Pittsburgh Mills mall shoppers and business owners hope its new owner will breathe new life into the space, but experts say there could be more hurdles ahead.
Long Island-based Mason Asset Management purchased the struggling Frazer mall last week for about $12 million.
The sale comes about a year and a half after the mall was acquired for $100 at a foreclosure auction in January 2017. In reality, mortgage holder Morgan Stanley Capital took possession of the property.
Mason Asset Management owns about 130 properties, including 40 other malls across the country. It owns eight malls in Pennsylvania, including Beaver Valley Mall in Center Township, Logan Valley Mall in Altoona, Uniontown Mall in Uniontown and a Big Lots Shopping Center in West Mifflin.
Frank Vescio, development coordinator for Center Township, said officials have been happy with the progress they’ve seen at the mall since Mason Asset Management bought it two years ago.
He said a Rural King store has moved into a vacant Sears and other parcels have been split up and sold to other retailers.
“They’re trying like heck to try and fix it up,” he said. “I’m very happy.”
He said they also hope to see a boost in shoppers from new developments directly behind the mall, including apartments and medical facilities.
“They’re going to have a built-in customer right behind the mall,” he said.
Elliot Nassim, president of Mason Asset Management, has released few details about plans for Pittsburgh Mills but said last week he hopes to announce new leases “very, very shortly.”
Messages left for Nassim and the mall’s manager, Ernie Diaz, were not returned Friday.
Paul Boyle, who runs the home furnishings store Home Collection in the mall, viewed the purchase as a step in the right direction.
“We’ve been nothing but positive about this property,” he said. “Yes, we want more foot traffic — but it’s out there.”
Boyle moved his business to the mall in 2016 after being in Oakmont for nearly 30 years.
He said he hopes to see more businesses move into the mall.
“It could use a little bit of everything,” Boyle said.
Shoppers hope for more retailers, restaurants
Shopper Trisha Cousins said she visits Pittsburgh Mills often to let her two children play.
She looks forward to what the new owners will do. She’s hoping for a new sit-down restaurant in the mall. The mall used to have a Houlihan’s and Dingbats. Both restaurants have been closed for years. It still has a Chinese food buffet, a Panera and a small food court.
“We’re just excited,” she said. “It’s needed in this area.”
Another shopper, Shanna Thomey, said she’d like to see more clothing retailer options for her and her two daughters.
“Basically, if I’m going back-to-school shopping, I wouldn’t come here,” she said. “There’s nothing in the mall to draw us in.”
The mall’s assessed value has plummeted over the years from $190 million in 2006 to $6.5 million in February, according to Manus Clancy, senior managing director at New York City-based Trepp LLC, which provides market research for the real estate and banking industries.
Despite recent additions, the mall’s occupancy is declining, with 23 tenants leaving since January 2016, according to a January 2018 report by Trepp.
Analyst cautions optimists
Edward Dittmer, senior vice president of Morningstar Credit Ratings, said Mason Asset Management works with Namdar Realty Group to acquire struggling malls, but he hasn’t seen them put a lot of money into improvements.
“While this company has acquired a number of properties, I haven’t really seen a lot of results from redevelopment efforts from them,” he said. “I’m not saying that they won’t; I just haven’t seen large capital expenditures right now.”
Dittmer said the challenges of Pittsburgh Mills have been shared by malls across the country. He cited issues such as the rise of online shopping, declining income, stagnant population and rural location as factors in the malls’ failure to thrive.
He said some malls have been able to make it work and are still thriving, but those success stories often come from owner investment.
“They will invest cash to break up an anchor (store),” he said. “They’ve done a really nice job in a lot of cases.”
Dittmer said, in some ways, the Pittsburgh Mills mall has struggled since it was built in 2005 because stores quickly pulled out of agreements to come there. The 2008 recession also played a role in the mall’s lack of success.
He said it is possible the new owners will be able to lease out some empty storefronts and possibly sell off some of its parcels, but it might take some time before shoppers start to notice any changes.
“Right now, I don’t see a lot of change for Pittsburgh Mills — at least in the short term,” Dittmer said.