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Oakwood Mall study focused on growth strategies

Eau Claire’s Community Development Director said the study was done ‘so we don’t wind up in a bad position’

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May 27, 2024

EAU CLAIRE – The Oakwood Mall (4800 Golf Road) – according to Eau Claire Community Development Director Aaron White – is the most retail-dense location in Central Wisconsin, drawing shoppers from across the region.

But with one empty anchor store and watching what is happening nationwide as malls lose stores and see fewer visitors, White said Eau Claire’s leaders wanted to be proactive and commissioned a study – done by Vandewalle & Associates – to look at the mall and its outlots to examine possible new uses.

“For the most part, the mall is doing well, but there is a lot of concrete and space that could be better utilized,” he said. “Nationwide, the trend shows traditional malls need to evolve and adjust to the changing way people shop. People are shifting away from traditional malls for their shopping and do more online.” 

Oakwood Mall, White said, is massive – 818,689 square feet – and is home to 91 stores and services.

Its five major anchors, he said, are HOM Furniture, Hobby Lobby, JCPenney, Scheels and a multi-screen movie theater.

There is also a food court and restaurants located on-site.

White said, looking at Oakwood, there are a few areas that raise concerns.

For example, the Sears building – one of the mall’s former anchors – sits empty, as does its parking lot.

In general, there is also a lot of empty parking around the mall – space White said could be better utilized.

“There is a lot of potential for future development and ways we can use that space better,” he said. “There have been some ideas thrown around, but by working with Vandewalle, we thought we could get some ideas based on what is happening in the market here and what’s been successful in other areas. Many mall areas have also reinvented themselves by adding services, housing or experiences that bring more people to the area.”

Other project goals, White said, include creating more green space and tying the area into the city’s existing trail and bike path system.

As part of the study results, White said Vandewalle & Associates made several suggestions for ways to strengthen Oakwood for the long-term, some of which include:

  • Rethinking parking spaces
  • Looking at pedestrian flow, creating spaces where people will want to gather, stroll, watch a performance, eat lunch, etc.
  • Considering how to repurpose indoor spaces (such as the vacant anchor store) for activities and services, such as athletic facilities or other experiential purposes
  • Looking at adding a micro-retail that opens directly to the outside
  • Continuing to promote and build a mix of housing, retail, experiences/services/amenities and office space
This rendering depicts some of the options Vandewalle & Associates provides for potential areas of development in the Oakwood Mall area. Submitted Rendering

“There have been some ideas floated about the site, such as knocking down the Sears and building an ice rink or adding housing to an outlot, but nothing concrete,” White said. “We now feel with this information (from Vandewalle & Associates), there is more to build on and will help the city determine if we want to be involved in any projects.”

White said the city chose to work with Vandewalle & Associates based on its previous, innovative work with the city’s Cannery District and the work done at Hilldale Mall in Madison – which went from a traditional mall to one featuring an outdoor pedestrian walkway down its center, outdoor gathering spaces, housing and event space.

When and if any development happens, White said it would need to be a team effort as Oakwood Mall and its surrounding properties have different owners.

White said the study can help potential developers determine where their ideas might fit in. 

The study, White said, will also be helpful if there are further changes in the retailer makeup of the mall.

Another anchor store, JCPenney, has had its struggles nationally, and White said if that store closed, the mall would have another large, vacant space to contend with. 

“We need some radical thinking to reimagine spaces,” he said. “Many malls have found success with mixed-used spaces, such as incorporating spaces for indoor sports and community fitness… We do receive regular inquiries from developers, and now we have more information we can mention as another possible space they may not have originally considered.”

White said the city shared the results of the study with Oakwood Mall’s owner, Brookfield Properties, which is based in Chicago and owns properties across the country.

“This study wasn’t done because of a gloomy forecast,” he said. “We’re not likely to see the mall empty, but we want to be proactive so we don’t wind up in a bad position.”

One project White said he would like to see move forward is changing the infrastructure around the mall.

Right now, he said, there is a four-lane road that encircles the mall.

If the road was moved closer to the mall, White said it would free up some of the outlot areas for future development.

“There is a lot of excess parking,” he said. “If we can change some of that parking area into usable development lots, such as for housing, that would be a plus. We have a great need for housing across all price points.”

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