Norwichtown Commons: Revitalizing a Community

Phase Zero Design was the architect for Norwichtown Commons, a successful 'de-malling' project that involved converting an indoor mall into an open air center in Norwich, CT. After construction, tenant rate skyrocketed to over 90% and the plaza experienced a large increase in foot traffic. Norwichtown Commons was awarded “Best Community Revitalization Project” at the 2014 CREW CT Blue Ribbon Awards Showcase.  Principal and Senior LEED architect, Matthew Wittmer, discusses the project:

Norwichtown Commons, a bright and active shopping center conveniently located at the intersection of CT Route 2 and I-395, bears no resemblance today of the struggles and various incarnations that have beset this retail property since its inception.  Having completed in 2013 a successful ‘de-malling’ project undertaken through a joint effort by Winstanley Enterprises and Surrey Equities, the plaza today stands as a testimony to the dedication, hard work and over-riding vision of those involved in transforming a failed, neighborhood mall into a shopping center that caters to the local needs and demographics.

Constructed in 1968 to serve the Norwich area of Eastern Connecticut, this 260,000 square foot neighborhood mall once boasted a Caldor’s, a Stop & Shop and the local Department Store ‘Styles’ (a somewhat high-fashion chain store in line with a G Fox’s of the day).  Initially successful and boasting a large mix of fashion-focused local tenants, the Mall itself soon entered a period of decline, as the loss of manufacturing jobs and the frequent ups and downs of the defense industry in nearby Groton and New London hit Norwich particularly hard.

Perhaps ironic in its timing, Stop & Shop in late 1998 undertook a major store modernization and expansion program at this Location, just as the Norchwichtown Mall’s sister property, the New London Mall, was succumbing to the wrecking ball.  However, since Stop & Shop lacked mall access, there was no major reason to visit the mall.  Tenants slowly bled out until 2007.

As if things could not get worse, in the spring of 2010 the nearby Yantic River overflowed its banks and flooded out the remaining tenants.  While the waters receded and the few remaining tenants rebuilt their shops, current management was struggling with what to do with the empty and shabby remnants of what once was.

Shortly following this spring flood, Winstanley Enterprises & Surrey Equities sought to purchase the aged mall with the idea of transforming the weathered box into an open air center.  The project presented interesting challenges: a mix of construction types due to various remodels and expansions over the years, a site prone to flooding, a virtually non-functioning vehicular delivery/ service access, it was replete with hazardous materials and even had a few ‘hold-out’ tenants that seemed content to remain in the otherwise empty structure.

In spite of these challenges, there remained compelling reasons in support of revitalizing the property.  These included a genuine demand by local and regional retailers for space, and a local population underserved by retail in this specific area.  The site itself, located at the intersection of CT RT 2 and I-395 and along the busy CT RT 32 corridor, provided a steady stream of vehicles past the site that few locations could boast.  The Stop & Shop store consistently drove the best sales of their Connecticut locations, and perhaps more interesting (though maybe less important to the retail equation), the Mall itself sits in the relative shadow of two of the largest tourist attractions on the east coast: Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casinos, which are each located about 10 minutes away.

Additionally, the mall remained a much loved and cherished place amongst those neighbors who could remember the good times.  The Mall had at one time fit the bill of a neighborhood center, having once been the local gathering place where neighbors would meet and swap stories at Bee Bee Dairy, a popular local creamery, or complete their Holiday shopping at Waldenbooks, Hallmark and University Music, a much-loved independent record store.

Through a series of design charettes undertaken by the Developers, the leasing agents and the Architects and Engineers, a ‘de-malling’ solution emerged that began to solve the various challenges and impediments that had previously plagued the former Mall, while creating a center that supported local economics and catered to regional demographics.  Square footage was reduced from 260,000 to 168,282 (with 95,043 square feet, excluding Stop & Shop, being available for retail tenants) to better align with local and regional demand.  The architects also quickly realized the tremendous coordination and attention to detail that would be required to resolve construction and building code issues throughout the existing building.  

Additionally, the exterior of the entire building was wrapped with a continuous 4”-6” high concrete flood barrier that was incorporated into the building’s architectural character.  This continuous barrier was constructed along the perimeter of the exterior walls to prevent future water damage and included a passive system to flood-proof doors and other openings should the Yantic River ever rise again.

The overall design intent was to attract successful retailers that would revitalize the neighborhood center and provide jobs and opportunity for the community.  The overall decrease in square footage, along with better access, new finishes and flexible, retail focused suites drove up demand, allowing the occupancy rate to quickly skyrocket to over 90%.  Additionally, the new tenant mix, now better positioned to leverage off of the historical success of Stop & Shop, drives increased foot traffic to the center.  Probably the best tenant success stories come from a new discount chain store and a regional gym facility that both opened in June of 2013.  Each of these tenants in their own way have attracted a new customer base from the surrounding area, and in doing so, both are reporting unprecedented growth and sales in their first months of operations.  Finally, while the renovations and improvements had already given new life to the building itself, it is the outstanding effect on the Norwichtown neighborhood that exceeded all expectations.  Norwichtown Commons today offers new opportunities for employment for the community, and the center itself is quickly becoming a new, local community destination.