Officials set focus on mall vacancies
Even with strip-mall vacancies at their highest level in decades, the lack of businesses at Framingham’s Mt. Wayte Plaza is striking. Its expanse of vacant storefronts is broken by only a few tenants, like the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s thrift store and a barbershop, while a deserted gas station and photo-processing booth languish in the parking lot. None of the buildings look like they’ve been updated in years.
Some town officials say they are fed up with the vacancies at the plaza, at Mt. Wayte Avenue and Franklin Street near downtown, and a strip mall north of Route 9, the Nobscot Shopping Center, and are calling for drastic action.
They want to know why the retail center’s owners have allowed their properties to become eyesores, and what they plan to do about it. If officials don’t get answers they like, they may pursue taking the plazas by eminent domain.
“I’m not willing to wait another decade to do nothing,’’ Selectman Dennis Giombetti said in an interview. “There doesn’t seem to be an effort by either landlord to either market or develop a plan for either of those locations.’’
At a meeting last month, Giombetti made an impassioned plea for the town to get tough on the owners. The selectmen voted to ask the owners or property managers to attend a meeting to address the issue.
“They have done nothing but thumb their noses at us for a very, very long time,’’ Giombetti said at the board’s meeting on Aug. 9. Taking the properties by eminent domain is “an action of last resort, there’s no question about it,’’ he said. “But it’s getting to the point where it’s been a decade. I would be more than willing to start aggressive action if they either don’t attend the board meeting or we are just unsatisfied with the plans.’’
The town counsel has affirmed Framingham’s right to take the properties through its Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, a quasi-public entity that was created to stimulate economic development, Giombetti said.
Terri Desjardins, with Centercorp Retail Properties in Salem, which owns the Nobscot Shopping Center, said company representatives would “possibly’’ sit down with the town, but not until the company gets an official request in writing.
She said she first heard about the town’s concerns through a televised news report on a local station last month.
Desjardins said the company would gladly rent out retail space at the Nobscot plaza to a stable tenant with good long-term prospects.
“If we could find some type of grocery store or a viable tenant that will stay, that’s something we would be interested in.’’
But Desjardins said until the company gets an official request from Framingham, she won’t say more about the situation.
The Nobscot center, at Water Street and Edgell Road, has been the target of complaints by frustrated neighbors for years.
Giombetti said the town has reached out to the company, and was told that its principals don’t want to appear in a public hearing, but are willing to sit down with one or two selectmen privately.
Susan Nichols, a leasing representative who works for Samuel Adams, Mt. Wayte Plaza’s owner, declined to comment on the board’s discussions.
Giombetti said the plaza’s leasing agent has agreed to meet with selectmen, but the agent has to get clearance from Adams, who is out of town for a few weeks.
Anthony Maenzo is one of the tenants who is still at Mt. Wayte Plaza, where he and his wife have run Maenzo’s Hair Design for 15 years.
When he started renting space there, everything was occupied, including the anchor store. Everything started spiraling downhill pretty much as soon as he moved in, he said.
“Luckily I have a whole clientele of men who don’t care about the shopping’’ here, he said.
Maenzo said that he sees people looking at the property almost every day, but no one ever rents space there.
“Anything would work because it’s a great neighborhood,’’ he said. “It’s why I stay here - because people are so supportive.’’
State Representative Chris Walsh, a Democrat from Framingham, said he supports Giombetti’s call to action.
“I think Dennis has the right idea - that if they are not going to talk, if they are not going to be partners, then we are going to need to take steps,’’ he said. “As much as I dislike the government wading into these efforts, I think there’s a greater common good here.’’
But some people in town don’t agree with aggressive steps.
Mark Galante owns a commercial building next to the Nobscot Shopping Center. He is a real estate agent, and also serves on the town’s Economic Development and Industrial Corporation.
“This ludicrous talk about eminent domain - there’s nothing that says you have to rent out this space. If you look at these other properties, they all have stable tenants,’’ he said.
Galante said he would love to see Centercorp do something with the property, and “would be happy to help them with it, but I understand the difficulties with the tenants. . . I fully support their position to wait until the right opportunity comes along.’’
The Nobscot Shopping Center is not listed on Centercorp’s website, which provides details, including photographs, about 25 of its retail properties.
Desjardins said she didn’t know why its Framingham strip mall isn’t on the website.
When TD Bank moves from the plaza to its new standalone building up the street, five of Nobscot Shopping Center’s 10 small storefronts will be empty, in addition to the anchor store that used to house a small supermarket.
The tenants that are left say the vacancies have hurt business, since foot traffic has thinned out.
Bob Elbasha has worked for 12 years at Royal Pizza. “New customers don’t even know this place exists,’’ he said. He said business has dropped off about 50 percent since he’s worked there, and he blames the plaza’s increasing emptiness.
Nationwide, plaza vacancy rates are at 11 percent, just short of the record high 11.1 percent recorded in 1990 by a New York-based real estate analysis firm, Reis, Inc. The Boston market is faring better, with a vacancy rate of 6.7 percent, according to Reis.
Giombetti said he knows of potential tenants who were turned away from both the Nobscot Shopping Center and Mt. Wayte Plaza, and that he decided to get aggressive only after years of trying to convince their owners to deal with the town.
“We’ve reached out on a number of occasions,’’ he said. “They seem to be satisfied with the decline of the plazas, and that’s unacceptable to me, to the town, and to the neighbors.’’
Megan McKee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.