BY JOEL ROMAN —
Areli Polanco’s son, slenderly stern with a cold, brushed up against her and pointed at his reflection with his Nintendo 3DS.
“Momma, why is it so dark and sad in there?” he asked.
Polanco said nothing. She stood silently, waiting for some time. The 5 year old pulled on her shirt demanding an answer. Her phone spoke in Morse code, catching her eyes. She turned her head and told him the mall closed.
Polanco, a 33-year old Paterson stay-at-home mom and former mall employee at Champs Sports in 2004, had two Burlington Coat Factory shopping bags weighing down her tatted right arm. The other hand locked her phone firmly in position.
“Years ago, I used to work inside there. I was a sale associate for Champs, and I loved that job,” she said before walking over to KMART.
Her son, by her side, was lost playing with his 3DS. As far as the boy was concerned, the mall had reached its game-over stage.
“I hope it’s not dead!” said Maricruz Delos Santos, also of Paterson. “There is a lot of potential here. I mean, look around. Yeah, the mall closed for however long, but there are plenty of options for clothes and toys for babies. If they can add an Apple store, that’d be convenient!”
The future of malls
Experts have reported brighter futures for malls in part because failing department stores have been replaced with atypical tenants, such as restaurants and grocery stores.
“A Wegmans will soon be taking over a J.C. Penney location at Natick Mall in Massachusetts; a Whole Foods recently opened in the first level of a former Sears at a mall in Clearwater, FL; and a Fresh Market opened in a portion of a Sears in Virginia Beach, VA,” according to an article in Forbes last May.
As other shoppers hovered outside the vacant mall and nearby KMART for either the bus or their car service, cars carried customers up and down Hamburg Turnpike ignoring Wayne Hills Mall in favor of nearby strip malls. But as Delos Santos speeds away in her Lyft, one thing is sure – the mall isn’t dead.
Dead? Floppy disks are dead. The closed Wayne Hills Mall has seen better days, but it isn’t finished. The property features four businesses (Burlington Coat Factory, LA Fitness, KMART and Toys ‘Я’ Us) that produce enough traffic to stay viable, but not what it needs to attract those customers in bunches compared to nearby Preakness Shopping Center.
But that’s likely to change soon.
Wayne Hill Mall gets a new tenant
Since the Wayne Hills Mall’s closing in the late 2000s, the property has been without a main anchor. But even though parts of the mall have been vacant since the late 2000s, in early 2016 the town approved plans for the development of the property, including the addition of no more than five stores with ShopRite as an anchor, according to the Wayne edition of Patch.com The plans were later challenged in court by local rival Stop & Shop.
Last month “Judge Ernest M. Caposela affirmed the (Wayne) Planning Board’s February 2016 decision to let the owners, Levco, knock down the 103,735-square-foot mall off Berdan Avenue and replace it with a slightly smaller structure that will house a ShopRite and five smaller retail outlets,” according to NorthJersey.com. The plans will not affect the Burlington Coat Factory which is in a separate building.
“Finally!” Daniel Hubbard, the original editor of the Wayne Patch.com and a 20-year-resident of Wayne exclaimed in response to the placement of ShopRite. “The mall has been dying a slow death. It’s a good a plan as any. ShopRite is popular here with the locals, and they bring plenty of shoppers from all over.”
Hubbard has been following the development of Wayne Hills Mall with his published articles. Even though he hasn’t shopped at the property since late August, he is optimistic about its future.
“It wasn’t my first thought when I found out that ShopRite will be replacing the mall, but grocery stores are more stable and viable oppose to retail,” he said. “I think ShopRite is giving Walmart a run for their money.”
The successes of superstores, such as Target and Walmart, have built up a giant following of customers and affected the ability of other more specific chains to survive. Recently, Toys ‘Я’ Us filed for bankruptcy. Meghan Sowa, a member of the public relations team for the company, declined to comment on any matters involving the mall property and Wayne Hills Mall. However, Toys ‘Я’ Us remains viable without the potential new shoppers a mall would bring. What is and has been working is Toys ‘Я’ Us’ contagious appeal to children and gamers.
It’s 1 p.m. and traffic has started to pickup, yet few customers flock to the three retailers at the Wayne Hills Mall. Shoppers find a way to get to one of these stores with, more importantly, the intention of spending.
Most people waiting for the bus believe that ultimately whatever the town decides to do with the property it will fold because of the rise of technology and Amazon. Some shoppers and Hubbard have expressed similar desires for what each feel is more suitable for space. Most have expressed interest in an Applebee’s or a big chain restaurant, and a few have shown similar interest in a better transit system.
“Online, in general, is the focus,” Hubbard said. “Companies that put effort into their online stores tend to do well, regardless. I would have liked them to develop affordable or more-so reasonable housing for young adults with access to a better mass transit (system) and a far better walkable downtown. People would want that developed.”
Hubbard is rooting for the success of this effort in the hope that declining shopping malls will rise once again.
“Willowbrook Mall is a great example of a mall that was dying at one point,” said Hubbard. “Now, after adding more stores that appeal to a younger crowd, Willowbrook is more appealing and has new life for a long-term success.”
A pearl-white Lexus pulls up to the bus stop where Polanco has been standing patiently, but sternly for some time. Her son recognizes the car, shoving his Nintendo in his jacket as he runs towards a burly man.
“Daddy!” the young boy exclaimed.
Their teeth were shining as bright as the sun’s reflection off the car. He lifts the boy with one arm, and they look over to Polanco.
“So, Walmart and Target were a bust. Let’s head over to Toys ‘Я’ Us and get our princess’ kitchen in time before she comes home,” Polanco’s husband said.