The developers haven’t confirmed it yet, but the construction of new stores at the former Oak Ridge Mall appears unlikely to be complete by the Christmas 2016 shopping season.
In November, RealtyLink said demolition at the 58-acre site could take four months and be complete by the end of this March or early next month, with construction possibly starting April 1.
RealtyLink had planned to turn over seven new stores to retailers in September 2016, and it was expected that they could open in October, in time for the holiday season.
But demolition has not started yet at the former mall property, now known as Main Street Oak Ridge.
Ray Evans, Oak Ridge retail consultant, said the opening before Christmas was predicated on demolition and construction starting in January 2016.
“For a variety of reasons, that couldn’t happen,” Evans said.
Still, the project “continues to move forward, although not as quickly as any of us had hoped,” Evans said.
He said RealtyLink, which took over as master developer in September, is working hard on the project and is in constant communication with the city. Progress is still being made, Evans said, but there are still a few things that need to be done before the property sale can close and construction can start.
“There are no city issues causing any delay in the closing,” Evans said in response to questions about the nature of the project and the city’s involvement. “This is very much a free-market deal.”
He said RealtyLink has been working with various Oak Ridge municipal departments to develop a strategy to allow the demolition of enclosed mall space without adversely affecting the two remaining anchors, JCPenney and Belk.
“Several of the utilities for those anchors are intertwined with the portions of the former mall that need to be demolished,” Evans said.
For example, there are sewer laterals that serve Belk and 23 other former stores, Evans said.
“This is an extremely complex, complicated redevelopment,” Evans said. “We all need to be patient and let RealtyLink sort through the various issues.”
Oak Ridge Electric Director Jack Suggs said there is a 13,000-volt circuit, one overhead and one underground, at the site, and the underground circuit would be under buildings that would be built at Main Street Oak Ridge. That’s not allowed, so the circuit will have to be moved.
The major conflicts are in the area of the old Sears building and the overhead lines along Rutgers Avenue, Suggs said. Relocation would be very expensive, so officials are trying to find economical ways to do the work, Suggs said.
He said the city was already strengthening the area anyway, looking at circuit improvements, and the question was: Could the mall redevelopment tie into the improved circuits and avoid expensive circuit relocations?
RealtyLink has been given a few options, Suggs said. The company would have to pay for upgrades; they would not be free, but they might be more economical, Suggs said.
“I have been very impressed with the Electric Department because they have been thinking ‘outside the box,'” Evans said.
Suggs estimated the potential relocation costs at several hundred thousand dollars.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce those costs for them,” Suggs said. “But we don’t want our ratepayers to pay for it either. We want to do it in a way that is mutually beneficial.”
The work is complex, he said. Each time the developer submits a plan, the city has to “go back to the drawing board” and check it.
Suggs is confident that a solution can be found, although he is not sure whether the city will be able to help reduce costs.
Part of the challenge with the mall redevelopment is doing electrical work without affecting service to the existing businesses at Main Street Oak Ridge. That issue is easy to resolve at Cinemark Tinseltown Theatre, Suggs said, but Belk is more of a challenge.
He said Oak Ridge Public Works is doing similar work on water and sewer lines. When the mall was built, Suggs said, utilities were outside of the mall footprint, but now that footprint is changing, which requires the city work being done now.
According to previously announced plans, Main Street Oak Ridge would be a roughly $80 million project that would replace the mostly empty mall with a mix of retail, restaurants, and about 200 residential units, which could be in four- to five-story buildings with retail on the ground floor, and possibly a hotel. The vacant enclosed space between JCPenney and Belk would be demolished, although those two stores would remain.
The redevelopment has been eagerly anticipated for years. RealtyLink, which is still relatively new to the project, had earlier said it planned to close on December 15. The company, which is based in Greenville, South Carolina, had planned to have a minimum of seven stores open by Christmas 2016, including four stores adjacent to Belk and two adjacent to Walmart. Then, the expected closing date changed to January. Now, officials are reluctant to give expected dates, including for closing and construction.
Public discussion of the mall sale started about four years ago, in April 2012.
RealtyLink took over as master developer in September 2015, replacing Crosland Southeast, a North Carolina firm that had worked on the project for more than two years and invested more than $1 million.
“The project itself is a very complex project,” RealtyLink Principal Neil Wilson told 150 or so people at a Rise and Shine business event organized by the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce in November. It’s probably the “second or third most complex project I’ve ever worked on,” Wilson said.
Tasks include “demalling” the current site and building back a new shopping center while keeping Belk and JCPenney open. There is utility work that has to be done without interrupting existing operations.
Wilson has not returned three phone calls seeking comment this month.
There have been several proposals to redevelop the mall site since the early 2000s, but they have not been successful. One proposal was rejected by voters more than a decade ago.
Under the current proposal, demolition at the former mall could start at Sears and go counterclockwise around the site. Construction could follow a similar pattern.
There has been some visible progress in the past few months. Workers removed an Oak Ridge Mall sign on South Illinois Avenue in December and replaced it with a new larger Main Street Oak Ridge sign.
In January, the Oak Ridge Municipal Planning Commission approved a re-subdivision for the redevelopment. The re-subdivision includes 10 different lots, including one larger parcel in the center of the 58-acre site and other smaller lots. Officials said the re-subdivision was necessary for financial considerations, and it is a condition for closing on the property.
Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin said then that the city had received notice that the remediation is complete on the interior of the mall, and construction drawings have been submitted for three buildings expected to receive permits. The new buildings could be erected next to Belk and in the area where Sears is now.
The Planning Commission earlier approved a site plan for Main Street Oak Ridge.
Some minor changes have been made to the $13 million tax increment financing, or TIF, package that will be used for the redevelopment. Those changes have been approved by the Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board, Oak Ridge City Council, and Anderson County Commission. A TIF uses new property tax revenues generated at a site to help pay for development.
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