“THE reportS of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain, who was on a speaking tour in London at the time, replied in 1897 when informed that a newspaper in America had prematurely run his obituary. So it is with the Sears store at Spotsylvania Towne Center, which according to mall owner Cafaro Co., so far has given no indication that it is on death’s door.
Nevertheless, Cafaro is asking the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors to rezone the land the store sits on, just in case it closes like hundreds of other Sears and Kmart stores across the country as the once-dominant retailer retrenches.
One Sears store—located on Valley View Boulevard in Roanoke—is scheduled to close in October, according to the company’s website. Three other Sears stores out of the remaining 14 in Virginia were shuttered last fall in Charlottesville, Glen Allen and Hampton after the company emerged from bankruptcy.
But the Spotsylvania location, which has been an anchor at the mall since 1980, was not on the closure list and is presumably still making money for the holding company. So asking county supervisors to rezone the site and its adjacent parking lot to allow for a multi-family residential development strikes us as rather premature.
Does Cafaro have secret plans to terminate Sears’ lease that it’s not telling the public about?
The rezoning request is also presumptive. Traffic on adjacent State Route 3 is already bad as it is, without adding the occupants of 271 more apartments to the mix of shoppers and commuters, as Cafaro has proposed. There’s no question that rezoning the Sears tract from retail to residential would exacerbate the current congestion.
So what’s really going on here? Most likely, the mall owner is hoping to cut future losses as some 12,000 retail locations nationwide are expected to close their doors by the end of this year—more than did so in 2018. The so-called “retail apocalypse” has already been felt in the Fredericksburg area with last year’s closing of a Toys R Us store in Central Park.
Analysts at UBS Securities say that if online shopping (currently at 16 percent of total retail purchases) rises to 25 percent by 2026, 75,000 more brick-and-mortar stores—including some big, well-known retailers—would be forced out of business. Tariffs on Chinese imports will likely hasten their demise.
If that trend continues, there might be a lot of empty stores in the Fredericksburg region and elsewhere that will have to be either torn down or repurposed. Meanwhile, continual demand for more housing is putting upward pressure on real estate prices. The multi-story mid-rise complex proposed for Spotsylvania Towne Center where, according to the developer, the rent will likely be up to $1,700 for a two-bedroom apartment, appears to be Cafaro’s attempt to get ahead of the curve.
But that will leave Spotsylvania County and other jurisdictions in a pickle, having to manage the loss of tax-generating retail space. Replacing stores with residential development—either building new projects or converting old malls to affordable workforce housing—may be the best option in the long run. But providing government services to all those new residents, and updating infrastructure to accommodate them, must be part of the calculations. For that reason, any rezoning from retail/commercial to residential should be part of a much larger and well-thought-out plan, not done in haste for the benefit of a single developer.
Even if the Spotsylvania Towne Center Sears does close its doors eventually, premature rezoning also precludes the possibility of attracting another retail outlet to fill the vacated space. Stores come and go as economic conditions and customer behavior changes. For example, East Coast Appliance purchased the empty Toys R Us store nearby for $3.5 million last December.
As long as the Sears store in Spotsylvania remains open for business, continues to attract customers, and is economically viable, rezoning should be the last thing on supervisors’ minds.