R.I.P., Rhode Island Mall

Stroll through Warwick’s Rhode Island Mall and find yourself in an alternate, post-apocalyptic universe. The once-bustling stores, 60 in all, are dark and sealed off by metal grates. In the empty hallways, you hear nothing but the click of your own shoes and the hum of the air conditioning system, barely concealed by the still bubbling fountain in the center of the mall. The signs and block letters that once lured shoppers still hang above the empty sockets, like tattoos from a past life.

Save for a group of elderly mall walkers, a cleaning lady pushing a mop cart, and the lone clerks at the counters of the five remaining stores—Lens Crafters, First Place Sports, GNC, H&R Block, and the Toy Vault—the mall is completely empty. The door to the western anchor, the still-operating Sears, is deserted, while the door that once opened into the eastern anchor has been closed all together. The space remains oddly well-maintained, as if human life has been wiped out by a sudden plague.

The Rhode Island Mall is officially a “dead mall,” or a mall with such a high vacancy rates that it is in danger of being abandoned or demolished, not to mention forgotten by the shoppers who once slurped milkshakes at the Newport Creamery and purchased winter furs at G.Fox. When the mall was built in 1967 as the Midland Mall, it was the first modern indoor shopping center in Rhode Island, with two stories and around 40 stores. In 1984, when it became the Rhode Island Mall, a glass elevator, a fountain courtyard, and a food court were added.

Frank Silva, the owner of First Place Sports, remembers what the mall was like in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “It was really busy. Everyone knew each other. We used to all look forward to going on breaks to Papa Gino’s.” Today, Silva’s store is bordered by empty shops, and most of the time he brings his lunch. “Everyone has moved on,” he says. “I seem to be the only one that didn’t.”

Despite the loss of foot traffic, Silva’s business is surviving. Most of his sales come from loyal customers who come to his store looking for particular teams that chain stores don’t carry. Though he thinks he could be doing better somewhere else, Silva likes where he is. “There are a lot of memories, and you get used to where you are. You don’t want to change.” Silva bets he’ll be the last one to go. “They’ll probably have to kick me out,” he says with a chuckle.

There are no shoppers in sight, but the mall employs a full time security force, who apparently have been told to look out for reporters. While talking to some mall-goers, I was approached by a security officer and asked “if there was any interviewing going on.” I was told that no stories could be written on the mall or interviews conducted without the permission of the management. The management would not return phone calls. However, owners like Silva were happy to talk about the mall, and about the strange circumstances leading to its death.

Corporate profits, local losses

How does a mall go from 60 to four stores in a little over a decade? One answer is competition with the neighboring Warwick Mall, which is open despite flooding earlier this year. The Warwick Mall was built in 1972, not long after the Midland Mall, and for the two decades that followed the malls did not threaten one another. Then, in the mid ’90s, the Rhode Island Mall changed ownership several times. It lost a major department store, G.Fox, when the store merged with Filene’s. By 1998, twenty of the 97 stores were vacant according to an article in the Providence Journal, which speculated that the mall had perhaps become too dated to interest shoppers.

In 2000, when Walmart announced plans to build a store in Filene’s old space, owners hoped that the mall would recover with an influx of traffic from Walmart. But when Walmart opened on January 23, 2002, its door to the main mall space was sealed. Assistant store manager Allan Hale says that the original store blueprints included double doors opening into the mall, which were never put in during construction.

Chris Buchanan, Walmart’s Senior Manager of Public Affairs, said in an email that he has tried to investigate why the doors were sealed without luck. Silva said that he and other store owners believe that neither Walmart nor the owners ever pushed for it. It is not uncommon for still-thriving anchor stores like Walmart to seal themselves off from dead mall space, like the anchors at the Assembly Square Mall of Somerville, MA or the Source Mall in Westbury, NY.

In December 2003, Stop & Shop signed a lease with the Rhode Island Mall for its central mall space. Immediately after, all the other store owners in the mall were made to sign new, 30-day contracts, which stipulated that they could be evicted from the mall within a month if Stop & Shop went forth with development. “I had no other choice,” Silva says. “I knew there was no stability. You either did it or you left.”

Many of the larger chain stores did choose to leave when the management proposed the new leases. Champ’s Sporting Goods, FootLocker, and Auntie Annie’s all waited for their old leases to expire and then packed up. In 2005, the Rhode Island Mall was already listed on Deadmalls.com, a website that documents dead and dying malls across America.

