ROXBURY, N.J. - Today's retailers want their storefronts and signs facing parking lots, not enclosed mall corridors shared by other stores, according to the architect designing the shopping plaza that will replace Ledgewood Mall.
Architect Charles Dietz, representing the mall's new owners, spoke this week before the Roxbury Planning Board. His presentation was part of the first appearance before the board by the developers, who are seeking preliminary site plan approval.
Dietz told the panel that enclosed malls, like Ledgewood Mall, are the dinosaurs of the retail world. Because of that, the developers of the proposed Shops at Ledgewood Commons plan to convert the floundering indoor mall on Route 10 into a shopping center similar in design to the nearby Roxbury Mall; Gone will be the indoor corridors and storefronts. All businesses in Ledgewood Commons will have exterior entries only.
Although Dietz said large malls, such as Rockaway Townsquare Mall, are still viable, he stressed that small, indoor malls like Ledgewood Mall are no longer desired by retailers.
"For the past 28 years, my firm and myself in particular have practiced design and renovation of retail shopping centers in the state of New Jersey as well as the greater metropolitan area and I can tell you … the retail marketplace has gone a full circle and is 180 degrees different than what was previously thought as a desirable site plan and project," Dietz said.
He took several minutes to explain for the board the reasoning behind the developers' plan, which includes razing the building that last housed a Macy's, dividing into several smaller stores the former Sports Authority building, adding some outdoor courtyard areas where restaurants can place tables, building several new stores and doing extensive landscaping.
"I'm sure everybody's aware, with e-commerce and all the things that are going on in the world today for patrons to buy products, malls have really suffered I think the largest pitfalls," Dietz said. "People are trending away from malls. The large regional anchors that we all grew up with in the 60s and 70s - the Sears and the JCPenneys and the Macy's and other national brands around the country are struggling."
He said retailers began losing interest in enclosed malls about a decade ago.
"What I've been seeing over the last seven to 10 years - and I've done this in a lot of other areas in the state - is the modern retailer wants their front door outside-facing, with their sign either facing the street or facing the parking lot where their potential customers are going to park," said the architect. "They don’t want their patrons coming to a mall through other stores to get to their stores.
Although the Ledgewood Commons developers are not promising any specific retailers, other than the stores currently there, Dietz said the owners are having fruitful discussions.
"They love what we're proposing here," he said. "Give me my visibility on the highway or street. Give me my parking. I want my front door and my signage visible to everybody from those two areas. And that is what the applicant is proposing."
Dietz noted that each store will have "a tower element" on the exterior. These higher portions of the façade "will identify their specific store … with their specific signage," he said. "That’s the wave. That’s where retail's going. That's where retail is."
To Dietz, the long and – to some – sad demise of Ledgewood Mall is not something that can be blamed on its location. He said the site is a "great" spot.
However, "in New Jersey, a mall this size and a mall with these types of anchors just cannot survive," Dietz said. "I don’t have to tell the board how long this property has been fledgling. It's failing. We have over 50 percent, maybe even 60 percent, vacancy and just in the time I've been hired, which is three years ago, we've seen two or three more tenants have gone out in this shopping center. It cannot exist. It cannot survive the way it is. It doesn’t help my client. It doesn’t help the township and it doesn’t help the consumers and patrons in Roxbury township if we keep it this way."
People who like the design of the new Verizon store on Route 10 in Succasunna are likely to be happy with the appearance of Ledgewood Commons. Dietz was the Verizon store architect and he said the facades at Ledgewood Commons will be similar.
But there's a caveat: Although the Ledgewood Walmart is the main anchor store at Ledgewood Mall - and will remain that way when Ledgewood Commons is opened in late 2018 - it will not benefit from Dietz's artistry. The Walmart you see now will be the Walmart you'll see then.
That's because Walmart's lease gives it total control over the store's appearance, said Roxbury Planning Department Director Russell Stern and Jared Minarelli, director of asset management for Advance Realty, one of the companies in the partnership building Ledgewood Commons.
"From Marshalls to the wall at Walmart will get new facades … but Walmart will remain exactly the way it is today?" asked Roxbury Councilman and Planning Board Member Bob DiFillippo at the board meeting. "That is correct," Dietz said.