We round out our Rochester features with the region’s newest mall, Irondequoit Mall. Opened in 1990, Irondequoit Mall was located in Rochester’s northeast suburb of the same name, Irondequoit, a town of 50,000 residents located immediately northeast of the city.
When it opened, Irondequoit Mall had three anchors: Sears, JCPenney, and Pittsburgh-based Kaufmann’s. The Kaufmann’s was originally slated to be Rochester-based department store Sibley’s, but May Company decided to consolidate their nameplates and ousted Sibley’s in favor of regional brand Kaufmann’s. This switch took place during Irondequoit Mall’s construction. (Is this correct? A couple sources say that Sibley’s acutally opened here very briefly.)
Irondequoit Mall’s design was a modified U shape, with Kaufmann’s as the west anchor, JCPenney in the middle, and Sears on the north end. The mall was two level, had two main courts, and contained space for 125 stores. The food court was located on the upper level of the mall, in a court formed by the intersection of 3 hallways. JCPenney had the best access of any of the anchor stores, having two exits into the mall: one at center court, and one to a hallway leading directly to the food court. A scanned directory of the mall is located here.
Irondequoit Mall was built by Rochester-based retail developer Wilmorite, the same firm that developed three other malls in the Rochester market: Greece Towne Mall in Greece (1967), Eastview Mall in Victor (1971), and Marketplace Mall in Henrietta (1982). Irondequoit Mall was built in 1990 to complete a geographic trapezoid of sorts consisting of malls around the perimiter of the Rochester area, with downtown stalwart Midtown Plaza at the apex.
While only 2 miles from downtown Rochester, Irondequoit Mall was built with the intention to draw shoppers from middle and upper-middle suburban areas north and east of the city, like Irondequoit, Webster, East Rochester, Pittsford and Fairport. Instead, Irondequoit Mall failed and ultimately succumbed to an unintended set of circumstances. However, its story is interesting and still in progress, and definitely worth sharing.
Irondequoit Mall enjoyed early success in its first years and even embarked on an expansion in 1993, adding Rochester-based McCurdy’s as a fourth anchor. This store didn’t last very long, however, and was replaced with Bon Ton in 1994. May Company, which already owned the Kaufmann’s anchor in the mall, purchased the McCurdy’s chain and didn’t want to operate two stores in the same mall, so they divested McCurdy’s to Bon Ton.
The biggest changes for Irondequoit Mall came after 1995, and didn’t even occur there at all. That year, two other Rochester-area malls expanded dramatically. Eastview Mall, located 15 miles away in Victor, added two anchors and upscaled to become the Rochester area’s best mall. Greece Ridge Mall, located 7 miles away in Greece, was a new mall created that year by sewing together 2 smaller adjacent malls, Long Ridge Mall and Greece Towne Center. Ironically, both of these projects were Wilmorite’s, the same company that built Irondequoit Mall only 5 years earlier. The competition from these two expansions, combined with a perception of crime and dab of racism, would soon slide Irondequoit Mall into obsolescence.
During the mid-90s, about the same time Eastview expanded and Greece Ridge opened, Rochester’s inner-city mall, Midtown Plaza, began to die. Shoppers who used to go downtown began to shift their preferences toward suburban malls, and Irondequoit Mall was the closest mall to most of the city of Rochester. Many residents of the city of Rochester, especially the area closest to Irondequoit Mall, are low income and minority. In typical ‘white flight’ fashion, the more affluent suburban shoppers Irondequoit Mall so desperately wished to court began to avoid the mall, citing a perception of crime that ironically wasn’t really there. A whisper campaign about the mall and its shoppers began among the sheltered, white suburbanites in eastern Monroe County, despite the fact that the perception of crime was mostly untrue, blown wildly out of proportion.
With the writing on the wall, Irondequoit Mall quickly began to lose retailers. After the Eastview expansion was complete, shoppers in Fairport, Pittsford, and East Rochester had no reason to go up to Irondequoit at all. Eastview was much better, and much closer to them. In fact, Eastview quickly became super-regional, drawing shoppers from not only its home trade area, but from beyond the region as well. Other Rochester malls retained shoppers for other reasons. Greece Ridge held on mostly due to largesse and a unique mix of big box and traditional anchors, and Marketplace Mall’s success hinged on its location near Rochester’s undergraduate population of over 50,000 students.