Stop & Shop has yet to put its space to use. And in 2007, it opened up another location less than a mile away from the Rhode Island Mall, on Greenwich Avenue. The most logical explanation for this, and the one accepted by most store owners, is that Stop & Shop is keeping their lease and paying rent on the empty stores in order to block competition, Walmart in particular, from expanding into the mall.

Walmart could use the space to expand into a “supercenter” with groceries, a move that would pose serious competition to Rhode Island Stop & Shops. Walmart is in the process of aggressively courting the New England grocery market. As The Boston Globe reported in 2009, the chain had taken away three percent of retail food sales in New England ($1 billion) from grocers in the past five years.

Buchanan, the Senior Manager of Public Affairs at Walmart, confirmed that Stop & Shop had purchased a deed restriction from the previous owners “to prevent Walmart from expanding into the interior of the mall.” Warwick Tax Assessor Ken Mallette said that the only reason Stop & Shop had leased the space in the first place was to block Walmart, and that it had never actually been interested in a store opportunity. “It’s always been a competitive thing,” he said.

The details of Stop & Shop’s lease—how much the company is paying and how long it will occupy the mall—remain unknown. Mallette says that the company never filed any records with the city of Warwick, not even building permit applications or a certificate of occupancy, as is usually done with long, commercial leases.

Stop & Shop press representative Faith Wiener confirmed that the chain was still leasing the space, but wouldn’t comment on the length or purpose of the lease. She said that Stop & Shop was still “evaluating its options” for the space.

In the meantime, no new tenants have been allowed to move in. When the Warwick Mall was submerged in last year’s floods, the Rhode Island Mall was spared. Immediately following the flood, several tenants, including Anthony and Ruby DeFusco, owners of the collectibles store Bear Village, called the management of the Rhode Island Mall asking about leases. They were turned away.

“The manager said that they were only interested in corporate stores,” Anthony DeFusco says. Yet DeFusco also knows of several Warwick Mall corporate stores that approached management, and were also turned away. “If [the management] had wanted to, after the flood, they could have filled half the mall up. No question,” DeFusco says.

DeFusco thinks the problem is that the mall management has no financial incentive to look for new tenants. He says a managing company will not try to fill a space with tenants if they are being paid by the owner as if tenants already exist. Both the owner of the mall, the German investment company GLL, and its local manager David Graham for Eastern Development, declined to comment for this article.

Dead mall deadlock

Both Silva and DeFusco wish that the government would take a look at the mall’s situation. “It’s weird that the governor and the mayor let Stop & Shop lease the property and take the easy way out. There could be so many more jobs here,” says Silva. DeFusco agrees. “I dont think Stop & Shop should be allowed to cripple a piece of real estate,” he says.

Warwick Planning Official Rick Crenca, a principal planner who has worked in the department since 1977, was unaware of the Stop & Shop lease. While the city “obviously would not like to see the mall empty,” he says, there is nothing any government office can do to fill empty retail spots other than recommending them to retailers who already want to move to the area. What happens between a tenant and an owner, he noted, is a legally binding agreement, adding “we couldn’t do anything.”

There is a strange irony to this corporate tug of war: Stop & Shop is probably the only reason why a store like Silva’s remains where it is. It has now been almost seven years that Stop & Shop has paid to keep the mall empty and running, and during this time, the local businesses who agreed to 30-day leases have been able to remain in their spaces. If the rent on the empty stores was not being paid as if they were occupied, it is doubtful the mall would still exist. Most likely, it would already have been demolished or repurposed as a big-box store—maybe even a Walmart.

Silva and the other owners, powerless in the face of corporate deadlock, remain on 30-day leases, awaiting the inevitable death of the mall. In the current situation, it is difficult to imagine anything changing. The most recent development at the mall was the DMV relocating to Cranston on August 7, 2010 to consolidate offices. Frank is worried; the DMV always brought a few customers to his store while they waited their turn.

DeFusco, who recently took a look inside the mall when visiting Sears for a pair of shoes, was shocked to see what the mall looked like now. “It’s like you’re in a movie; it’s become an eerie place.”

Alice Hines B’11 could have filled half the mall up. No question.

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