TOWN OF DEWITT – Packing the court room of the DeWitt Town Hall Monday afternoon, a public hearing was held regarding the potential use of the power of eminent domain to acquire the former Macy’s and Sears parcels at the ShoppingTown Mall site on Erie Boulevard East.
The Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency (OCIDA) is looking to exercise that authority to pave the way for a “unified” and “comprehensive” redevelopment at that location.
The transformative project proposed for the 63-acre site of the deteriorating mall is currently being called District East. The plans for that anticipated endeavor being shaped by the joint-venture organization OHB Redev call for the creation of a mixed-use urban center containing residences, retail, restaurants, an entertainment venue, medical space, other offices, facilities to be used for higher education purposes, and extra amenities like green space and walking paths.
The envisioned project is intended to not only revamp the site of the vacant corner shopping mall, but also enhance visitation to the area and rake in sales tax revenue locally while creating almost 1,000 construction jobs associated with the installation of the open-air center and even more full-time jobs upon its completion.
Onondaga County intervened and purchased the mall from Moonbeam Capital Investments in December 2020 for $3.5 million after that company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Following the years of tax evasion on the part of Moonbeam and the shuttering of one storefront after another, the formal contract for District East was signed in 2022 once OHB Redev was selected as the winner of the request for proposal (RFP) process for which the owners of the Sears and Macy’s parcels chose not to tag along.
At this week’s public hearing, developer Ben Lockwood of the not-for-profit Housing Visions, one of the partners in District East, said that OCIDA has the ability to move things forward and clear the “log jam” at the site, referring to the stalled negotiations between parties and the lack of resolution relating to those final parcels.
Lockwood said what used to be a thriving shopping complex and a “centerpiece” for DeWitt is now a “liability.”
“Many of us in this room can remember the heyday of the mall in the ‘80s and ‘90s—it was a hub of activity on the east side of town and an economic engine for commerce,” he said. “We’re left with a dead mall that’s now an eyesore and an attractive nuisance for vandalism.”
Chris McDonald, an attorney with Whiteman Osterman & Hanna representing 3649 Erie LLC on behalf of the Macy’s parcel, stepped to the podium to object to the idea of the county utilizing eminent domain powers.
McDonald said that move would be unlawful, claiming OCIDA has not complied with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) and that the agency “lacks a statutory authority under the general municipal law.” He said eminent domain can be exercised when its aim pertains to industrial, manufacturing, warehousing, commercial research, renewable energy and recreational facilities, but not the kind of residential component designated for more than half of the overall District East project.
He added that he doesn’t believe the project will serve a public use as much as a private one benefiting OHB Redev.
A representative of the law firm backing Transform, the company that owns the Sears store and the adjoining land that was occupied by a Sears Auto Center, seconded McDonald’s notions in objecting to the use of eminent domain.
DeWitt resident Richard Kunz said the ShoppingTown property can best be described by the word “blight.”
“You look and there’s blue tarps and plywood here and boarded-up things there and empty parking lots and overgrown things,” Kunz said. “There’s a pothole in there big enough to drop a ‘47 Buick in. If you want to look up the definition of ‘blight’ in the dictionary, drive over there, drive around and look.”
Though he said he dislikes the idea of eminent domain and taking property away from an owner, adding that he prefers people work together, Kunz said he thinks the action is warranted in the instance of the holdouts with the parcels at the ShoppingTown site.
Mary Kuhn, the currently serving county legislator for the 7th District, said she thinks the plans for District East are “wonderful” but that she wants to see members of the community more involved with the decision-making and outlines for the property. With that caveat, Kuhn said she supports OCIDA proceeding with the exercise of eminent domain powers.
“Given the blight that we see and given the situation that DeWitt sees itself in, I think that eminent domain seems to be the only way to go,” she said. “Something has to be done with this property.”