All over the region, they sit for years – former Kmarts, Wal-Marts, Thriftways.
Once magnets for thousands of shoppers, now they’re huge, vacuous buildings. Sitting empty, they frustrate everyone around them: operators of nearby stores who miss the lost customers; developers struggling to find retailers willing to settle in a spot that’s not in the hottest market in town; and community leaders who watch their neighborhood’s appearance and reputation deteriorate.
“These big boxes – many of which are controlled by Wall Street – are going to go wherever the money is,” said Morton Schwartz, a commercial real estate agent for more than 40 years who now works for Grubb & Ellis/West Shell Commercial. “And what is left behind is second-generation space. People don’t want it.”
Dozens of “big box” stores sit empty around Greater Cincinnati. Counting the former Thriftways alone, 21 stores went vacant after the grocer’s parent company, Winn-Dixie, announced in 2004 that the stores would close.
Kroger took over about a third of the locations, but the rest remain unused.
Of four former Frank’s Nursery and Crafts stores that went out of business in 2005, three remain empty. Add to those the former Kmarts closed by the company in 2002 and 2003, the Media Plays that closed last year, the former Wal-Marts empty because the company built new.
But communities are starting to get smart. Seeing the ripple effect of an empty big box, some cities are requiring retailers to make more attractive the sites they want to leave. Others are buying the sites with city funds, hoping that having control over the locations themselves will be better than relying on absentee landlords.
In Forest Park, frustrated city leaders decided in December to spend about $800,000 to buy the former Kmart at Hamilton Avenue and Waycross Road. They hope to add nearby properties and redevelop them together, with money from a tax-increment financing district they would create.
In Florence, officials didn’t want a vacant former Wal-Mart on Houston Road after the store moved up the street to bigger, newer space. So in negotiations with the company about its new store, city officials “made it very, very clear” that the former space had to be renovated into something more appealing to other retailers, Mayor Diane Whalen said. Now, a Michaels store and a Babies R Us are about to open in that former Wal-Mart.
“Looking at other cities, we saw the vacancies,” the mayor said. “And that’s when we said to them, ‘We’re not interested in this if you’re going to let the old store sit.’ “
And in Westwood, residents are getting involved. They’re meeting with representatives of New Plan, the new owners of Western Hills Plaza, which is now home to a vacant Kroger, Media Play, Pier 1 Imports and other former stores.
They want the company to know, Westwood Civic Association President Melva Gwynn said, that there’s community support for a redeveloped strip center, something similar to what New Plan did to Brentwood Plaza in Springfield Township. The company gave that shopping area a facelift, upgraded its parking lot and recruited new tenants, including a Kroger store.
Residents also helped lobby for Metro buses to stop outside the center on Glenway Avenue instead of pulling in. That helped cut down on trash and on the congregating teenagers who were intimidating customers, Gwynn said. Sears now anchors one end, with Old Navy, Deveroes and T.J. Maxx among the other tenants.
“It gets a reputation for being unsafe, and that’s not good,” she said. “But we have a lot of faith. And people who want to invest have to know that that type of attitude is out there in the community.”
The redevelopment should help improve the area’s retail vacancy rate, which is stable at about 12 percent, according to Grubb & Ellis/West Shell Commercial. But that number has grown since 2003, when about 10 percent of the area’s retail space was vacant, according to the company’s research. The vacancy rate nationally is forecast to rise to about 7.5 percent in 2007. Greater Cincinnati has more than 48 million square feet of retail space, with another nearly 1.3 million square feet under construction.
At the same time developers and officials are pushing to make the old new again, they’re up against this: across the country this year, more than 10 million square feet of new retail space will open.
The old spaces linger for a lot of reasons, experts say. They’re too big – some near 100,000 square feet – for most stores to take over, both because retailers don’t need that much space and because they don’t want to pay the per-foot rent, Schwartz said. If they’re willing to take space anywhere other than hot new areas like around Fields-Ertel Road, he said, they’re often stuck with big chunks that need dividing, work landlords aren’t always willing to do.
In some cases, leases ensure that landlords get rent for years even if a store is vacant. That was the case with the former Office Max at Kenwood and Montgomery roads in Sycamore Township. Redevelopment efforts there took much longer because the property owner, still getting money, had less incentive to sell, said Greg Bickford, the township’s zoning administrator. On the site now: Trader Joe’s and David’s Bridal.
His township is having luck with one of its former Frank’s Nursery and Crafts locations – the one on Kenwood Road behind Kenwood Towne Centre. Work continues there now, he said, on what will become a Dewey’s Pizza, jewelry and furniture stores and a Down Lite store. The other area Frank’s, in Cheviot, is vacant.
There’s less interest in Sycamore Township’s other former Frank’s, at Montgomery Road and Interstate 275. It’s now owned by Kimco Realty, Bickford said, and though representatives have talked about putting in a restaurant and retail, he hasn’t seen any plans. Township officials hope that spot becomes a key to redeveloping the area around it.
Sportswear retailer Steve & Barry’s has helped fill some of the vacancies. It took over an empty Thriftway in Green Township last year and is working on a new store in Florence Plaza, in a former Rhodes Furniture.
There’s more good “big box” news too:
In Cold Spring: The newest and largest Furniture Fair store opened in November on Alexandria Pike, in 95,000 square feet, a former Big Kmart.
In Mason: The former Thriftway on U.S. 42, vacant since the fall of 2004, is home to a bigger Dollar General Market store, which opened last week, and a new Tuesday Morning.
In Finneytown: Cincinnati Financial Corp. bought the vacant former Kroger on Winton Road and announced plans in December to renovate it into its off-site, backup data center. The store had been empty since 2005, when Kroger moved to Brentwood Plaza.
The company paid $2.25 million for the 16-acre site, which eventually will employ up to 70 people. Officials called the sale key for their efforts to revitalize the Winton Road corridor.
But elsewhere around the region, there are people like the Bailey brothers. They run Del Fair Lock & Key in Delhi Township. And they remember the exact date their business took a turn for the worse: Sept. 27, 2004. That’s the date the Thriftway closed. The drop in customers was instantaneous. The brothers’ concerns about survival have lessened in recent months because they sought out more commercial clients.
A big new Walgreens opened last year at the edge of the shopping center, but the Baileys said the building is so big it now just hides much of the rest of the strip center, where remaining retailers continue to struggle.
“The situation here hasn’t improved,” Bailey said. “We’re still here in no-man’s land.”