For years, residents have lamented the steady decline of the West Park Shopping Center. In this two part series, we explore West Park’s potential for revitalization. Click here to read Part I.
MANSFIELD — Just 2.4 miles from downtown Mansfield, nearly two-thirds of the West Park Shopping Center awaits demolition.
Which raises the question — What could West Park become?
The issue of what to do with dilapidated strip malls long past their prime is not unique to Mansfield. Some urban planning and real estate experts have started to advocate for turning “dying” malls and retail strips into mixed-use developments with both residential and commercial spaces.
It’s a model that worked well in Woburn, Mass. The town is about 10 miles north of Boston. It’s home to approximately 42,000 people. Until a few years ago, it was the home of the fading Woburn Mall.
The former shopping center is now Woburn Village — a new development with 175,000 square-feet of commercial space and 350 housing units. A quarter of those units are designated affordable housing, Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin said.
Woburn’s success story is highlighted in a report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council called “Rethinking the retail strip.”
The report described Woburn as a town facing similar struggles to Mansfield.
“Woburn, like many other cities, was facing a host of other pressures: increasing housing demand, a need to grow the tax base, and a desire for more placemaking and character,” the authors wrote.
“The mall’s decline was not helping. It was no longer the financial asset for the City that it had been, and it was devolving into an eyesore.”
According to the MAPC, a few thriving anchor stores remained when a new developer purchased the property in 2017, but more than two-thirds of the mall’s retail space was vacant.
Galvin said the former owners of the property had stopped making substantial improvements or seeking new tenants.
“It started to become a ghost town,” he recalled. “There was very little activity over there.”
“Woburn, like many other cities, was facing a host of other pressures: increasing housing demand, a need to grow the tax base, and a desire for more placemaking and character.”
Despite the downward trajectory of the mall, the site had advantages. The 23-acre parcel was located about two miles from the intersection of I-93 and I-95, near the Anderson Regional Transportation Center, a local transit hub.
After an out-of-state developer, EDENS, expressed interest in the property, city officials began looking for ways to facilitate redevelopment.
Elizabeth Furnelli, managing director and northeast regional lead for EDENS, said the company sees potential in properties like West Park and the former Woburn Mall.
“The redevelopment of an underutilized or underperforming shopping mall is an opportunity to revitalize and enrich the surrounding community, creating a village-like setting where people want to spend more time. It is also a more sustainable use of existing land,” Furnelli said.
EDENS partnered with the city of Woburn to take advantage of Massachusetts’ Smart Growth Zoning Overlay District Act, more commonly known in the Bay State as Chapter 40R.
The act encourages municipalities to create dense residential or mixed-use, smart growth zoning districts. Communities get one-time incentive payments for adopting the necessary zoning provisions. They also receive a reimbursement for every new housing unit constructed in the district.
In return, Chapter 40R requires at least 20 percent of new housing stock built in these districts to be affordable for low-income residents.
EDENS broke up the large parking lot with buildings and green spaces. The 23-acre site is now walkable.
Galvin described Woburn Village as a more lively place than the Woburn Mall. The original anchor tenants, including a large chain grocer and a T.J. Maxx, are still there. Additional tenants include a gym, barbershop, shoe store, nail salon and nearly a dozen restaurants. A large green space provides room for outdoor fitness classes and community events.
While Woburn received nearly $1.55 million in state incentives through Chapter 40R, Galvin said the development would have been worth it regardless.
Not only did it provide more housing and shopping for Woburn residents, it also increased the taxable value of the property from about $10 million to about $57 million.
“I would say at the end of the day it’s a no-brainer,” Galvin said.
“Tina (Cassidy, the head of Woburn’s planning board and redevelopment authority) put a lot of work in with state agencies and city council, but at the end of the day it was well worth it.”
The transformation of the Woburn Mall is a promising example in favor of mixed-use development, but it’s not the only one.