By 2000, Irondequoit Mall was only 10 years old and already in dire straits. The beautiful, modern, glassy two-level mall began to lose national chain stores, first at a trickle and then as a flood.
The first anchor to leave the mall was JCPenney in 2003, but by this time the mall’s staggering 20 percent occupancy rate made it already a lost cause.
Rumors even began to surface about a new mall to be constructed in Webster, the next town east of Irondequoit. This would have certainly been a terrible idea, but I guess the idea was to keep the minority riff-raff from the city of Rochester out of the mix in order to retain wealthy white shoppers. Not cool, but at least it never happened.
In 2005, Wilmorite finally threw in the towel on their dwindling investment and put Irondequoit Mall up for sale. Their divestiture of Irondequoit was tantamount to an admission of failure, as their own efforts expanding Eastview and building Greece Ridge were probably the biggest reasons Irondequoit failed, combined with changing shopper demographics and a misinformed perception of crime due to racism.
That same year, Adam Bersin, a Syracuse developer, purchased Irondequoit Mall for just $5 million and a wheelbarrow of tax incentives from the town of Irondequoit, whose coffers had been dry ever since the mall went downhill. Bersin re-christened the mall with a new name, Medley Centre, and new promises, along with a new logo indicating the mall was “New York’s Shopping Spree”.
One of Bersin’s first changes was to install an anchor to the former JCPenney space, which he did by attracting fast-expanding fly-by-night retailer Steve and Barrys, a warehouse of cut-rate, low-quality clothing, which opened in 2005.
In 2006, Bersin brought a large-scale Halloween event to Medley Centre, which attracted a healthy crowd and filled an entire wing of the mall, but who knows how many of them stayed to shop in the mostly empty mall. On October 8, 2006, Target opened outside in the mall’s parking lot, but it isn’t clear if Target helped the mall or just ciphoned from it, driving it even more into the ground. If Target had opened IN the mall where Steve and Barry’s was, using the former JCPenney anchor, it might have helped more. That fall, another anchor change occurred as Kaufmann’s became Macy’s when Macy’s parent, Federated, purchased Kaufmann’s parent, May, and consolidated all of the regional nameplates under the Macy’s banner.
Despite the small victories in landing Target and Steve and Barry’s, Bersin’s tenure as Medley Centre’s owner wasn’t very successful overall. Mall directories were woefully out of date, still displaying advertisements that were several years old and listing stores that had long departed; however, some progress occurred in the right direction, as the mall’s upkeep became visible through rebuilt entrances, healthy plants, cosmetic repairs, and general maintenance. Bersin also expanded the MedleyKids soft play area, so that it encompassed a huge space in the mall’s western court, underneath the food court.
Mall occupancy, however, remained woefully low. Most of the chain stores left, leaving a weird, eclectic mix of mom-and-pop stores and non-retail entities. Some of the parcels in the mall were given over to a dog obedience school, an english-as-a-second-language institute, a summer camp, and a town meeting space. One former store became home to a model train track, and another store was used as a combination travel agency and security guard training school. So, after you were done riding the HO-scale rails, you could be sure you were extremely safe while planning your trip to Cancun.
Along with the cosmetic updates at Medley Centre, Bersin made a controversial decision regarding the mall’s patrons, issuing a divisive edict regarding who was welcome there. Signs were posted throughout the mall, especially near the food court area, indicating that cards and chess games were prohibited, which was considered a low blow by many. I saw the signs when I visited the mall in December 2007, and was puzzled by them, especially considering there wasn’t anybody in the large food court area at all.
Here’s a photo of the rules. These were posted throughout the mall.
Ever since the mall opened, the food court had been a gathering place for local seniors, who regularly got breakfast and loitered in the mall, using it as a social gathering place to chat and play games. Bersin’s new rules removed them in order to establish a “family-friendly” atmosphere in the mall. They asserted the group of seniors, who played games and socialized, actively discouraged others from being there, which I find patently ridiculous. The new rules created deep-seated resentment from a large customer base, and was probably not the greatest decision. Who’s to say these seniors didn’t also shop at the mall? I’m sure many patronized at least Sears and Bon Ton? Seniors are a strange group to alienate, considering their loyalty and purchasing power, and the grapevine effect probably alienated more people than Bersin expected. Also, what if some of the food court vendors relied upon this group for breakfast or lunch revenues?
