'A fresh start': How Bloomingdale re-imagines Stratford Square Mall
Stratford Square opened its doors in the mall-building frenzy of the 1980s, starting with four anchor stores and a sea of parking, a circular mass of concrete surrounded by mostly open land.
Over the next decade, Stratford grew to a 1.3 million-square-foot retail monument in the heart of Bloomingdale.
In its prime, Stratford filled the shopping void between Woodfield, the king of suburban malls, to the north and Oak Brook, the older, more high-end commercial hub to the south.
Those shopping destinations have become symbols of reinvention, branding themselves as "lifestyle" centers, while a near-empty Stratford stands as an emblem of decline.
Stratford was still a cash cow in 2012, generating $20.3 million in sales tax revenue. But that number has quickly dwindled in the last 10 years, with the mall producing just $466,080 in 2021, village officials say.
Stratford and other aging, enclosed malls struggled with department store vacancies before the pandemic accelerated online shopping. First J.C. Penney closed in 2014. Then Macy's and Carson Pirie Scott. Sears shut down in 2019. Burlington Coat Factory plans to move across the street in the next six months or so.
"Probably part of it is the stigma of the mall, being a dead mall," Bloomingdale Village Administrator Pietro Scalera said.
The core mall property is owned by Namdar Realty Group, a New York-based commercial real estate firm. The company acquired it in October 2019.
"Ultimately, our vision is to work with city leadership to transform the mall into a premier regional destination and flourishing center of community life, where residents and visitors shop, work, live and play," Elliot Nassim, president of Mason Asset Management, a partner firm, said months later.
But Stratford has continued to languish. About 80% of the mall's retail space is now vacant, village officials say. Fed up with the status quo, they've taken measures into their own hands.
"We just felt that we could no longer just sit on the sidelines and wait until the owners did anything with that property," Scalera said.
'A fresh start'
The size of the mall property is staggering. Stratford sits in the center of a 275-acre block about the size of 11 Millennium Parks.
Namdar and Mason aren't saying what plans, if any, they have for the site. Nassim did not return a request for comment.
"When they purchased the mall, here was my simple ask: Come to me with your vision," Village President Franco Coladipietro said. "You own a substantial asset in the center of our community. Come to me with your vision. Tell me what's your plan, and to this point in time, they haven't done that."
The village, however, is pressing ahead. Bloomingdale trustees hired consultant Teska Associates in May 2021 to re-imagine the mall property. The firm has unveiled conceptual plans that would give the area a whole new identity by tearing down mall structures and replacing them with a mix of residential, commercial and recreational development.
"The village felt it was important to make a fresh start and to really transform that parcel into a center that addresses the current shopping habits and desires of not only residents but visitors to our community," Scalera said.
One concept shows street-level retail and restaurants around a pedestrian-friendly "central village green." A variety of housing options would wrap around the site. That layout is one "starting point," Coladipietro said.
If he could wave a magic wand, Coladipietro wants to see an indoor sports training facility in a redesigned Stratford area.
The village also has been in discussions with Kohl's to remain part of a redevelopment in some fashion, Coladipietro said. Kohl's is the only large national retailer left at Stratford.
Turning those ideas into reality will be a "monumental redevelopment task," Coladipietro said. To make things more complicated, anchor spots are owned independently by separate entities. Namdar owns the interior portion of the mall site and the former J.C. Penney box.
"An effort is going to be made to assemble all of those parcels into one ownership group that would then work with developers to address each of the facets that were in that concept plan that we put out there to the community," Scalera said.
As part of a revitalization plan, the village created a new tax-increment financing district that encompasses the mall area -- with the exception of the Woodman's grocery store, one of the bright spots around Stratford.
In a TIF district, as redevelopment boosts property values, the extra tax revenue that otherwise would go to taxing bodies such as schools and parks can be used to pay for improvements within its boundaries.
"My hope is that from all of this effort that we're putting in on our side, in terms of trying to create this vision and this master plan, and this framework of redevelopment, will then yield the cooperation on the development side," Coladipietro said.
He's taking a methodical approach. Officials have already met with utility companies about future infrastructure needs. The village also has invited residents to provide feedback on redevelopment plans through an online survey ending Monday.
The 'place to go'
Bloomingdale is still withholding special sales tax payments -- about $700,000 total -- from Namdar because the company has failed to provide a substantive plan to revitalize the mall property, officials say.
"The village has just been completely frustrated in the lack of commitment that they have to our community," Scalera said. "In the four years that they've owned the property, they haven't really done anything, not even really a lot of the maintenance that goes with owning a property of that size."
Gone are the days when Stratford had department stores like Marshall Field's, a bustling movie theater and a dancing water fountain.
"I remember the mall when it was the place to go," Scalera said.
Today, a handful of operators are left in the food court, and the parking lots have issues with potholes, Scalera said. Burlington is looking to sell its box store in anticipation of the move to a nearby, smaller footprint. Former mall tenants like LensCrafters also relocated to other storefronts in town.
"Those stores felt that the market is still viable and strong here, that they still wanted to remain part of Bloomingdale," Scalera said. The village has made an effort to spur redevelopment around Stratford to make up for the loss in sales tax revenue produced by the mall. A Texas Roadhouse restaurant was built off the mall's ring road near Gary Avenue. A Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant is expected to replace the Barnes & Noble west of the mall.
Coladipietro sees a "tremendous opportunity" re-envisioning Stratford Square. The challenge is finding developers willing to make it happen.
"A journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step," he said. "We have to do something to start that discussion."