, an optimistic Syracuse developer, purchased Irondequoit Mall from Wilmorite for five million dollars and a 15 year tax break incentive provided by the town or Irondequoit. In return, Bersin promised to infuse $44 million into a full renovation.
Bersin rechristened the mall, thus ending the short history of Irondequoit Mall and opening a new chapter under its new name Medley Centre. As of the spring of 2007, Medley Centre has managed some small victories, replacing the JCPenney anchor store shell with Steve & Barry's, a sporting apparel store unique to the area. An indoor soft playground on the first level has become a modest success as well, providing hours of entertainment to children for a $2 entry fee good for the entire day, all under the watchful eyes of mall security and staff. It's available from the time the mall opens to approximately one hour prior to closing.
Small, family-owned stores have managed to survive in locations formerly occupied by large corporate-owned chain stores, usually with a sign plastered over the the earlier occupant's name. Apparel and shoes targeting younger customers have been the most successful, but some eclectic independently owned businesses have managed to hang on for a few years now as well. Mall activity tends to pick up around the Christmas shopping season, when some temporary merchants move in.
Some special events managed some success in attracting foot traffic. In October 2006, a Halloween "haunted house" and exhibit made from tens of thousands of balloons attracted long lines to a mall wing dedicated to the exhibit, which charged an entry fee.
But along with the small victories have come new challenges, starting with the spring 2007 announcement that Medley Centre has lost another major anchor store. Bon Ton, to the surprise of no one, announced that it was throwing in the towel on the location because of low sales. Bersin is now negotiating to purchase the property, owned by Bon Ton, to ensure it remains associated with Medley Centre. This leaves only two traditional anchor stores, Sears and Macy's (formerly Kaufmann's).
Mall occupancy to this day also remains dismal, with the vast majority of storefronts either empty or filled with tenants serving no retail function. Among the latter have been a dog obedience school, model train and racing car tracks, a "summer camp," a little-used storefront for Irondequoit town groups and functions, an English for Speakers of Other Languages resource center, and a security guard employment/travel agency (in the same storefront). Many of the retail apparel stores serve as clearance/outlet centers.
Mall signage remains a problem, with a woefully outdated mall directory that promises an optimistic shopping experience for visiting shoppers who rapidly become bewildered by the sea of empty stores, accompanied by lit advertising messages that seem trapped in time back to 2002, not long after 9/11, with patriotic public service announcements. Stores that closed years ago still have signs which seem to indicate the closing was recent, and some of the anchor stores have begun dumping their stock and fixtures into nearby store locations, hidden with blue plastic sheeting or with nothing at all.
But Medley Centre's upkeep through the challenges has been visible as well. The mall's live plants remain well-cared for, efforts to cope with the leaking high glass roof have been ongoing and moderately successful, the floors have been kept clean, and several entrances were rebuilt and improved. Mall employee turnover seems modest as well, with many of the same faces still there month after month. The mall parking lot is kept in good repair, and mall security vehicles pay careful attention to making the lot is safe and secure.
The employees and staff at the mall remain friendly and helpful, despite the challenges they confront (ranging from extreme boredom to possible unemployment if Bersin can't pull this one off.)
Controversial changes surrounding the food court and mall traffic in general have caused some minor resentment among the mall's remaining loyal visitors. Since the mall opened, the food court, especially during the day, has been a gathering place for retired locals who literally spend hours sitting and visiting with their friends. Chess and card games were a common site to help pass the time. Frequently the only people in the food court, they were surprised to learn that a policy change now prohibited chess and card games during regular mall hours. The policy change, attributed to Bersin, came as a result of his efforts to make the mall's apparance more conducive to a "family friendly shopping experience." This raised some controversy in the local press, but came as part of a broader effort to control loitering in the mall, particularly by younger people.
At times, large groups of youth would spend time at the mall meeting with friends and talking, and occasionally interacting (positively or negatively -- I have experienced both) with shoppers. Mall security has made a special effort to keep Medley Centre from being a social club. Individuals that repeatedly violate the mall's rules of conduct are banned, but this is not an issue unique to Medley Centre.
Mall walkers remain the most commonly visible people at Medley Centre, and their presence at the very least promotes a sense that the place is not completely empty. Bersin's continued acceptance of this group, which seems to try hard not to get in the way of ordinary mall shoppers, seems to be a big net positive (and a lot of them do their shopping there too).
