Merle Hay Mall officials are in negotiations with a national tenant who would anchor a retail strip center proposed on the current site of a building that once housed Sears, the officials said this week during a public meeting.
The tenant, who was not identified, would occupy 55,000 square feet of the new center, Jim Sutphen of Chicago-based Abbell Associates, which owns the mall, told Des Moines Urban Design Review members. "They have approved a location. They have approved the site plan in front of them, which is a major hurdle.

"We’re progressing down that route to hopefully get a lease done in very, very short order." 
 
Earlier this week, a master plan was released for the 61-year-old mall located along Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue in northwest Des Moines and eastern Urbandale. A new master plan was required as part of a development agreement with the city of Des Moines, which is providing up to $4.8 million to mall owners in the form of tax increment financing to help pay for redevelopment of the former Sears property.

The proposed master plan, pictured below, shows the locations of big-box retailer Target as well as Flix Brewhouse. However, it doesn’t include anchor tenant Kohl’s, a national department store chain whose headquarters is in Wisconsin. Kohl’s is located on the northwest side of the Merle Hay Mall (pictured above).

 

A master plan for Merle Hay Mall shows the location of a new multipurpose arena, hotel and strip center. Master plan rendering by Woolpert architecture firm

 

Elizabeth Holland, CEO and general counsel of Abbell Associates and granddaughter one of the original mall developers, previously has said Kohl’s wants to be in a location that faces the heavily traveled Merle Hay Road. 

This week, Holland told the Business Record that mall owners are in negotiations with Kohl’s, which opened at the mall in 1993 and in 2008 purchased the 2.5-acre parcel on which the 75,064-square-foot building it occupies is located.

Sutphen hinted that the mystery anchor of the new strip center would own their building.

"The anchor tenant that we are negotiating with has a very hard deadline," he told board members during a virtual meeting. "We have to turn over the entire site and pad prep to them by Sept. 1. … They are planning to open March 14 of 2022."

Holland and Abbell Associates, through Merle Hay Anchors LLC, bought the former Sears property in November. Holland plans on tearing down the structure, which is contaminated with asbestos, and building a strip shopping center, which would include up to 80,000 square feet of space in addition to the anchor tenant.

"This is typical type of retail that would go next to this anchor tenant," Sutphen said.

Holland recently announced that space previously occupied by Younkers department store would be converted into a 3,500-seat multipurpose arena. The arena, with four sheets of ice, would be the new home of the Des Moines Buccaneers hockey team. The venue could also be used for other sporting events such as volleyball and basketball, and concerts could be held in the arena.

A 150-room hotel would be located north of the venue, which the master plan shows stretching from the former Younkers site through the current Kohl’s store.

Some members of the Des Moines design board expressed their appreciation for Holland’s efforts to make the mall relevant to today’s consumers. But they also raised concerns about traffic and pedestrian patterns.

One board member, Steve Wilke-Shapiro, said the master plan lacked vision.

"What I typically would look for in a presentation like this is a good understanding of what specifically you are trying to achieve," he said. "What are the site constraints? What are the opportunities that you’re looking for? How will this city investment be returned as a generous and creative place that is worthy of that public subsidy?"

Wilke-Shapiro, an architect, said the master plan failed to show how pedestrian walkways and other spaces would be integrated into the mall property or how traffic circulation would be improved.

Holland was blunt in her reply. "I would tell you that the big-picture intent is to maintain the [mall] as a cutting-edge retail location."

Making the mall pedestrian-friendly is a daunting task, Holland said. She reminded the board that Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue have up to six lanes of traffic in areas that pass by the mall.

"We are not naturally a pedestrian-friendly location," she said. "Our buildings sit far away from the pedestrian corridors. … We have tried to accomplish becoming more pedestrian-friendly by providing both bus and pedestrian access to all parts of the property [and] bring them through in a safe way."

Wilke-Shipiro suggested that mall owners provide more details on places around the mall where people could gather in courtyard-like settings.

The board approved the preliminary master plan with the caveat that a final plan be more detailed.

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