A new vision for Dover Mall

 

An aerial photo shows the Dover Mall from the intersection of U.S. 13. Mall owners want to develop 83 acres behind the mall with direct access from Del. 1. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — Imagine shoppers bound for Dover Mall, where a new power center built on 83 acres behind the original shopping center features more stores, restaurants and parking, and the entire retail complex is accessible from a direct-access road from Del. 1 that eliminates the need to use U.S. 13.

That’s the vision of owners of the Dover Mall.

Without that plan, the mall is in trouble, according to John Paradee.

A lawyer who represents the mall’s owners, Simon Property Group and Western Development Corp., Mr. Paradee is pushing a plan that would radically change the 35-year-old mall and, he hopes, turn it into a “destination.”

In representing Western Development Corp., Mr. Paradee said he is in regular contact with Herbert S. Miller, its chairman and CEO. Mr. Miller is a developer of several malls, including Potomac Mills in Virginia and Franklin Mills in Philadelphia. He did not return calls placed by the Delaware State News.

Mr. Paradee said, “It’s pretty simple, really. We are trying to construct a collector-distributor road which would run from the Scarborough Road interchange parallel to State Route 1. It would be on the west side but immediately adjacent to and would actually merge with ST 1, and that would ultimately connect to a road that would run between Route 1 and 13, and that connector road would run between the Dover Mall and Dover Downs properties, although it would be constructed entirely on property owned by the Dover Mall.”

The proposal isn’t something cooked up by desperate businesspeople trying to revive a struggling property: The change is on the Department of Transportation’s list of projects, although it is very low in priority. Preliminary engineering is not supposed to begin for another four years, according to DelDOT’s proposed Capital Transportation Plan.

The project’s low placement on that plan is a problem for the mall owners.

“The Dover Mall is in jeopardy as it currently exists,” Mr. Paradee said.

To expedite the process, the mall owners would agree to design the roadway in accordance with state standards and then turn it over to DelDOT once the work is completed by the end of 2020.

The public-private partnership, as it’s called, is allowed in state law but Mr. Paradee is unsure if it has ever been used before.

The cost, meanwhile, would be covered mostly, if not completely, by tolls.

“The beauty about this project is it potentially pays for itself or at least mostly for itself because as part of the design there would be two new toll booths,” Mr. Paradee said.

According to a study, the construction is estimated to cost around $31 million, although Mr. Paradee believes that total is high.

In case the toll funds do not cover the extent of the work, the owners could turn to tax increment financing.

Tax increment financing allows the owners to use the difference between the current tax assessment and the assessment after the improvements — millions, in this case — to pay off bonds used to construct the road.

Currently, only Wilmington is allowed to use tax increment financing, meaning the General Assembly would have to pass legislation specifically authorizing Dover and Kent County.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, has met with Mr. Paradee and city officials to discuss the project and would likely bring the legislation if it is first approved by city council.

At least some Dover City Council members have said they support the plan to build a north/south roadway (East Side Connector) parallel to U.S. 13 and Del. 1 just west of the Del. 1 alignment to make the Dover Mall a viable entity for another generation.

In fact, according to City Councilman David Anderson, the city is about 15 years too late in addressing proposed traffic changes around north Dover and the mall that would ease traffic egress and lure shoppers in.

“It’s something we’ve talked about and I think it should be one of our priorities because it’s something that’s, quite frankly, about 15 years past due,” Mr. Anderson said. “The mall is preparing to go into the next generation and if they don’t do that, there’s going to be larger issues.”

With two of the mall’s four anchor stores — Macy’s and Sears — preparing to close hundreds of stores across the nation this year, the city is prepared to take one more swing at revitalizing its mall before it’s too late.

Mr. Paradee said if Sears and Macy’s closed locally — the Dover stores were not among locations announced earlier this winter as shuttering — more stores could follow.

That’s where the new road comes in.

“Macy’s is likely to stay if this happens quickly but not sure if it’s not quick,” Mr. Paradee said. “It’s important to get it done sooner rather than later.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen said, “We’re playing catch-up football. I’m the acting chairman of the Kent County MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) and we pushed that (East Side Connector) project up to the top to see what the possibility of public and private funding is.

“I think if we are going to salvage both of those entities (Macy’s and Sears) — certainly it’s not a business decision that we have anything to do with — but I think if we make the effort to get a dedicated exit and entrance there it may well help them and whatever future tenants might take their place.”

The Dover Mall opened for business in 1982. There has been virtually no traffic improvements built around the shopping facility since.

“I’ve been involved in city government since before 1983 and I’ve always thought with the advent of the Dover Mall that there need to be some additional service roads that run along there,” Mayor Christiansen said. “Particularly, I think the idea of a dedicated exit off of (Del.) 1 will be beneficial.”

