J.C. Penney exit makes others at mall nervous

With Washington Mall anchor gone, new managers mum on their plans

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As J.C. Penney prepares to move from Washington Mall into space in The Foundry, Oxford Development Co. is taking over management of the aging shopping center, and the few tenants remaining are nervous about the mall's future.

Departure of the 132,000-square-foot J.C. Penney, which has been holding an inventory liquidation sale since the holidays, will leave a huge hole in the mall, already a ghostly shell of its once thriving self. J.C. Penney will open in March at The Foundry, a sprawling commercial complex under construction a few miles north in South Strabane.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
A shopper passes signs announcing the closing of J.C. Penney at Washington Mall, and another sign announcing that the company is hiring. The store will move to The Foundry shopping complex, being built to the north on Route 19.
Click photo for larger image.

There, J.C. Penney again will be an anchor, joining Bed Bath & Beyond, Ross Dress for Less, Marshal's and Ulta, a one-stop cosmetics store, all opening in the spring. The Phase I stores will total about 210,000 square feet.

Smaller shops are in negotiations and will open in the summer, said Eve Shirley, marketing director for the Indianapolis-based Premier Properties, The Foundry developer.

The center's name draws on the region's ties to the steel and coal industries. The Foundry logo features an I-beam, and the exterior construction is a mix of metal and stone, Ms. Shirley said.

As it moves from one location to another, J.C. Penney transitions from the old to the new.

When it opened in 1968 as the Washington area's first indoor shopping complex, Washington Mall was a trailblazer, an enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center positioned near Interstates 70 and 79 and Route 19.

Now there's a decided chill indoors, physically and psychologically. A thermometer showed a reading of about 60 degrees on a recent weekday.

Most of the storefronts were vacant, although chains such as Jo-Ann Fabrics, Eckerd Pharmacy and Hallmark remain. Toys R Us and Staples, both of which maintain separate exterior entrances, also remain.

When contacted last week, the new management was unable to shed light on what direction the mall would take.

Mark Grasso, Oxford spokesman, would say only that the company, which took over from J.J. Gumberg Co. effective Jan. 1, is "evaluating development and repositioning alternatives." The mall could move in several directions, but decision-making will take time.

Oxford is headquartered in Pittsburgh. In its 40-year history as a professional real estate firm, it has developed South Hills Village, Monroeville Mall and One Oxford Centre in Pittsburgh, and commercial complexes in Florida.

Uncertainty about Washington Mall is nothing new to tenants such as James Gazica, owner of Washington Scuba Center, which sells diving gear.

"It's kind of like, I don't like the fact that [J.C. Penney] is going. There's kind of a concern [as to] how much worse can it get. At this point, it's pretty evident the owners have an 'I don't care about my tenants' " attitude, said Mr. Gazica, a month-to-month lease holder.

Tenants have largely been left in the dark, a posture Mr. Gazica finds troubling. Seated at a conference-size table and surrounded by scuba suits and diving equipment, Mr. Gazica said he was uncertain how much money to sink into the place, knowing management could say, "You have 30 days to get out."

Lured by the reasonable rent, he's been there about 15 months. He lamented, however, that he had been given little notice of mall events such as Medieval Days or flea markets. Perhaps, he said, he could have promoted his store in conjunction with an event, but one day's notice left him little time to plan.

In light of the situation, Mr. Gazica said, he is looking for another location.

"I'd have to be a moron not to," he said.

In contrast, Bill MacTaggart, co-owner with his wife, DeDe, of Pavlov's Place, a canine boarding facility, sees things differently.

He, too, holds a month-to-month lease but is pleased with his treatment.

"What's driving my perspective is that Washington Mall and the owners haven't been anything but wonderful. I think any decision they make will be fair and equitable because they have been so supportive to date."

Mr. MacTaggart was welcomed when he approached management with his canine idea, a novel business for a mall.

He reasons that the mall owners are wealthy, powerful men who are unconcerned about meeting a mortgage payment.

With the mall mortgage long since paid off, they look at things differently. They have time to stand back and consider the business, he said.

Reached at his Florida home in Miami Beach, co-owner Stephen I. Richman declined to speculate on the mall's future.

"I'm out of touch. I'm 1,500 miles away," he said. Co-owners Angelo and Phillip Falconi, who are cousins, could not be reached for comment.

Although Mr. MacTaggart said he would be stunned if told suddenly he had to leave, "I'd get out."

Pam Quattrone, manager of a Coldwell Banker office, is leasing space once occupied by Washington Federal Savings Bank.

The bank built a free-standing office on a separate parcel a few years ago.

She and her staff have been there about a year, knowing it would be temporary. She is unhappy J.C. Penney is leaving, but she isn't too concerned.

She came because she wanted a place to establish the business. She holds a four-year lease but she, too, could be asked to leave, although she would be given more time than monthly leaseholders.

"If you came here thinking you're going to be here awhile, you're naive," she said.

Despite its current state, photographer Robin Richards could not be happier with her site in the mall.

Her business has never relied on walk-in trade, so mall traffic matters little to her.

She moved in about a year and a half ago, likes the availability of parking and the low rent, and has no plans to move.

"I learned to not worry about anything until it happens," she said.

Kim Patterson, manager of Barbara's Hallmark, said its owners, Paul and Barbara Aber, of Cumberland, Md., and son, Scott, of Washington, are looking for a new location in the area but have no immediate plans to leave.

It's a good store with loyal customers, she said. The Abers have owned the store for 12 years.

Like Hallmark, L.A. Nails, at the southern end of the mall, has an established customer base and has been there 11 years. Employees expressed disappointment at J.C. Penney's exit.

She hopes the owners will renovate, said the manicurist, who identified herself only as Nina.

Lynda Guydon Taylor can be reached at ltaylor@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8813.


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