The changing landscape of retail has created some special challenges for many malls across the nation similar to what Irondequoit Mall/Medley Centre have faced. In some areas, a mixed retail/commercial approach as been successful, with doctor's offices next to shoe stores, or private businesses occupying one wing of a former mall with traditional retailers occupying the rest. Some malls have even managed to become indoor parks/community centers. Some have churches within them. Others have left their anchor stores intact while tearing down the rest of the indoor mall, replacing it with green space or a strip/outdoor mall format. And some have been obliterated altogether.
Bersin's biggest challenge remains driving traffic into the mall space. Special events remain one way to accomplish this. Earlier proposals to bring important town services such as a branch of the town library would definitely be another. Non-traditional mall retailers have survived the challenges of the mall's past, and this robust group of people seems to be on to something. Having stores that don't exist in every other mall in town be moderately successful is a good clue that Medley Centre has a chance to find its niche by not trying to compete head-on with Wilmorite's malls in the area, but to offer something unique and different.
The final chapter has not yet been written for Medley Centre, and considering Bersin's ongoing dedication and enthusiasm to this important part of Irondequoit, one hopes he can find success.
Published Feb 10, 2005
Developer Wants Irondequoit Mall
by Rocco Vertuccio
Irondequoit Mall is now 80% vacant
It could be The Irondequoit Mall's last hope. After eight years of trying to redevelop the long-struggling mall, town leaders say they have the first real offer on the table to sell the mall.
When it opened in the early 1990's, it was supposed to be a place to shop. Joe Mammano and his buddies now only walk inside Irondequoit Mall for their daily exercise. They walk by empty storefronts. The mall is 80 percent vacant.
"It's a dirty shame. It's a beautiful mall, nice town, " says Mammano. He grew up in Irondequoit.
Adam Bersin says he can turn the mall around. He is offering to buy the property for five million dollars. Bersin worked for Syracuse mall developer Pyramid Companies for ten years. He recently left the company to pursue The Irondequoit Mall.
"I think this location is probably one of the best locations in Rochester for a shopping center. The number of people who live within three or five miles exceed any other location in the market," says Bersin.
Bersin says he has the contacts and the financial backing to make the mall work. He says several national retailers are ready to move into the mall, and several others are interested.
"My vision is to create a shopping center out of the wonderful property that has unique tenants that are different from the other malls," says Bersin.
But Bersin says the deal will only happen if he gets economic incentives. The town and the school district are working on a plan to exempt Bersin from paying property taxes for 20 years. That money would instead go back into improving the property to help attract big box retailers.
"Our feeling is better to take that and invest it, assuring the property is going to be successful in the future because we all benefit from that, rather than sit here and do nothing and let the property meltdown," says Irondequoit Town Supervisor David Schantz.
Supervisor Schantz says this deal has to go through. There are no other prospects. Other ideas to redevelop the mall for multiple purposes have fallen through. If this deal falls through, Schantz says the mall may have to be demolished.
Time on Bersin's deal is running out. He says he needs an answer within a few days, or the deal is off. It's an answer that could finally make The Irondequoit Mall a place to walk and shop.
"Oh yeah, sure would. This is the best place to shop. They got a nice setup here," says Mammano.
The Irondequoit Mall, located on the the north side of the Rochester NY
Area was opened in 1989. A 2 Story Mall, built to be airy with plenty of
glass and natural light, opened with three anchors, JC Penney, Sears, and
Over the following several years, while I was going to college in the
Rochester area, I spent many after noons in the Mall, and saw it add
a Bon-Ton in the early 90's. At the time, itr was somewhat successful.
However, after Wilmorite's combining of the Long Ridge mall and Greece
Towne Mall into the Mall at Greece Ridge Center in 1994, and more
importantly Wilmorite's expansion of the Eastview Mall in the mid 90's, the
mall went into a quick death spiral.
Seemingly every time I came back into town, more storefronts were empty, and
the last time I was in town the Penneys had closed, about 60 percent of
the storefronts had closed, and the other anchors had to stay, since
they owned the properties that their stores sat on. Much of this death came
rapidly, since store after store still had some indication of what
they used to be, whether it be a poster inside or a facade with the
lettering missing but the shadows still there.
There are some plans to attempt to revitalize this mall, with a
library/community center for the community being considered.
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