Fred Neil is a City Councilman who represents the Third District, which includes the mall and Dover Downs.

Mr. Neil said he believes an access road to the north Dover properties would be a win-win scenario for both the mall and the casino/racetrack.

“The reason I supported having that access road is because people do come here simply because we don’t have that sales tax and that’s a benefit,” he said. “I think that will help us if we can bring it down to the Dover Downs property.

“I’m sure that they’re interested in it and it would not be an impediment. Then basically you would also have a flow from NASCAR and Firefly events so that road is a tremendous benefit on more than one level.”

Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports Inc., said not so fast. He doesn’t necessarily believe an access road from Del. 1 would have any kind of positive effect on the casino/speedway’s operations/

“This road is really to benefit the mall more than us,” Mr. McGlynn said. “As I discussed with the owners of the mall and John Paradee, we’re kind of agnostic on this.

“We’re not going to fight it but I’m not going to go out and use any kind of political capital in trying to get (an access road) done.”

Mr. McGlynn noted that traffic studies have shown that a single lane of traffic on Del. 1 can only handle 1,200 cars an hour.

He said that with Dover Downs’ major events schedule being highlighted by two NASCAR races and the Firefly Music Festival each year — combined with beach and local traffic — that a new access road off Del. 1 wouldn’t effect the facility one way or another due to massive volumes of traffic.

“We’re not going to spend any money or time trying to change where (motorists) can get on,” Mr. McGlynn said. “Once that link of 1,200 vehicles has been established that’s all they can handle.

“If (the Dover Mall) feels it makes their property more marketable or more profitable, I will say that we’re good neighbors and we’re not going to get in their way.”

In the aerial photo of Del. 1, colored lines show the traffic pattern changes planned if a new access point is built for the Dover Mall. The pink lines show the roadway from northbound Del. 1; the red lines from southbound Del. 1 and the blue lines indicate new service roads around the mall and Dover Downs.

While it may or may not help Dover Downs, City Council President Timothy Slavin said that it’s important to try to save the businesses, which means also saving jobs — and possibly even allow the Dover Mall an opportunity to expand in the near future.

“I think anything we can do to help that business core that we have out there we’re going to stand at the ready to help them,” Mr. Slavin said. “It’s clear that the whole retail industry has shifted so much that improvements are needed.”

Changes needed

Mr. Paradee aims to have legislation drafted this month, allowing stakeholders to formally present a plan to local officials and lawmakers.

The new road would reduce congestion on U.S. 13, something anyone who’s driven on the road during rush hour would surely welcome.

Kent County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange, who is in favor of the project, compared the pontential benefits to the situation at Christiana Mall, where road connection projects at the complex brought increased popularity to the retail center.

“Some traffic will probably be diverted from (U.S.) 13, but because of the ease of access the project will provide, the area will likely see a net increase in activity rather than a loss,” he said. “(U.S.) 13’s traffic would probably stay the same as it is now.”

Several large and small retailers along the highway declined to comment on the proposed project, but Mary Johnson, the owner of the Chick-fil-A in the corridor north of the Dover Mall, seemed unconcerned.

“We are aware of the proposed highway project that will likely divert traffic away from U.S. 13,” she said in an emailed response. “We will continue to provide the same service that our guests have come to expect. We do not have a specific opinion on the plan at this time, but always welcome community growth and development.”

According to Mr. Paradee, Simon Property Group and Western Development Corp. leaders believe more people would visit the mall if it was accessible from Del. 1 — the main road people use to travel from New Castle County to Sussex County, and vice versa.

While the mall may be declining, the new road could bring about new business.

Mr. Paradee said the owners have spoken to stores about setting down roots in north Dover, and businesses are receptive. But there’s a catch — they will only come if the road is constructed within the next few years.

“What they have all essentially told us is if you build it we will come,” Mr. Paradee said.

He declined to specify what stores had been considering a move, noting businesses prefer to keep that information private at first so as to prevent competitors from learning about plans.

The expansion would add about 54,700 square feet for new stores to the current mall, while slightly shrinking Sears.

Meanwhile, the 647,000-square-foot “power center” would be built between the mall and Del. 1 with thousands of new parking spaces added as well.

In the developer’s vision, the Dover Mall would look more like the Christiana Mall by the time the work is done.

Expanding the mall with the proposed project would create between 1,100 and 1,300 jobs, Mr. Paradee said. The mall currently has a mix of about 750 full- and part-time positions.

The construction work would also necessitate about 300 to 375 temporary jobs, according to Mr. Paradee.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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