Commissioners delay vote to approve Ross Park Mall project until pedestrian access improved
Several Ross commissioners on Monday praised plans to tear down the vacant Sears store at the Ross Park Mall and replace it with businesses that can help expand its attractiveness as a destination for more than just shopping.
Despite their desire to see one of the township’s biggest taxpayers make changes that help ensure the mall’s future viability, the board voted unanimously to delay approving Simon Property Group’s preliminary site plans for the project.
At issue is the plan’s failure to address what some commissioners think is a long-standing problem at the mall— the lack of a safe way for pedestrians to get there from McKnight Road.
Simon’s plans for the mall call for replacing the Sears building with a multi-story structure that will house a movie theater, a fitness center featuring a 50-foot climbing wall, restaurants and space for additional retail shops.
The mall’s food court would also be relocated to the new building. A second building on the site would house a Restoration Hardware store.
Commissioner Jack Betkowski said he regularly sees mall workers, including a number who wear dark uniforms required by their employers, walking down the hill to catch a bus along McKnight Road.
“That driveway is very dark at night,” he said, adding that on more than one occasion he has “had that scare” of driving down the hill and barely being able to see someone walking along the roadside.
Commissioner Jeremy Shaffer criticized the mall for not going beyond telling people to stay off the road.
“There’s actually signs there that say no pedestrians,” he said.
But Scott Richardson of Simon Property Group said installing a sidewalk to the mall is no simple task.
“The mall has always been topographically challenged,” he said. “There’s “no physical room” for a sidewalk because of the sloping terrain on both sides of the roadway.
Commission President Steve Korbel chided some of his colleagues on the board for being “too kind.”
“The way it is now, too many people are put at risk every day,” he said. “This can’t happen. It needs to change.”
Korbel also scoffed at the idea that pedestrian access to the mall can’t be improved.
“You’re saying we can’t put a sidewalk in,” Korbel said. “That’s not right. You don’t want to put a sidewalk in, but you could do it. It can be done. It’s a matter of your willingness.”
While Korbel also praised the way Simon is approaching the redevelopment of the Sears building, he said he was “extremely disappointed” that pedestrian access was not addressed in its plans.
“What you’re talking about is great,” he said. “The mall is in a post brick-and-mortar era, and what you’re doing is right — you’re drawing people up there with things other than buying a pair of shoes or a purse.”
Richardson said he was “caught slightly off guard” by the sidewalk discussion on Monday night.
“This is the first that this redevelopment team is actually hearing these concerns,” he said.
Korbel, however, said the pedestrian access issue came up several years ago during the planning process for the Cosmopolitan Apartment complex near the mall.
At the time, the township asked the building’s developer and the mall to install “a set of steps that would go up the hillside,” Korbel said.
“We talked to the mall’s reps, who said it’s a liability issue, we don’t want to be responsible for shoveling and salting the stairs,” Korbel said. “But that has to happen.”
Richardson responded that while he could not commit to installing a sidewalk or steps “we are open to working to a solution.”
The commissioners have asked Simon to resubmit it’s plans for the mall project for consideration at the March 11 board meeting.
Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368 or [email protected] or via Twitter @TonyLaRussaTrib.