Mix of optimism and speculation swirling around future of Vista Ridge Mall

Published in The Dallas Morning News on March 26, 2015

Some Vista Ridge Mall tenants remain optimistic about the future in spite of the mall’s recent difficulties.

“We’re doing really well right now, so it’s kind of weird that the mall isn’t,” said John Yates, the manager at Zumiez.

Yates said the company has a lease through 2017. Zumiez, which sells action sports clothing and accessories, occupies a space on the second floor that was a FastForward location before Zumiez bought out the company.

“We don’t think the mall is actually going to close,” Yates said. “From processes that other malls go through in this situation, the loan will go back to the bank and they will try to sell it to another company.”

Yates has been at this location since the end of October. He says business at the mall has improved since he arrived and the company isn’t worried about losing its place in the mall or decreases in business.

But other store owners are concerned.

Mohammed Hossain, the manager of Toys & Gifts on the first floor, has been in business for eight years, but said he’s worried about the foreclosure and what will happen next. If ownership changes, he said he’d be fine with that. But if the mall closes, he will have to find a new location.

“I lose business day by day,” he said. “I’ve considered moving. Around Christmas, another mall offered me a storefront but I don’t have enough manpower and resources. So I stay here.”

The mall’s owner, Rouse Properties Inc., was recently late paying on its $67.82 million loan, according to Trepp LLC, a firm that tracks commercial mortgage-backed securities. Rouse said last month that Vista Ridge’s loan was sent to a special servicing firm.

The fact that Vista Ridge Mall, a million-square-foot mall in Lewisville, is facing foreclosure has some tenants and shoppers worried. Although they want the mall to be stronger, they have watched other developments sprout up to give the shopping center competition.

“We need Vista Ridge Mall. There are no other large anchor stores conveniently located to the Lewisville-Flower Mound-Highland Village area,” Doris Taylor, Highland Village resident, said in Sounding Off. “Going to Dallas to go to Macy’s or Dillard’s is not an option for many people.”

Although many residents hope Vista Ridge will find a new buyer, some speculated on possibilities for a vacant mall.

A few who responded to Sounding Off proposed turning the mall into a newer type of retail, an outdoor shopping center like The Shops at Highland Village. Other proposals included transforming the mall into a school or a college, corporate office space and even bulldozing it to build a park.

The financial situation is just the latest in hits for the mall. Currently there are 29 vacated spaces where retail once operated.

When Vista Ridge Mall opened, it was the only place to shop the major stores locally. Online shopping didn’t exist and there were few movie theaters in the area.

Soon, Vista Ridge Mall will also have to compete with new outdoor shopping centers such as the Riverwalk and Lakeside DFW in Flower Mound.

Carrollton resident Lewis Acrey has been coming to the mall for at least 12 years. He says the mall once was busy but has lost traffic to other shopping centers. Though the atmosphere at Vista Ridge is appealing, it doesn’t have enough family entertainment and discount stores, he said.

“Grapevine Mills is bigger and has more eating places and family entertainment. Parents can shop while their kids do activities,” he said. “[Vista Ridge] is decorated better than Grapevine Mills and some of the other malls. But it just doesn’t have the right things to bring customers in.”

Hollace Harvey wrote in his 2002 book Historic Denton County: An Illustrated History that Vista Ridge Mall averaged 13 million visits a year by serving a young affluent market, winning several architectural design awards and having shops including White Barn Candle Co., Ann Taylor Loft and Eddie Bauer — all of which are now gone.

Once many major retailers left, the mall began to hit hard times. In 2009, General Growth Partners, which owned Vista Ridge, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After the bankruptcy, 30 low-performing malls, including Vista Ridge, were spun off to shareholders and formed into Rouse Properties.

Vista Ridge Mall was built in 1989 on the southwest corner of Round Grove Road and Interstate 35E. Sears and Dillard’s were its initial anchor stores. J.C. Penney opened its doors in August 1990. The fourth anchor store to open was a Foley’s, a unit of Macy’s Department Stores, before it was converted into a Macy’s. The anchors own their buildings.

In 2006, Cinemark constructed an attached 15-screen movie theater to the mall, relocating from its smaller space in another part of the mall. The original theater closed in 2009.

Sheldon Rudman, owner of Collector’s Heaven, has consolidated his locations to a single store in Vista Ridge Mall. Rudman is retiring from managing the business and moving to Canada, but someone else will run his store.

Rudman doesn’t see the mall falling under new ownership as some stores, like his, are performing well. At any mall, the tenants are the stakeholders who have its future in their hands. If they do poorly, the mall does poorly, Rudman said, but a poorly performing mall doesn’t mean the death of its tenants.

“Some storefronts have been vacant for a while and I don’t expect anything to change,” he said. “It would be too costly for anything else to happen, but they’ll basically renegotiate the payments, essentially refinancing the mall.”

Kevin Ismail, a salesman at Classic Jewelers on the mall’s second floor for three years, said business at the mall has been slow for a long time with no improvement. He doesn’t see anything happening to many of the stores.

“We haven’t suffered anything [like some of the other stores] in the last two years,” he said. “But we are on day-to-day lease, so they can throw us out whenever they want.”

Eighteen stores have closed on the lower level and one elevator and one set of escalators are out of order. Eight storefronts and four spots at the food court have closed upstairs.

But it’s not like Rouse hasn’t tried to bring new people in. The mall recently converted some storefronts into sitting and family areas. It frequently has events for families. It used to have a Disney Store and Build-a-Bear Workshop, which also provided activities for families.

Jesse Dawayne stopped into the mall on his way back to his hometown in Houston from Kansas.

“About 10 miles north, I saw another mall [Golden Triangle] but it wasn’t appealing,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, there’s probably nothing in this mall.’”

He kept going until he saw a “nice structure in a perfect location.”

“When I got to this mall, I didn’t even know I wasn’t in Dallas,” he said. “But I have been seeing many empty spaces.”

Lewisville/Flower Mound editor Adam Schrader can be reached at 214-773-8188 and @schrader_adam on Twitter.

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