Today, the view from the parking lot of the Bellevue Center Mall isn't good.
The besieged and business-starved retail center is almost completely shuttered. Over the past 10 years its major tenants have dropped like dominos, the last major pullout coming this January when Macy’s announced the location was closing as part of a nationwide sweep of nonperforming properties. The last store standing — Sears — sees a steady but small amount of business trickle in, the only sign of life at the 900,000-square-foot property now ringed by acres of empty asphalt and weeds.
For the development-hungry Bellevue community, what is most frustrating about the mall is that a much-needed revitalization was supposed to be well underway.
In 2007, California-based Foursquare Properties stepped in with an auspicious plan for a retail center rethink. The developer proposed a $130 million renovation to the struggling property that would turn a traditional enclosed mall design into a chic open-air lifestyle center.
Central to the proposal was a $12 million tax increment financing (TIF) from Metro government, a provision that swapped extra funding in exchange for a badly needed new Bellevue branch library located at the center.
Now, more than a year later, construction has yet to begin. Metro government officials say they've had no contact with the developer after granting a one-year extension on the TIF in May.
Bellevue representatives say the community is nervous about the future of the project, and the developer did not return repeated calls for comment for this article.
However, according to those who have been in contact with Foursquare, it's the economy that has slammed the brakes on the plan, and only temporarily.
“What's slowed up Bellevue Center at this stage has been all financing,” said Metro at-Large Councilman Charlie Tygard. “[Foursquare's] money people that were cash flush a year ago, because of what's happened in the industry, are no longer cash flush.”
The developer remains committed to the project, Tygard and other area Council members say, adding that Foursquare is waiting for a change in the current money-lending conditions. But the holdover only adds to the frustration of a community that has seen plans and promises for its mall come and go.
Target date: 2011?
“We've had extreme growth in the area and they're certainly the demographics and the population to support this project,” said Metro Councilman Bo Mitchell. “People in Bellevue want something convenient for them. They're tired of driving to either Cool Springs or fighting the traffic in Green Hills.”
Observers note that the retail development world is in a precarious position, largely because retailers are hesitant to commit to any proposed project. When a store signs onto a development, the chain spends upfront cash planning the location and amassing inventories. However, if that development falls through because of financing issues, the retailer never recoups the initial investment. As a result, today retailers are fattening their leases with provisions that hold a developer financially responsible should a property be delayed or cancelled.
According to Tygard, Foursquare has held off courting retailers who demand the cash cushion until the financing is secured and an opening date can be definitely set down.
“The feeling I get from them is they are still very optimistic,” he said. “They are still saying that 2011 will be the target date.”
The current lending drought is particularly frustrating for the Council members who worked to push through the TIF approval for the development. Because the mall project represented the first time the government had granted a TIF for a private retail center, the process was drawn out. Had the process been expedited, the project might already be underway, according to Councilman Eric Crafton.
“We needed an approval and it took so long to get one we went from good times to bad times, and right now nobody is going to lend $100 million,” Crafton said. “I don't think its dead though. I think it will get done until we hear otherwise.”
But some parties involved in the project have yet to hear reassurances from the developer.
Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said he has not spoken to Foursquare since May. Donna Nicely, the library director, says she also has had no contact with the firm.
“I've not heard a word from the developer,” she said. “I have hope that things will get worked out, so I'm just waiting to see what will happen.”
‘Working hard every day’
Foursquare's local representative, James Weaver, an attorney with Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis, told The City Paper that the developer fully intends to move ahead with the renovations.
“Foursquare remains committed to Nashville, they remain committed to Bellevue and they are working hard everyday to do what has to be done to get this completed,” Weaver said. “Nobody is as anxious in this as Foursquare because they own the property.”
Still, for the Bellevue community, this current holding pattern is just another in a long series of setbacks for a piece of property that has struggled for years.
“The mall is just simply a drag on the psyche if nothing else,” said Martin Pyle, president of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. “I just can't imagine that Bellevue — where we’re building new things and getting new people in and there are still housing developments that are coming out — can have or allow that much space to sit empty at once.”
Bellevue may soon see an encouraging sign, literally.
Tygard said he recently was informed by Mark Isaac, Foursquare's director of entitlements, that the company plans to soon take out permits for the construction of signs for the project along Interstate 40, which runs close to the mall property.
“It will start creating some buzz and let folks know that something is going to happen there at some point,” he said.
‘Some point’ is a reference Bellevue residents are getting quite used to these days.