Driving north on Route 1 towards 1-476, the Granite Run Mall is a pile of rubble – and that’s a good thing. Its property owners are reconfiguring the space for apartments, a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia clinic, retail shops, restaurants, and – upscale bowling. It’s been called the “future template for repositioning outdated malls.” More here.
Why can’t we do this in New Castle County, especially on Route 202?
Perhaps you are wondering why you should care. If you pay property taxes on your home and/or have a child in a county public school, you should care a lot. Empty stores equal lower property tax revenues (which primarily fund education), and somebody has to make up the difference. That somebody would be a homeowner.
Imagine a drive down Route 202. Block after block, there’s a hodgepodge of freestanding units, strip malls (some old, some newer, some small, some large), fast-food outlets, diners, funeral homes, a few office buildings, the Concord Mall, and the Brandywine Town Center. Plus there are acres of empty blacktop.
What’s missing? A 21st century approach to retailing: higher density residential units located next to, and/or above the shops, restaurants, and entertainment, with garage parking, not space-wasting blacktop.
In other words, every square foot of the parcel of land is used to maximize a return-on-investment for the owner, and the county enjoys increased property tax revenues without having to raise rates.
Now consider the plight of the Concord Mall. Unlike its upscale cousin, the Christiana Mall (with its perpetually crowded Apple store), the Concord Mall might rate as a class-C regional mall. Like Granite Run, these are the malls that online retailers hurt the most.
Whenever I visit the Concord Mall, I see yet another small store closing and wonder if the mall is profitable. The anchor stores remain, but with so many shops closing, and acres of empty blacktop, I have no doubt that, for New Castle County, the property is a revenue-loser. And yes, the owner has to pay property tax on the blacktop acreage.
A repurposed Concord Mall would be roofless (yes, the shops would have their own roofs), with midrise apartments, stores, restaurants, entertainment, plus attractive green space (with cars in a garage). To maximize space usage, some apartments would be situated above shops. It would be a destination, not just a tired mall where one zips in and out after buying socks.
On the other side of Naaman’s Road to the north, the Brandywine Town Center also would benefit from having apartments located on the property and a more updated look (how about a Starbucks?). The Center has loads of blacktop space near the theater. If a garage were built instead, there would be room for apartments. Additionally, the retail space vacated by now-bankrupt HH Gregg needs a 21st century tenant. Why not a major service-oriented tenant, similar to Granite Run’s future CHOP clinic?
The New Castle County Board needs to roll up its sleeves, engage with property owners and get involved in improving land use throughout the county. Decades of slipshod land use planning have resulted in shrinking property tax revenues. In my opinion, it’s ridiculous that a high-traffic and high-income thoroughfare such as Route 202 is home to a ‘dead mall’, aging strip malls, crematories, burger joints, etc., when it could be an engine for county growth.
The alternative? State Representative Earl Jacques of Glasgow wants automatic increases in property taxes – without a referendum. Raise taxes and shut out the voters: brilliant!
The better answer is to update the county’s commercial properties for a new generation of shoppers, workers, and families. The payoff will be more employment plus a solution to the property tax revenue shortfall.