ANN ARBOR, MI – Briarwood Mall, one of Ann Arbor’s largest taxpayers, has lost several businesses in the first quarter of the year, prompting city leaders and shoppers to worry about its future.
Godiva is closing its Ann Arbor store, along with its 128 North American shops, due to a lack of in-person shopping and increased e-commerce sales. L’Occitane filed for bankruptcy and could no longer be obliged to cover high rent. In January, Williams-Sonoma closed and H&M announced it will no longer be in the mall.
As of Thursday, Feb. 4, there were 17 empty storefronts with signs promoting leases. Briarwood Mall has more than 130 stores, according to their website.
Officials say that high rents, a shift to online shopping and an economy-crushing pandemic have left the retailers wondering whether brick-and-mortars are worth maintaining.
Michiko McKinley, 60, of Plymouth, was concerned about the mall’s future when she came to Briarwood Thursday.
“I think that all the stores are just phasing out because they can’t afford it,” McKinley said. “When you’ve got Amazon, you can buy anything. When you go to Macy’s online, you can buy anything that’s in the store. The only reason I came today is because I bought something from home from Macy’s and it didn’t fit.”
McKinley wonders what happens when big department stores like Macy’s vanish from Briarwood.
“I don’t think it’s going to be around much longer, especially with all the big stores closing out,” she said. “The Macy’s, they’re going to be gone in a minute so what are these other stores going to do? That’s what draws the crowd, is the big-name stores.”
City officials and local realtors have been discussing the future of the Simon Property Group-owned site since at least 2018, when Sears closed its Briarwood store along with several other Michigan locations.
“I talked to Simon when Sears closed,” said Brett Lenart, Ann Arbor’s planning manager. “We had a meeting with them, and it was sort of brainstorming. I think they were exploring a more re-envisioning of Sears. They were asking a lot of questions about different uses that might be permitted and might not be permitted.”
Simon Property Group officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
A look at Sears’ 77-year history in Ann Arbor
But some of the ideas, according to Lenart, included adding more residential spaces, offices, hotels and even hosting outdoor sales in the parking areas, which required rezoning a segment to allow for commercial sales.
“It felt, to us, like nibbling around the edges of a bigger problem,” Lenart said, adding the city was seeking a more comprehensive plan of the site.
However, it’s not entirely in Simon’s or the city’s control, Lenart said.
“Even if they were to come to the table and say we want to re-envision this as a mixed-use, you name it, they don’t control the land,” Lenart said, adding the ownership falls under a combination of some of the major department stores.
Officials like Lenart don’t think Briarwood Mall will phase out within the next several years. Shoppers continue to frequent Ann Arbor’s only major mall and certain in-person services are necessary.
“Retail evolves. Consumer tastes evolve, constantly. There’s going to be things that you still can’t do on Amazon,” said Jeff Hauptman, CEO of Oxford Companies, which owns 2 million square-feet of office space near Briarwood. “While you’re shopping, you want a little break. There’s a million places to eat. You can go to a tailor. I don’t think there’s online tailors … there’s going to be a lot of services that they just don’t have currently online.”
Shoppers like Ann Arbor resident Shantell McCoy, 46 — who stopped to shop at Briarwood on Thursday — say they continue to come to the mall despite the pandemic. She said she could hire someone to come pick up the items she buys, but would rather do it in person.
“I do online shopping but …. as many purchases as I make online, I come inside the store,” McCoy said. “I’m more of a personal type of shopper. I don’t want everybody putting their hands on my stuff so with COVID, why would I want somebody else to shop for me? “
McCoy hopes the mall stays healthy despite the recent closures.
“Hopefully they can keep it up,” she said. “I can imagine what they pay for rental space around here. I mean we’re talking about Ann Arbor.”
Hauptman has also been in discussions with Simon about possibilities of changing the scope of the shopping center. It came down to providing convenient options for customers to take advantage of retail, services and entertainment, he said.
“Think of things you can’t get, various types of entertainment, whether it’s laser tag, rides or a climbing gym. You can’t do that online,” Hauptman said.
Beyond that, the massive structure in a sea of parking could use more mixed-use spaces for things such as a retirement community, housing and offices for more of a 24/7 flow of foot-traffic, he added.
“You’ve got all this office and all this retail but it’s not like downtown,” he said. “As a pedestrian, you don’t want to walk around there. We are working on understanding what it’s going to take to make that place more pedestrian-friendly. A big part of that is adding housing” ranging from affordable to market-rate, Hauptman said.
Similar to Lenart’s discussions with Simon officials, Hauptman’s exchanges with them delved into the possibilities of mixed-use developments to create a more walkable site with retail, a potential grocery store, offices and easier access to parking.
“It’s just ideas that have been floated. Everything is so fluid right now,” Hauptman said. “Briarwood provides a retail presence. (But) can that shopping be accomplished in a different way?”
Demand for housing has been a main point of discussion in repurposing the site, should that ever be the case. The demand is there due to its proximity to the freeway, public transit, offices and a growing number of jobs in the area, Hauptman said. But construction costs are “outrageous.”
“It’s very tricky to build outside of downtown, once you get to State (Street) and Eisenhower (Parkway). I can’t charge the rents on South University (Avenue), even though my construction costs are similar,” Hauptman said.
Concern for the future
Council Member Jen Eyer, who represents the Briarwood area, said the mall’s future is an issue she intends to bring up to city staff.
“You never know, especially with the COVID situation causing so much instability. It’s really important as city leaders to be prepared again because this is such a large source of our tax revenue,” Eyer said. “The city needs to be mindful that should there be any thought about what comes next, that we need to think about how we can maintain or increase the revenue that comes from that site with some sort of future iteration of the site.”
Part of that is thinking of ways to leverage the site to meet housing needs, Eyer added.
“Any redevelopment, I would want significant community input on those issues,” Eyer said. “I think the community and the city need to be preparing for that potentiality.”
Whatever the next phase may be, it will be “potentially exciting” to watch what the owners do with the property as retail businesses change, said Tom Crawford, city administrator.
“We’re obviously concerned about what their future is,” Crawford said. “The location is really a great location for the city so I do believe that, however this is going morph or grow from here, it is a good location for the property owner to use in a creative way.”
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