On Thursday, it will be a year to the day that The Bon-Ton store at Park City Center closed, quietly concluding a five-month liquidation sale.
Mall officials since then have been mum about their plans to fill the vacant anchor building at the county’s biggest shopping destination.
Well, as it turns out, Park City doesn’t want to fill the building.
Park City wants to knock it down — and construct something new on the site.
Park City is asking the city for a demolition permit to raze the entire 179,000-square-foot building, according to the city’s senior planner, Douglas Smith. No decision has been made.
Smith said mall officials have discussed potential uses for the site with city officials, but he declined to disclose what those potential uses are, other than to describe them as “appropriate.”
He did say that Park City has not yet filed any land-development plans for a replacement building or buildings on the site.
Park City’s Rachel Gallagher, senior general manager, on Wednesday confirmed the permit application, saying by email that demolition “will provide us with viable options for future tenants.”
“Retail is constantly evolving and we are always working to introduce new concepts and experiences to our center. At this point, we are not at liberty to discuss our future plans. I look forward to sharing some exciting news with you in the near future.”
Asked by email when Park City would like to begin the demolition and how long it would take, Gallagher did not respond.
The permit application was submitted on Aug. 22 by Park City’s demolition contractor, Terra Technical Services of Downingtown. Terra Technical said the demolition would cost $400,000.
Like virtually every mall in the country, Park City has been hammered by the struggles of its bread-and-butter tenants — traditional retailers, most notably department stores and fashion-apparel stores.
Ironically, these are the very tenants that fueled the boom in mall development in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
But now, e-commerce retailers are gobbling up billions of dollars of traditional retailers’ revenue, triggering widespread store closings, layoffs and bankruptcies.
In response, many malls are replacing some of their retail space with apartments, offices, schools, entertainment venues, hotels, fitness centers and restaurants.
“There’s no holds barred when it comes to repositioning malls,” said one retail-industry executive.
The permit application reveals that Park City has a different strategy for The Bon-Ton space than it has for the other vacant anchor building, the former Sears.
As was announced four weeks ago, the empty Sears building will stand, with half to be occupied by Round1, a family-friendly entertainment venue with bowling, arcade games, ping pong and a kids’ zone.
Round1 is expected to open in fall 2020, taking the entire main floor, according to Park City and mall owner Brookfield Properties. No plans were disclosed for the lower floor.
In discussing Round1’s arrival, Gallagher said that Park City — like many malls — is repositioning itself to keep up with the changing times.
“We see that our customers are looking for more than just traditional shopping,” Gallagher said at that time, “and we view this as the evolution of the mall to more of a gathering place with entertainment and dining in addition to our shopping.”
Demolishing the old to make way for the new is a typical way that malls across the nation are trying to adjust to meet the preferences of contemporary consumers, said the retail-industry executive, who requested anonymity to discuss Park City -- a location that isn’t his.
“It happens all the time. That’s not at all uncommon. ... As expensive as it is to redevelop a building, you always have to do your analysis. Sometimes it’s cheaper to scrape it and build new.
“Hotels, entertainment, dining and shopping — everybody has a very particular footprint, size and look. That could be what might drive someone to scrape a (large) building and just build multiple new buildings in place of it,” he said.
The Bon-Ton building opened Sept. 2, 1970 as a Watt & Shand department store, joining Watt & Shand’s flagship store on Penn Square.
(The downtown store’s facade remains, preserved by the developers of the block’s current occupants, the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square and the Lancaster County Convention Center.)
Watt & Shand’s Park City store was the second store to open at the mall; the J.C. Penney store opened a month earlier.
Watt & Shand’s Park City and downtown stores were acquired by The Bon-Ton, a York-based department store chain, in 1992. The downtown store closed in 1995.
The retail climate these past few years was not kind to The Bon-Ton, among scores of mainline retailers to struggle and ultimately fold.
Competition from e-commerce retailers pushed The Bon-Ton into the red for eight straight years, leading to its bankruptcy filing last year. After attempts to revive the company failed, all 250 of its stores went dark.
The shutdown of The Bon-Ton store at Park City as well as a Bon-Ton furniture gallery on Plaza Boulevard idled nearly 200 employees. Last week, Crunch Fitness announced plans to open in the furniture gallery space.
The Bon-Ton location is considered the most desirable spot at Park City, as it’s easily visible by motorists driving past on Route 30, Harrisburg Pike or Plaza Boulevard.
“That would be the place where you’d put your premiere-type of tenants, whether they be fashion-apparel merchandisers like a department store or dining experiences,” said the retail-industry executive.
Blaze Cambruzzi, managing partner at True Commercial Real Estate, which offers brokerage, management and consulting, anticipates multiple uses going onto the site.
“The most likely play is that there’s some positioning of different retailers, entertainment and maybe an institution (a school of some type),” Cambruzzi said.
Cambruzzi ruled out a movie theater, as The Crossings at Conestoga Creek a quarter-mile away on Harrisburg Pike will have one, and a hotel, as the area has plenty already, including one at The Crossings.
But it might be a while until the public learns what Park City has in mind for that prime piece of retail real estate.
“Remember, it takes a long time to do these things,” said the retail-industry executive. “Decision-making by retailers today probably involves more study and scrutiny than it ever has. That’s because, frankly, they face all these challenges.”