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To Fix Struggling Holland Mall, Developers Flip it Inside Out

Robbie Feinberg

Holland’s Westshore shopping mall has had a rough past decade or so: foreclosures, mismanagement, fleeing tenants. To top it off, consumers appear to be moving away from big, enclosed malls like Westshore. Now, one developer is trying to transform the property by flipping it inside out.

But before going to Holland, let’s head back to the 1960s. This was the dawn of the American enclosed shopping mall, conceived as a kind of “downtown” for the suburbs. With every kind of entertainment you could want: food, movies, and a whole lot of shopping.  

"One number I found was that in 1960, the average American spent twenty minutes there," says Scott Campbell, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan. "But by 1990, you spent three hours."

Campbell says that peak was short-lived. Attitudes changed. Some bigger, regional malls survived. But by the 2000s, in smaller cities like Holland, people didn’t want malls. They wanted to park, go straight into the store, and get out, fast. Not trudge through crowds and food courts.  

"And when there’s a decline in an older mall, it shows," Campbell says. "And once shops start to close, there’s this vicious cycle of vacancy. It’s tough to reverse that decline. They shut off a wing, but there’s something almost sad or pathetic about it."

Despite the Westshore Mall’s prime location along U.S. 31 in Holland, it’s been hit hard as customers have left. Three big, anchor stores remain open – J.C. Penney, Dunham Sports and Younkers, plus a few smaller ones, like Buckle and GNC. But most of the shops in between are locked up and dark.

"I like to think I’m an optimistic person, but I am human," says Westshore general manager Jean Ramirez. "I had my days thinking, 'what in the world is going to happen?' There’s no doubt about it."

Ramirez has worked at Westshore since 2004, when shoppers were still busting through the doors. Soon after she arrived, though, things went downhill on the ownership side. The mall went into foreclosure, got a new owner, then went into foreclosure again.

Two new nearby malls popped up. Then, worst of all, the economy tanked in 2008, which hit malls in smaller cities like Holland hardest.

"If I am a national store and I am having a problem, I’m going close my smaller stores," Ramirez explains. "And we were hit every time."

Not surprisingly, tenants fled and Westshore never really recovered. More than half of the store was vacant by last year. Yet Ramirez has always remained upbeat about this place, even in the worst of it.

"So I’ve seen it all! That’s for sure, I’ve seen it all," she says.

She laughs. "And only good times ahead now, that’s the rule!"

Her latest optimism comes from the new ownership team: Versa Development. Versa purchased the mall out of foreclosure in late 2012, and unlike the past few owners, they’re from Michigan.

"It was kind of like walking into your grandma’s house, you know? It’s really nicely kept, but everything’s just old," says Gregory Erne,one of Versa’s partners.

He says while Westshore was in trouble when he looked at it, he has a plan.

"What I like to say is it had good bones," Erne says. "It had the ability to be maintained into something better, with a lot of work but not a lot of physical changes."

Versa’s nearly $25 million strategy is to turn Westshore inside out. Starting this summer, Versa will knock down about half of the mall and open up the rest, giving each business an actual storefront and view from the outside. About a quarter of the square footage will disappear, but in its place will be a new, open development called the “Shops at Westshore.”

Erne says he chose the plan because while stores told him the location was great, the enclosed mall format wasn’t. They didn’t want to be stuck inside.

"They want people to be able to see their sign or their storefront from the road or as they’re walking from the parking lot," Erne says. "In that area of Holland, that’s what we see a lot of. So we had a number of tenants who said, we just don’t fit in a mall."

Some stores are still a bit hesitant to join the new development, but Erne says he's encouraged because the plan has already worked nearby. Kalamazoo went through a similar process almost fifteen years ago with its malls. The West Main Mall and Maple Hill along West Main Street were enclosed – now, they’re big strip malls with stores from Target to Chipotle. And the Centerpointe Mall in Grand Rapids is already close to completely filled after going through a similar process a few years ago. 

"When I watched what they did and how they did it, I was able to say ok, I could see that happening at Westshore and I could see that not happening at Westshore," Erne says. "So actually, I like to say they built a full-scale model for me to learn from."

Grand Rapids is a different, larger market than Holland. And the shops will still contend with the nearby Lakes Mall and Rivertown Mall that already snatched up a lot of Westshore’s past tenants. But Erne says he’s already seeing changes: already, 65 percent of the new space is either leased or in negotiation to stores. The project will still need a lot of things to go right, but for the first time in a long while, things are looking up.

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