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Property Rounds: Regional malls embrace SoNo Collection as positive

August 30, 2017

Far from dreading the opening of Norwalk’s planned new mall, many in southwestern Connecticut’s retail industry have high hopes for how the SoNo Collection could benefit the region.

With a tentatively planned opening of fall 2019, the SoNo Collection represents a major new retail player that will vie for tenants to fill its storefronts and restaurant spaces along with shoppers to keep business thriving. It has the potential to compete with the region’s variety of shopping magnets, including Connecticut Post, Danbury Fair, Stamford Town Center and Westfield Trumbull malls, as well as boutique boulevards in Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Ridgefield and Westport.

Yet the SoNo Collection development is currently viewed as more of a boost to the retail environment rather than a challenger for business.

“In the retail business, anytime more retail is developed, that’s a positive,” said Melissa Eigen, marketing manager for Danbury Fair mall. “It’s a good sign for all shopping malls. It shows the strength of the market and consumer demand and the need for more brick-and-mortar shopping areas.”

Since the SoNo Collection only exists now as an excavated mound of earth with the beginnings of cement floors and walls, it’s too early to tell whether it will siphon customers from Danbury, but she said she’s confident in Danbury Fair’s ability to compete.

Several commercial real estate brokers and retail industry leaders from around the region echoed her sentiment.

“Compared to other densely populated areas of the country, this region is actually under-retailed,” said Tom Torelli of Allied Property Management in Greenwich. “Norwalk’s mall might be beneficial to us.”

Challenges

As the number of retail closures this year continues to grown, on a trajectory that could surpass 2008 records, Chicago-based mall developer General Growth Properties has been laying the foundation of what’s planned to be a million-square-foot regional shopping center off West Avenue and Interstate 95 in South Norwalk.

GGP markets the SoNo Collection as a high-end shopping center that will include roughly 730,000 square feet of retail space and a sculpture garden. Already, the developer touts that the mall is nearly 65 percent leased, which includes the likes of anchor tenants Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. In total, the mall will host between 80 and 100 shops and restaurants.

Once the SoNo Collection opens its doors, shopping centers in the region will contend with brick-and-mortar retail’s uncertain future along with what’s been called the most common cause of death for malls — a newer mall nearby.

According to a Wells Fargo Securities analysis of 72 mall properties, new shopping centers offering more modern features and greater store selection ranked as the top reason nearby malls closed, the Wall Street Journal reported in April.

Positive in the long run

With its attempts to capture upscale tenants and shoppers, the SoNo Collection may pose the strongest threat to retail districts targeting similar demographics, such as in Greenwich and Westport. Many said they believed the new mall will challenge Westport, but few said it would affect Greenwich.

“I don’t think the Norwalk mall will affect Greenwich at all,” said Tyler Lyman, senior vice president at Stamford-based Rhys Commercial. “But I do think it will affect Westport.”

Torelli, whose company negotiates leases and provides management services for many downtown Greenwich properties, said he believes Westport, unlike Greenwich, will be negatively affected by the SoNo Collection.

“The Norwalk mall might alert certain retailers to see an opportunity in the Fairfield County market that they didn’t before,” he said. “And if they’re doing well in Norwalk, they might look at Greenwich next. … In the long run, I think it’s going to be a positive effect here.”

When it comes to whether the new mall will poach would-be Greenwich shoppers, Torelli said he’s doubtful downstate customers will make the trek to Norwalk.

“Shoppers are unwilling to spend time sitting in their car to get there once they’ve been once or twice,” he said.

Nearby shopping districts, such as Stamford Town Center, that may not have the same appeal to luxury crowds also aren’t predicted to take much of a hit once the SoNo Collection opens.

“The Stamford mall has no premium or luxury category to it; it’s got the middle-of-the-road brands,” said Rhys executive vice president Jason Wuchiski. “So I don’t see the SoNo Collection affecting the Stamford mall. If it has an effect on shopping in Fairfield County, it would be on Main Street in Westport.”

With at least two years until opening and some revelations to come about SoNo Collection’s plans to be a “mall of the future,” there’s plenty of time for prognoses to change. For now, developer GGP asserts the region should appreciate the landmark event.

“You may not see another mall getting built in America for the next decade — they don’t get built that often,” GGP CEO Sandeep Mathrani said this month at a ceremony marking the commencement of mall construction. “If you open a newspaper everyday, it talks about how (malls) are not going to exist. But with Nordstrom’s and Bloomingdale’s commitment and, of course, the great community we are in, we are able to build this project.”

Includes reporting by Chris Bosak, Paul Schott, Alex Soule and Robert Koch.

Contact the writer at mbennett@greenwichtime.com; Twitter @Macaela_