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August 13, 2018

Maine's largest open-air mall seeks change to allow more uses

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The Marketplace at Augusta, on Civic Center Drive in north Augusta, is seeking a zoning change that will allow light manufacturing, warehousing and brew pubs, distilleries and bakeries.

The Marketplace at Augusta shopping area in ever-evolving north Augusta is looking to start an evolution of its own, expanding the type of businesses allowed in its 1.3 million square feet of retail space.

The owners are asking the city for land use changes that would allow light manufacturing and warehouses as conditional uses, and distilleries, breweries and bakeries as new uses.

Marketplace owner Roger Pomerleau, a partner with WS Development, told Mainebiz Monday that the requests are both need-based and proactive.

After Linens 'n Things left a large space at the shopping complex several years ago, its space was divided up, leaving 10,000 square feet of "backspace" that has a loading dock and high ceilings, but no frontage.

"We're getting a lot of inquiries about light manufacturing and warehouse use for that space," Pomerleau said.

He said while the shopping complex, which is the largest open-air complex in the state, is still doing well with retail tenants, owners also want to make uses more flexible as needs evolve.

"We don't expect a lot of [interest in manufacturing and warehousing] to happen, but when it does, we want to be prepared," he said.

The Marketplace opened across Civic Center Drive from the Augusta Civic Center in 1992 on what was farmland and woods. At the time, the Civic Center zone was "stretched across the street" to accommodate the new shopping center.

That zone allows retail, but unlike other commercial zones in the city, doesn't allow light manufacturing and warehouse uses.

Pomerleau said the request is for those to be added as conditional uses, meaning the shopping center owners would have to go before the planning board when a manufacturing or warehouse tenant wants space.

"We're OK with that," Pomerleau said. "We understand they don't want someone putting an industrial building in front of the Civic Center."

Smaller, accessible space

Pomerleau says that in the 26 years since the complex has opened, retail has changed, with many retailers looking for smaller space.

While the Turnpike Mall, a traditional strip mall across the city at Exit 109, is largely empty, the Marketplace has about 50 stores and its occupancy rate is around 90%. Large tenants include Walmart, Home Depot, Kohl's, Dick's Sporting Goods, as well as several restaurants and Purdue University Global in the former Staples building.

"We'd like to see more of a variety going in," Pomerleau said. "Everyone used to say you need to be 80% women's clothes and shoes, but that's changed."

He said the owners would like to see an office supply store and a pet store. But aside from retail, he said that a brew pub would also be welcome, which is why they are asking the city to allow those as a new use in the Civic Center zone.

"Some of the bigger ones seat 200, 300," he said. "If they want to come here, we want to be able to accommodate them."

He said that retailers are also looking for open-air space rather than in malls.

"The X-Y generation wants to park in front of the store and run in," he said. He said a study he saw says they even spend less time in changing rooms.

Recent success stories at the Marketplace include TJ Maxx opening in the former Circuit City space. "They're almost like an anchor for us now," he said. The rest of that building is occupied by Five Below, a store that sells everything for five dollars or less.

"We're seeing more interest from retail, even in the last year," he said.

He said while some space is being subdivided, the center also knocks down walls for larger users. He said there is even discussion of building a 25,000-square-foot space for a potential tenant.

"It's always changing, people are always in and out," he said.

North Augusta growth

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
A 250-unit multifamily development is proposed for 375-391 Civic Center Drive in Augusta.

Pomerleau said the location is also key. The Civic Center, which shares an intersection with the shopping center's main entrance, does brisk business as a meeting and event venue.

"Every time something's going on over there, we see a bump," he said. "They bring in thousands."

Interstate 95 Exits 112A And 112B are near the mall's entrance, added around the time it opened.

The MaineGeneral Medical Center, which opened in 2013 a little north of the shopping area, is also a boost, as are the three large office complexes to the north.

Maine Veterans Homes is planning a $78 million, 138-bed care center across Old Belgrade Road from the hospital, with construction expected to begin this year for a 2020 opening.

The state also moved its Department of Transportation garage to Leighton Road, a little north of the Marketplace, in 2014. The National Guard opened its 101,000-square-foot joint headquarters half a mile up the road earlier this year.

On Tuesday's planning board agenda with the Marketplace's request is an application for a 250-unit multi-family complex on what are now four single-family lots, just north of the National Guard headquarters.

Pomerleau said the market-rate housing would be great for those who work at the Marketplace, but also for the University of Maine Augusta, which is next to the Civic Center, and those who work at the hospital.

"There's a lot going on [in north Augusta]," he said. "It's great for everybody."

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