With Sears set to close its Mall of Louisiana store this spring, there are a number of possibilities real estate experts see for the space that go beyond traditional retail uses.
“It’s a large space, and those are tough to fill. There are not many national retailers expanding,” said Jonathan Walker, a senior commercial sales and leasing executive at Maestri-Murrell Real Estate. “But you haven’t had a large space available in that mall lately. It’s a great performing mall. It will be of interest to somebody,” he said.
Sears owns the two-level 123,744-square-foot building, one of the main anchors of the mall. USA Today has said the store will close in mid-April as part of another wave of shutdowns for the financially troubled retailer. The Baton Rouge store is the last Sears department store in Louisiana. The chain still operates a number of small "hometown" appliance/hardware stores around the state and opened a small prototype Sears Home & Life in 2019 in Lafayette, at less than 15,000 square feet.
The Mall of Louisiana is located in a very desirable area, and the demographics of the nearby neighborhoods are some of the best in Baton Rouge, said Ben Graham, a regional vice president with Stirling Properties.
One possibility could be turning the store into some sort of medical space. After all, the mall is in the Bluebonnet-Essen-Perkins medical corridor, Graham said.
And just down Interstate 10, there’s an example of turning empty retail into medical space in Metairie, where Ochsner Health System plans to build a 185,000-square-foot “super clinic” on the site of the former Sears store in Clearview Center.
Finding potential medical tenants for the Mall of Louisiana Sears could be difficult. Ochsner already has a medical complex in The Grove, right behind the mall. Baton Rouge General’s Bluebonnet campus is across the street from the shopping center. Our Lady of the Lake has its operations on Essen Lane, one exit over.
Another possibility could be subdividing the Sears space among several smaller retailers. The escalator between the two floors could be removed and the two stories could be separately leased, Graham said.
“Sears does have three exterior walls, so you could have two separate storefronts,” he said. That could open up the space and make it appealing to retailers such as Belk and grocery stores.
Charlotte, North Carolina-based Belk, which has a store at Juban Crossing in Denham Springs, had a potential pathway to getting into the Mall of Louisiana in 2005 when it acquired from Saks the McRae's chain that had a store in the mall. However, Dillard's had a pre-existing agreement with Saks that gave Dillard's first right to purchase the McRae's store in the Mall of Louisiana if Saks ever sold it. That allowed Dillard's to have separate men's and women's stores in the mall.
A potential combo redevelopment for the Sears space could be turning it into a fitness/entertainment concept, although Graham said that could be difficult with the coronavirus pandemic going on. The fact that the mall already has a Main Event family entertainment center with a bowling alley, laser tag arena and arcade could also be an obstacle.
While there has been talk about Amazon taking over Sears stores in some shopping malls and turning them into distribution hubs, Graham said the possibility of that seems remote. Amazon already has a distribution center nearby, off Siegen Lane. The online giant is also planning a facility in Port Allen and a company that works with Amazon is seeking to demolish Cortana Mall to a 2.9 million-square-foot warehouse and office on the site.
Mall of Louisiana officials have declined to comment on the Sears closure, noting that they don’t own the space.
Brookfield Properties, which owns the mall, has redeveloped empty Sears space in creative ways at a number of its other properties. In Idaho Falls, Idaho, the store is being converted into a charter school. In Atlanta, plans are to replace the former Sears wing of the Cumberland Mall with two office towers, a 312-unit apartment complex, restaurants and stores. In Alpharetta, Georgia, Sears space is being converted into 300 apartments, retail and restaurants.
“If it’s a bad mall, you don’t want to see an anchor go dark,” Walker said. “But sometimes, that’s not terrible in a good mall. You can grab that space back and get something to drive more traffic to the mall.”