In addition to alienating seniors, mall security also became more vigilant against groups of kids in the mall, banning those who frequently loitered and were seen as a nuisance to regular shoppers. Mall walkers were still welcome, because they weren’t seen as intrusive to shoppers. What shoppers? Many saw these measures as extreme and unnecessary, and questioned whether they would further harm the mall rather than help it.
I agree with policing groups of minors who get out of hand, and this is a big problem at every mall, but ousting seniors from their regular breakfast gathering spot seems brutal and short-sighted. Seeing a completely empty food court and empty corridors is certainly less inviting than an active mall with people conversing and enjoying each other, even if they aren’t necessarily buying. To me, an active mall is a continuous feedback loop of success, and welcoming benign groups such as seniors promotes more activity. Rather than discouraging people from coming, management should have become more creative and proactive in seeking better marketing solutions to reach these people. At the very least, the presence of people in a mall makes it more welcoming and encourages visiting longer, while an empty mall is creepy and alarming. Malls should tread lightly on restricting access to benign social gathering, and realize that their role as a social place mostly helps, rather than harms.
Check out these ads in the mall that I photographed in December 2007. Keep in mind the mall had changed its name in 2005 from Irondequoit Mall to Medley Centre.
In 2007, Medley Centre met even more challenges, with the departure of both anchor Bon Ton and also Adam Bersin as the mall’s owner. Bersin tacitly gave up on Medley Centre, and sold it to Scott Congel, a former developer from Syracuse’s Pyramid Companies, in March 2007. Congel paid $4.7 million for the mall, slightly less than the $5.4 million Bersin paid just two years prior. Pyramid is the Syracuse counterpart to Rochester’s Wilmorite, and has also developed malls throughout the northeast. Bersin initially remained to manage the property during the transitional phase of changing ownership, but has since left the project completely.
At first, Congel remained tight-lipped about his plans, or lack thereof, for Medley Centre, until rumors surfaced in April 2008 of a deal between the mall and Regal Cinemas. A Memorandum of Lease was filed with Monroe County on April 22 of that year, citing a lease agreement between the mall and Regal to develop a 66,000 square-foot 16-auditorium theater complex on two levels, using the former Bon Ton space. The document also leaked Congel’s longer-term plans for the site, indicating a mixed-use project consisting of retail, residential, restaurant, entertainment, office space, and other venues.
Congel’s plans were initially vague, though, and the vaguery led to questions. Would Congel demolish the mall as part of his master plan? What was the scope of the project? How did he expect to succeed with a mixed-use development in a mall that was the newest in town and already failed? Meanwhile, Steve and Barry’s departed the mall in May 2008, likely a decision made following a March 2008 visit by Steve and Barry themselves, who must have said something like “WTF? Why do we have a store here?” They promptly moved to a “better” location at a nearby strip mall, West Gates Shopping Center. Shortly thereafter, though, the entire Steve and Barry’s chain went out of business, so in the end their early departure was moot concerning the mall’s success.
In November 2008, Congel finally released more information regarding his plans to redevelop Medley Centre. The aforementioned Regal Cinemas would go where the former Bon Ton store was, along with 194,000 square feet of office space, a 421-room, 30-story hotel as the centerpiece of the development (wow!), 330 residential units, and 1.2 million square feet of retail and restaurant space.
In her response to the plan, Irondequoit Town Supervisor Mary Ellen Heyman called it “sketchy”, which we couldn’t have said any better. Why would 1.2 million square feet of retail and restaurant space succeed here? The problem this development doesn’t address is that Rochester massively overbuilt its retail options. The region isn’t in the Sun Belt – it’s not growing that fast, and the problem wasn’t with the structure. Built in 1990, it’s a bright, glassy, modern looking mall and one of the newest in the state of New York. Also, I’m not sure a 30-story hotel is needed here either, as most of the area’s hotels are clustered elsewhere, logically clustered near major businesses and the universities. Residential might work, but I really think that the developer is a little wide-eyed at the possibilites for the site, and should consider down-scaling to a neighborhood center rather than constructing something super-regional, which will ultimately just ciphon from other businesses in the area. On the taxpayers’ dime, no less.
