Burnsville Center may be at a crossroads

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Burnsville Center’s Sears entrance is pictured on a recent weekday. (Photo by John Gessner)

City eager to help regional mall reposition itself

The diminishing fortunes of many regional shopping malls in the United States are not lost on Burnsville officials.

The million-square-foot Burnsville Center along County Road 42 isn’t immune, particularly with vulnerable anchor tenants such as Sears, Gordman’s, Macy’s and JCPenney.

Everything must go at Gordman’s, which has declared bankruptcy and is selling off the inventory at its Burnsville Center store before it closes. Sears, Macy’s and JCPenney have so far survived the cut in national rounds of store closings.

Burnsville Center opened with great fanfare in 1977. But the heyday of large regional malls was the 1980s and 1990s, said Skip Nienhaus, Burnsville’s economic development coordinator. Online retailing and other factors have imperiled the behemoths, with their restaurants, food courts and vast seas of parking.

“From everything we see and read about large, regional shopping centers, they’re going to have to look at other uses beyond just the traditional retail and restaurant,” Nienhaus said. “In the future there will probably have to be additional uses out there at the center.”

It’s a discussion city officials are eager to have.

Burnsville needs to “protect our bricks and mortar,” Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said. Kautz said she had tried for three years to get a meeting with top officials from Chattanooga, Tennessee-based CBL & Associates Properties Inc., the real estate investment trust that manages Burnsville Center, owns part of the real estate and has interests in more than 140 properties nationwide.

The city finally landed a meeting in February, Kautz said.

“We talked about a whole lot of things,” she said. “We told them that we are ready to work with them. It can be a mixed-use kind of development. We had a lot of brainstorming.”

The city continues to have a strong relationship with CBL’s Burnsville Center management team, Community Development Director Jenni Faulkner said.

“They want to make sure that their property is a desirable property and a place where businesses want to locate,” she said. “They understand there’s a change in the marketplace, and they’re trying to figure out what that means for this property and how they can manage the change in the marketplace to keep it a viable property for the long term. And the city’s right there with them.”

A phone call for this story to center management wasn’t returned.

Some Burnsville business owners and citizens are also interested in the center’s viability. The Burnsville Economic Development Commission, an advisory group, and a citizen committee working with officials on updating the city’s comprehensive plan are calling for a study of Burnsville Center and the adjacent County Road 42 retail corridor, Faulkner said.

A study would include a market analysis and a look at land uses, zoning and possible financial tools the city could use to spur development or redevelopment, she said. It’s up to the City Council whether to order the study.

Of course, any changes require willing property owners, Nienhaus said, and Burnsville Center has four owners — CBL, Sears, Macy’s and JCPenney.

“Obviously, any time you have to deal with four owners versus one, everybody has to come to an agreement as to any changes that are going to occur,” he said.

Housing and other uses could be part of the mix in future plans for the Burnsville Center area, according to the city. A future Orange Line bus rapid transit station east of the mall could attract development. The city can also learn from other regional malls in the metro area.

Burnsville Center is behind the curve in repositioning itself, according to information the city compiled as part of its comprehensive plan review. In the last 10 years, neither Burnsville Center nor Eden Prairie Center have made mall additions, added new housing on mall property or seen new housing built on adjacent property.

Such activity has been seen at Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka, Southdale Center in Edina and Rosedale Center in Roseville.

“There’s no question that there’s some of them that have already made some changes,” Nienhaus said. “We’re just in the process of talking about those changes. But since it’s private property, the property owner has to be at the point that they’re going to entertain changes.”

At Southdale, new uses include 232 luxury apartment units and a hotel under development, both on mall property. At Rosedale, a vacant anchor space was demolished in 2005 and replaced with an open-air “lifestyle wing” and multiplex theater. An expansion is planned with Von Maur department store, a new parking ramp and interior renovations.

At Burnsville Center, recent moves were the 2008 addition of a 15-screen multiplex on center property and some mall renovations in 2011.

“I remember when Southdale had some issues, and they did some things that helped revitalize that center,” Kautz said. “This needs to happen here as well.”

Nienhaus said the city doesn’t have vacancy rates for Burnsville Center. “The first floor is relatively full,” he said, with more empty bays on the second floor.

Gordman’s and The Limited are among the retailers that have left the center because of bankruptcy, he said.

“I think if you go back probably about a year, that’s when you started to see a number of these national retailers, one at a time, go bankrupt,” Nienhaus said. “Unfortunately, the Burnsville Center has had almost every one of them. You end up with some of the bay vacancies you see.”