The old mallgame 

“It’s an investment in our community that we need to be receptive to.”

The words were those of City Director Barbara Graves in April 2001 shortly before she and a majority of the Little Rock Board approved Simon Property Group’s zoning plan for the $150 million Summit Mall at Interstates 430 and 630.

I opposed the plan, which came to grief. Too much excavation. Too much development for the site. Too much reliance on taxpayers for the freeway improvements. (A new landowner is at work on a smaller project there now and promising to pay his own road improvement costs.)

Most of all, the Summit plan spelled doom for a chunk of University Avenue. It would have killed Park Plaza and it’s unlikely the new center rising at Markham and University would be under construction. The Summit would have sealed the by-then-already-clear doom of the Simon-managed University Mall.

Much happened after that board vote. To make nice, Simon promised to pay $25,000 on a study for redeveloping University Avenue. But it reneged on that payment after citizen opposition killed the Summit Mall.

Within the last year, we’ve come to know a great deal more about how little Simon Property deserved the city board’s receptivity in 2001. The owners of the land on which University Mall sits sued Simon in federal court for failing to maintain the mall in good condition, as its lease requires. The testimony has been eye-opening — a litany of unmet or partially met promises; disregard for the city permit process; mold; other safety hazards. The land owners probably would prefer that the lease, which runs until 2026, be canceled. Simon wants millions to be bought out. The judge should send Simon packing.

In addition to shoddy maintenance, Simon’s latest stab at redevelopment was to sign a lease with an after-hours hiphop club. This hardly looks like a good faith effort to reinvigorate University Mall. City fathers reacted by trooping, hats in hand, to Simon headquarters in Indiana to beg them to pretty-please do something about their derelict mall. Bland assurances were made. Five years late, but with no interest, Simon finally coughed up the $25,000 it owed for the University study.

Hat-in-hand is the story of city government. Big money must always be respected. When Dillard’s asked for city bonds to build a new headquarters, nobody (except me) asked about what would happen to their old headquarters on Capitol Avenue. Shortly after, it was tabbed as a site for a homeless center. City directors exhibited the same foresight on the Summit Mall. The city board got nothing except an expensive traffic headache and more sprawl for giving Simon a ticket to ruin University Avenue. Had the plan succeeded, the board’s bargaining power today would have been even less than it is now on the University slum.

The city board should be doing more than belatedly and politely asking for scraps from the country’s largest shopping center developer. Perhaps it could intervene on the side of those hoping to break Simon’s lease. It could send building inspectors regularly and strictly enforce code. I’d like to see a Target/Costco/etc. development there – one distinct possibility if Simon’s strangehold could be broken. Others have suggested the area is ripe for denser and richer commercial development – professional and medical offices, restaurants, retail. Anything’s better than a crumbling pigeon roost.

The mall does sit as an eloquent reminder to politicians: It’s a rare investment that comes without cost.


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