Nonetheless, in March 2009, Congel received approval for tax abatement from Monroe County, which included the consent of the Town of Irondequoit and the East Irondequoit School District. After clearing regulatory hurdles, including changing the zoning for the site, Congel kicked the remaining 20 or so tenants out of the mall in January 2009, and sealed the mall. This left only Macy’s and Sears as the remaining tenants, and they remain open as of December 2010. The name of the mall was also changed in 2009 to signify its rebirth, from Medley Centre to Lake Ridge Centre. Apparently third time’s a charm.
With the redevelopment project ready to begin, the only problem became obtaining financing. Unfortunately, with the economic slowdown of recent, this proved to be extremely difficult, especially as banks are still relatively new to financing mixed-use developments and don’t quite have the process or metrics down to a science like they had for traditional businesses, like enclosed shopping malls.
Meanwhile, in November 2009, the Rochester Broadway Theatre League (RBTL) chose the mall’s redevelopment as a possible site for a new, 3,000 seat Broadway-style theatre. The new theater would have some on-street parking and a two-level parking garage adjacent to it, and would also include 6,000 square feet of rehearsal or meeting space and a smaller event space for up to 200 guests. Shortly after being elected, Irondequoit’s Supervisor-Elect Mary Joyce D’Aurizio initially vocalized dissent for the theatre’s location, hoping that it went to downtown Rochester in order to help that area sustain its own renaissance rather than locating it in the suburbs. However, within a few months she changed her tune, recanted those thoughts and expressed support of it being located in Irondequoit. Flip flop.
In April 2010, nothing was going on at the site, which at this point was becoming an eyesore, and Congel met with D’Aurizio to chat with her about repositioning some of the tenants in order to reduce remodeling costs, which will in turn make it easier to acquire financing to begin the project. Congel also had to reapply for demolition and other permits that he already purchased but had lapsed. Oops, but fair enough.
Then, during Summer 2010, the only major development regarding Lake Ridge Centre was a blow for it: the RBTL theater was awarded to the former Midtown Plaza in downtown Rochester. This was a boon for that development, though, and for downtown Rochester.
As of December 2010, no work has yet begun on the redevelopment, and the mall sits empty except for Sears and Macy’s, who are still open for business as usual. If that wasn’t bad enough, the only other recent news is also ominous. A lawsuit filed in 2009 by the snow removal contract company the mall hired to remove its snow (and Rochester gets a ton of snow) was settled a few days ago for almost $50,000, because the mall refused to pay the company. Oops again.
Ultimately, this development is a terrible gamble and a lose-lose situation for metro Rochester. I don’t wish failure on many businesses, and I don’t wish failure on this one, either, but it’s either greediness or short-sightedness, or both, that leads otherwise intelligent government officials to give tax breaks to projects that carry a lot of risk and will add nothing to the region’s economic development. If Congel fails, and Lake Ridge Center fails, it’ll just be another publicly-financed eyesore on the landscape.
Even if Congel succeeds, and the development is ultimately a success, it will only steal business from elsewhere in the region. The retail development will cause a dearth at other malls, the hotel will take business from a hotel somewhere else, and the other businesses will steal from businesses elsewhere in town. Greater Rochester doesn’t need more retail. There are plenty of underused and dead shopping plazas littered across town, and Midtown Plaza, a large mall downtown, closed in 2008 after over 40 years in business. Rochester isn’t growing by any significant measure, so any new business is just going to steal from existing development. So what gives? The only people to benefit from this development are those involved in the development itself, and possibly the Town of Irondequoit if it can improve their tax base and add some jobs there. From a big-picture regional planning standpoint, it is only going to harm Rochester as a whole.
We visited Medley Centre in December 2007. Steve and Barry’s was still in business there, and the mall had about 25/125 stores, feeling very empty. Some interesting highlights included the fully-intact signage on many dead stores, and the McCurdy’s labelscar that appeared after the Bon Ton sign was removed. Check it out, and feel free to leave your own comments and experiences.