Macy’s exit puts focus on malls

J. Albano/file Toys ‘R’ Us opened an FAO Schwartz holiday store last August at the Mall at Chestnut Hill, one of several retail complexes along Route 9 known for name-brand shopping options. J. Albano/file
Toys ‘R’ Us opened an FAO Schwartz holiday store last August at the Mall at Chestnut Hill, one of several retail complexes along Route 9 known for name-brand shopping options. (J. Albano/File)
By Lisa Kocian and Sarah Thomas
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2011

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Long known for drawing exclusive name brands like Barneys New York and Tiffany and Co. to Boston’s suburbs, the Chestnut Hill shopping area is having a bit of an identity crisis that could redefine the upscale destination.

The Route 9 neighborhood, which has seen a number of retailers depart in recent months, was dealt another blow last week when Macy’s announced it would be closing its store in the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center.

A fight is also brewing over the long-term future of the shopping corridor. Subsidiaries of the Simon Property Group, which owns the Atrium Mall and the Mall at Chestnut Hill, have appealed Newton’s decision to approve a permit for a new retail and residential complex being planned nearby.

In court documents filed Dec. 28, Simon said additional traffic from the planned Chestnut Hill Square development, slated to rise on the site of the old Omni supermarket on Route 9 near the Newton-Brookline border, would harm its businesses.

The Chestnut Hill Shopping Center is owned separately and is not involved in the appeal.

Over the past year, the Atrium has said goodbye to Williams-Sonoma and Abercrombie & Fitch, and its Borders Books & Music store is set to close Feb. 18. A temporary exhibition, “Bodies Human: Anatomy in Motion,’’ also shut down earlier than scheduled because of low attendance, according to organizers.

But don’t rush to blame the economy for the turnover, said Michael Tesler, a partner in Retail Concepts, a Norwell consulting firm. Simon Property used to be highly skilled at attracting hot stores to the Atrium and the Mall at Chestnut Hill, he said, but in recent years the ability seems to have slipped away. “They’ve got to get their groove back,’’ he said.

When property managers were repeatedly drawing in the hippest new thing, said Tesler, there was a constant buzz to keep people coming to Chestnut Hill. Not anymore, he said.

Les Morris, a spokesman for Simon, said both the Atrium and the Mall at Chestnut Hill, which is anchored by Bloomingdale’s, remain popular shopping destinations. He disputed that the leasing team has somehow lost its edge.

“The retail landscape is and always has been very fluid,’’ Morris said. “We really feel we have the best leasing team in the business.’’

Morris would not comment on the legal complaint filed in Middlesex Superior Court. But in it, the Simon subsidiaries seek to block a special permit for the development where the empty Omni supermarket has been sitting for years.

Chestnut Hill Square would include up to 245,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 100 residential units on the 11.3-acre property. According to the complaint, the project would “add substantial traffic, congestion and density to the plaintiffs’ interests,’’ and would be “harmful to plaintiffs’ operation and ownership of their malls.’’

By granting the special permit, Newton is violating its own zoning code, which is supposed to prevent overcrowding of land, conserve the value of land and buildings, and lessen traffic congestion, according to the complaint.

Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan, chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s Land Use Committee, said he believes the special permit to be appropriate, and the decision will stand up in court. The special permit was granted after a long review process, in which Simon was invited to participate but never did, he added.

Doug Karp, executive vice president of New England Development, which is proposing Chestnut Hill Square, did not return calls seeking comment.

The Chestnut Hill Shopping Center is not part of the appeal. A spokesman for WS Development, which owns and operates the complex on the banks of Hammond Pond, expressed confidence in its strength as a retail magnet.

“While we were sorry to see Macy’s go, it’s actually a great opportunity for us to move forward on our revitalization of the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center,’’ said David Fleming, corporate marketing director for WS Development, which also owns Legacy Place in Dedham.

In November 2009, Star Market reopened at the center in a new building that features retail space for five additional businesses.

“This is an extremely successful shopping center in the heart of Chestnut Hill, and one of the most highly sought after retail locations in the Greater Boston area. We’ve already had tremendous interest in the Macy’s space — our phones have been ringing off the hook about it.’’

According to Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Macy’s Inc., the company does an annual review of stores across the country to see which ones aren’t meeting sales expectations, but there are always multiple reasons for a closing. He pointed out that the store was only 130,000 square feet, much smaller than the typical 225,000- to 250,000-square-foot Macy’s, which meant it was limited to offering a smaller range of merchandise.

“I am very disappointed to be losing the store,’’ said Harriet Rossow, who was shopping at Macy’s last week. “It was nice to have a store with some moderately priced things around here. It’s something this area is really lacking.’’

But Tesler, the retail consultant, said most Chestnut Hill shoppers may not be looking for moderate prices. There are plenty of other Macy’s locations, he said, and Chestnut Hill tends to draw the shoppers who aren’t necessarily looking for sales racks.

The departure of Macy’s “creates an opportunity to get it right,’’ said Tesler. Maybe it’s time for another big name chef to try out the suburbs, he said. Or the answer might be for the nearby Container Store to establish a bigger presence. Whatever the answer, said Tesler, it’s up to the property owner to woo a tenant that will wow shoppers.

“They’ve got to go out and make them a deal they can’t refuse.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at