Dover Mall expansion idles

DOVER — In 2017, extensive legislative groundwork was laid to significantly grow the almost 40-year-old Dover Mall.

The owners, Simon Property Group along with Western Development Corp., showcased blueprints that would add about 54,700 square feet for new stores to the current mall and build a “power center” to the east with 22 buildings covering more than 550,000 square feet.

The hitch that would make the expansion possible was a proposed Del. 1 toll road entrance on the east side of the mall that would cost an estimated $31 million to build.

A new road would allow for direct access to the expanded mall complex from the state’s arterial highway.

In the developers’ vision, the Dover Mall would start to resemble the Christiana Mall, which boasts 175 stores plus several outlying retail centers.
John Paradee, a Dover lawyer representing the firms, helped steer seven different pieces of legislation supporting the project in 2017.

“The Dover Mall is in jeopardy as it currently exists,” he said at the time.
Mr. Paradee claimed the construction of the access road would greatly enhance the mall’s profile, which would ultimately bring more companies and shoppers.

“We’re already talking to people who have told us, ‘if you build it, we will come,’” he said at the time.

Originally, the Department of Transportation was not scheduled to begin work on the road for years. So, supporters proposed a public-private partnership under which the access road would be built with money from newly constructed tolls and then turn it over to the state.

Expansion of the mall property was considered separate from the road. It was to be paid for by the mall owners.
Legislation paving the way for the project passed with relatively little objection in the legislature. By the end of 2017, the backers of the project said they were working to get bonds and draw up the details of the public-private partnership.

However, talk about the ambitious project has tapered off.
“There has been no action and no discussion for months now on that project,” said Dover planning director Dave Hugg. “It was kind of hot and heavy about a year ago, but now I can’t even remember the last time we talked to anyone about the power center or the notion of an access road.

“It got quiet all of a sudden and I don’t know what the status is. There’s no active plans on file and we’ve had no meetings on it. Initially they showed us sort of a concept plan that showed how the road system might look and where the new buildings might go, but it was just preliminary.”

Both the mall’s local manager and Simon Property Group could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts.

Mr. Paradee did not return a request for comment.
Sen. Trey Paradee, John’s brother and the senator representing the mall’s district, said he didn’t know where the project stood and hasn’t heard anything about it in at least a year.

Rep. William Carson, a Smyrna Democrat who was the main sponsor of the mall bills and the house representative for the legislative district that includes the mall, also had no updates.
For DelDOT’s part, the project is still included in its FY2021-FY2026 Capital Transportation Program.

“Our current projected schedule shows preliminary engineering beginning in FY21, followed by right-of-way acquisition beginning in FY24 and construction beginning in FY25,” said DelDOT spokesman Charles “C.R.” McLeod. “Which means 2024 is the soonest that the construction would begin per the program schedule.”

However, he noted that all projects are subject to being reexamined if conditions change.
“There is language in the bond bill that directs us to undertake the studies for the project,” said Mr. McLeod.

Big news came in May 2018 when Sears — a longtime anchor store of the Dover Mall — announced its closing. The decision to close the Dover location was part of a larger national strategy that resulted in the closings of at least 40 stores in 24 states, Sears noted.

However, a raft of smaller stores also have left the mall over the past two years. Most recently, Hobbytown — a retail hobby and toy store chain — moved its location out of the mall in early September after only being there for a year.

According to owner Richard Lemley, high rents and management that proved difficult to negotiate with were the main reasons he moved his store to the Shoppes at Fieldstone shopping center in Dover.
Noting that he was not alone in the sentiment, Mr. Lemley said there were currently about 17 vacant commercial spaces in the mall, some of which had been empty for a “long time.”

The Delaware State News confirmed that approximate count.
Longtime tenants Jeweler’s Loupe and Fast Feet Shoe Repair left the mall in 2018. All three have had roughly the same results: They’ve doubled their square footage while halving their rent.
Jeweler’s Loupe owner Dave Lewkowitz moved his jewelry store to Dover Town Center on 1574 N. DuPont Highway in Dover after 20 years at the mall.

“We had to leave. The rent was exorbitant,” he said. “They would repeatedly raise the rents, too, even when 2007 hit and the economy was tanking nationwide, they kept raising them.

“The mall never cared if your sales went down, they only cared about getting the rent. It was basically based on 10 percent of sales, but by the end of our lease, we were up to around 16 percent. We just couldn’t justify it. Since moving here, we doubled our footprint, our rent is half and our business is up.”
Fast Feet owner Joseph Simon moved his shoe repair store to 222 S. DuPont Highway in Dover in May 2018 after being in the mall for 25 years.

“A lot of stores seem to be leaving the mall because of the high rent — Jeweler’s Loupe, Lane Bryant, Boardwalk Fresh Burgers and Fries, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A all left, too,” he said. “I tried to talk with them (Simon Property Group), but they didn’t do anything about it so I had to leave.”

Mr. Simon said he was paying $6,000 per month to rent his 600-square-foot storefront at the mall. The new space is 1,600 square feet of space, he said, and the rent is half that amount.

While the mall had its “ups and downs” over the past two-and-a-half decades, Mr. Simon claimed its current level of vacancy is the worst he’s seen.

“It never got this bad,” he said. “Even in the recession, the mall still had stores in it. But, if you keep raising rents every year, small businesses cannot survive and will just end up leaving. Then the mall will just be empty.”

The former commercial spaces in the mall occupied by Fast Feet, Jewler’s Loupe and Hobbytown remain vacant. All three business owners expressed their skepticism about the mall’s alleged expansion plans.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Mr. Simon. “A lot of people are moving out of the mall and not being replaced. Amazon and shopping online is killing malls because strip mall spaces are so much more affordable.

“Since I’ve moved here business is going great. I’m making about the same money, but I’m saving a lot more.”

The future of the expansion plans remains unclear, but the mall does appear to be making some investments. According to the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, a “play area” is opening on Oct. 19 at 11 a.m. near the Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Mr. Lemley also noted that work seemed to be underway to address some deferred maintenance on the aging mall.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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