By Mark Carlisle
Glendale has started the process to help the Arrowhead Towne Center adapt to a changing economy.
With more and more shopping moving online, many retailers are closing locations across the country and shedding jobs. The city has begun the process for a general plan and zoning change that would expand the land-use options at the mall to include things like office space, apartments, hotel and parking structure.
Tabitha Perry, Glendale’s special projects executive officer, said the idea came from City Manager Kevin Phelps and the city’s economic development “paying attention to what’s happening in the economy,” and looking to be proactive with the mall, at 77th Avenue and Bell Road.
“You don’t want to hear the words ‘dead mall’ in our city,” said Yucca District Commissioner Martin Nowakowski. He said he applauded the city for forecasting into the future.
The changes in the economy are no longer abstract for Arrowhead Towne Center. In July, Sears, one of its seven anchor stores, closed in July after the company declared bankruptcy last year. Two of the mall’s other anchors, Macy’s and JCPenney, have closed dozens of stores at other locations in the U.S.
“So, we reached out to the property owners and said, ‘How can we be proactive to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we have a regional mall that’s no longer active and you’re not set up for entitlements that would allow you to do additional development that falls within the permitted land uses?’” Ms. Perry said. The mall is owned by The Macerich Company, a real estate investment trust.
The city’s planning commission gave city staff the OK last month to start drafting both a general plan and zoning amendment for the mall. Once the changes are drafted, the planning commission and City Council must review and approve the changes before they’re adopted. The process will also include opportunity for public input, likely including a neighborhood meeting.
Ms. Perry emphasized the proposed land-use changes don’t signal doom for the mall, but are a way for the city to be proactive against economic trends and allow Macerich, the mall’s owner, flexibility to adapt to whatever the market might throw at it.
“We are not suggesting that Arrowhead Mall has plans to close,” Ms. Perry said, “yet we are seeking to establish entitlements that would allow for various permitted land uses and development standards to continue attracting the best and highest end uses in the area.”
Arrowhead Towne Center has faired much better than many other malls. Despite Sears’ closing, the mall still has a lower vacancy rate than several malls in the Valley, such as Metrocenter and Paradise Valley Mall in Phoenix.
Commissioner Rick Harper from the Sahuaro District, which includes the mall, said the changes were worthwhile regardless of how the mall is performing now.
“They say they’re in good shape right now, but we should help them look ahead,” he said.
The city’s attention to Arrowhead Towne Center is due to the mall’s role as one of the largest economic drivers in Glendale and the largest in north Glendale. City staff’s report noted that 55% of Glendale’s general comes from sales taxes. Glendale does not see any sales tax dollars from online retail sales. If the mall were to decline, Glendale would feel the impact, too.
Online retailers aren’t the only thing hindering shopping malls. The Great Recession and America’s widening wealth gap have also played a role in the decline, among other factors. Between 2010 and 2013, Christmas-season mall visits were cut in half, according to ShopperTrak.
Just as there hasn’t been one cause of the decline of brick-and-mortar retail, there isn’t any one clear solution. Therefore, Glendale wants to give Arrowhead Towne Center the freedom to be flexible moving forward.
“We want to open up the scope of opportunity for land uses,” Ms. Perry said.
Changes could include reducing the requirements for parking to allow for more development to potentially occur in what is now the mall’s parking lot, possibly consolidating parking in a structure. Another change could be allowing for higher buildings at the mall.
Planning commission chairman Gary Hirsch theorized relaxing building height restrictions could have a transformative impact on the surrounding area as well.
“As soon as you go vertical up there, the neighborhood’s going to go vertical too,” Mr. Hirsch said.
Ms. Perry said staff wanted to be sensitive to residents in the area and would listen to neighbors concerns in a public meeting.
While no plans are definite, other possibilities Ms. Perry mentioned included offices or apartment housing on the mall property. She said she’d researched other malls that had apartments on the second floor and restaurants on the first and some malls that included roller coasters. Though she said, roller coasters were not the plan, Ms. Perry said the city was looking to cast a wide net with possible land uses for the mall.
While the departure of an anchor business like Sears leaves a glaring vacancy at the mall, it also allows for broad possibilities of new businesses.
“Just to give an example, the Sears location could potentially turn over into a hotel,” Ms. Perry said.
Malls across the U.S. have also occupied their empty storefronts with health clinics. Some universities and colleges have also opened research facilities in malls.
Sears isn’t the first anchor to close at Arrowhead Towne Center. Forever 21 was formerly Mervyns, and Sears was preceded by a Montgomery Ward. Both of those retail chains are now defunct. The mall’s Macy’s was a Robinsons-May before Macy’s bought the company.
Mr. Hirsch noted other hurdles the mall has overcome dating back to before it opened in 1993.
“This isn’t the first challenge for Arrowhead,” Mr. Hirsch said. “When it was first initiated by Council and the infrastructure was built. There was promptly a huge recession. The original developer died on the vine like so many of them did. So, this isn’t the first time that this property has been facing some challenges, but it sounds like we’re a little bit farther out, ahead of the trends here.”
Mark Carlisle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or found on Twitter @mwcarlisle.