In Santa Ana, California, non-profit developer Community Development Partners turned a 2.3-acre shopping plaza into La Placita Cinco, a mixed-use space with updated retail fronts and 51 affordable housing units.
The project was supported by a 9-percent tax credit award, multiple investors and the City of Santa Ana, which chipped in $6 million.
There are multiple programs that provide funding or tax credits for affordable housing developments in Ohio. Steve Andrews, executive director of the Mansfield Metropolitan Housing Authority, said he’s not aware of any that allow for a mix of affordable and market-rate units.
Nevertheless, he said he believes the shopping center could be home to a development similar to Woburn Village. The condemnation orders in place on the majority of the storefronts might even be an advantage.
“When you’re talking about converting or rehabbing, the cost is really high,” Andrews said. “For them to clear that space ahead of time, that maybe it makes it more feasible for a developer to step in because then they have the options on the table.
“I think there’s ways that it could be done. The fact that there’s a bunch of parking in front doesn’t hurt.”
How could Mansfield’s city government facilitate a mixed-use development at West Park?
Furnelli said redeveloping sites like West Park takes a true public-private partnership.
“Municipalities should always be looking at and improving existing zoning and land-use codes on a town or citywide basis to help facilitate smart growth development,” she said.
Updating zoning can eliminate common barriers like height and density limits and parking requirements, which make development more difficult.
“Often an owner or developer will propose a transformative project, like Woburn Village, but underlying zoning codes may be out of date,” Furnelli added.
“These existing codes do not allow for a mix of uses, higher FAR (floor area ratio) density or new shared parking practices, nor do they incentivize the owner to make significant environmental and open-space upgrades that truly have the biggest impact.”
Red tape is one of the most common barriers toward strip mall redevelopment, according to the MACP. Shetty said municipalities can rewrite their zoning laws, establish overlay districts and even create incentives for certain types of development, provided those incentives are proportional to the benefits.
Like Woburn, Mansfield would likely have to revisit its zoning codes to pave the way for a new, mixed-use development.
West Park is currently in a B-2 General Business zoning district. Marc Milliron, Mansfield’s manager of codes, permitting and zoning, said the designation allows a wide variety of uses including retail, hotels and restaurants. It doesn’t allow for industrial, manufacturing or multifamily housing without a conditional use permit.
If an owner or developer wanted to put an industrial or manufacturing facility in an area zoned B-2, they would have to seek a conditional-use permit from the city planning commission.
Conditional-use permits do not require approval from city council; however, council would have the option of appealing the planning commission’s decision.
A larger multifamily housing complex would require city council to pass an ordinance and create an overlay district. Overlay districts are areas where additional zoning is applied to the original.
According to the American Planning Association, overlay districts often create more strict criteria in order to protect special features like historical buildings or wetlands, but they can also be used to prompt specific projects like mixed-use developments, housing along transit corridors or affordable housing.
With the exception of three historic preservation districts, Mansfield doesn’t have overlay districts yet, but Milliron said they are becoming more common in larger cities like Columbus.
“I think the times are changing, we might see them (in Mansfield) someday,” he said.
While zoning changes or conditional use permits can expand allowed uses for a property, officials in Woburn said it’s still important to consider how a new development will fit in the existing neighborhood.
After Woburn officials chose to pursue the Chapter 40R program, Cassidy began working with the local regional planning authority to develop design guidelines for the proposed overlay district.
The guidelines set parameters for building heights, rooflines and walkways strategically laid out to encourage pedestrian movement. Cassidy said the process helped persuade a hesitant village council to allow the rezoning.
Local economic development professionals say mixed use could be a viable future for West Park. Mansfield’s economic development director Tim Bowersock said he believes business owners in the vicinity would like to see some retail or service establishments onsite. One possibility could be having retail space on the front side of the property and housing in the back.
“You’ve got quite a bit residential that wraps around (the south side) of West Park. I could see some additional housing there,” he said.
“I still think there’s a need for (retail) of space — better quality of course.”