There was supposed to be an answer on the future of Bellevue Center at the end of March.
Mayor Karl Dean and the Metro Council agreed in 2008 to provide about $12 million in financing to help with a $180 million overhaul of the mall, where only Sears is still operating. In exchange, California-based Foursquare Properties promised to build a new branch library in the facility.
But then the market hit the skids. Foursquare asked for — and received — a deadline extension. The company turned over the project to Illinois-based Inland Western Real Estate Trust. And Inland Western had a March 31 deadline staring them in the face.
So they, too, asked for even more time to come up with a plan to fix the abandoned mall. Dean gave it to them — another 120 days, pushing the deadline to the end of July.
Inland remains reticent on their plans. Maybe they don’t want to scare off potential investors. Maybe they don’t know exactly what they want to do with this huge box that has only one store inside, where the only signs of life are wooden arrows directing shoppers to the Sears, and where weeds and saplings poke up through the asphalt of an unused parking lot.
There are a lot of ideas out there for the new incarnation of what was once a much-ballyhooed shopping center.
With a nod to the grassroots effort that pushed — ultimately successfully — for popular grocery store Trader Joe’s to locate in Nashville, there is a Facebook group and an online petition drive pushing for uber-cool Swedish consumer durables warehouser IKEA to make the move to the Music City.
More than 7,700 people have joined the effort, and the posters make a compelling argument for the store — which inspires something of a cultish devotion — to come to town.
Ideal for IKEA
For one thing, of course, the old Bellevue Center isn’t doing much of anything at the moment. IKEA doesn’t have a store in the vast swath of the Mid-South, from Atlanta to Dallas. The Athens of the South is home to tens of thousands of college students at the universities that gave Nashville that particular nickname, and college students are among the most frequent buyers of the affordable modular goods that are IKEA’s speciality.
It would seem to fit into IKEA’s modus operandi as well. The store likes cheap land, for one thing. It also appeals to the solidly middle class — and there are few Nashville areas as middle class as Bellevue.
For its part, IKEA isn’t talking. The Swedes tend to remain silent on their plans until they are finalized. An Inland representative said it should have a final plan for Bellevue by next month.
At a March public meeting about the mall’s future, At-large Councilman Tim Garrett said if the people of Bellevue want a resurgence at their mall, they should look in the mirror.
“Bellevue has feverishly fought any rezoning around the mall,” he said. “If the mall stays landlocked, then it will have a difficult time to recover.”
Garrett said if the mall is to thrive, it needs to be more like RiverGate, where a wide variety of commercial property surrounds it. Much of the area around Bellevue is still zoned for residential use.
IKEA or not, the new Bellevue won’t be a strictly commercial enterprise. The inclusion of a library is a must. Many Bellevue residents have pushed for a high school on the site. That isn’t going to happen, at least not anytime soon.
“Keep your voices loud and strong,” District 9 school board member Kay Simmons said at the March meeting. But, she added, it takes more to build a school than “hopes and dreams.”
The hopes and dreams for a unique retail player are still loud and strong — and they are more than voices in the wilderness. So-called “lifestyle centers” — mixed-use developments centered around an outdoor plaza rather than interior space and featuring more restaurants than traditional malls — are becoming more popular. They frequently locate in the suburbs, and three compass points around Nashville already feature them: Murfreesboro’s The Avenue to the south; Mt. Juliet’s Providence MarketPlace to the east; and Hendersonville’s Streets of Indian Lake to the north. All have opened in the past several years, and have shown steady growth and success despite the Great Recession.
The lone cardinal direction unserved is west. None of the exurbs to the west of Nashville have the economic base — or even the will — to support such a project: It’s hard to imagine a Providence-style development in Ashland City or a Streets of Dickson, so perhaps it’s best to not go so far west, especially because the infrastructure is already in place in Bellevue.
And judging by Facebook fans, at least, the will is there, too. It seems even the IKEA backers are ready to settle for something, as long as it’s uniquely theirs. A blurb from the anonymous founder of the Facebook page admits: “I’m starting this page so we can get the Bellevue Center revitalized. IKEA, H&M, Zara, Crate & Barrel, bring them all!”
Just bring something.