DOVER — In an effort to adapt with the times and shopping trends, Dover City Council Monday night unanimously approved adding distribution, warehousing and logistics as permitted uses for areas zoned regional shopping centers.
Dave Hugg, the city’s director of planning and inspection and economic development, said the change was proposed anticipating that Amazon and/or FedEx fulfillment centers could move into the mall.
“It’s no secret to all of us that large shopping centers, regional shopping centers across the country are suffering, changing and going through a whole host of modifications,” Mr. Hugg said during the council meeting.
Mr. Hugg said about 12% of the mall is vacant — he attributed most of that to the empty space where Sears was formerly located. Sears closed its doors in 2018 as part of a larger national strategy that saw 40 stores shuttered in 24 states.
This new wording only affects Dover Mall as Blue Hen Mall falls into a different zoning classification, Mr. Hugg said.
He said shopping habits drove the city to amend its permitted uses for the mall. He said the mall’s management was supportive of the change. The mall is owned by Simon Property Group.
“It’s very unlikely that the Dover Mall will continue to function viably as a regional shopping center without being able to likewise take advantage of customer behavior and new opportunities,” Mr. Hugg said.
In response to a question from Councilman Gerald Rocha, Mr. Hugg said this change adds to permitted uses for regional shopping centers — it will not prevent new retail stores from coming into the mall.
“Nothing’s going to change tomorrow if this is passed,” Mr. Hugg said. “If the Dover Mall was lucky enough to attract one or more new actors, that facility could easily be used for retail purposes.”
Mr. Hugg said the Dover Mall, which opened in 1982, currently falls under SC-3 regional shopping center zoning that was written with traditional shopping centers in mind.
“The language provides for retail and those kinds of services,” Mr. Hugg said. “It doesn’t recognize some of the other things that could easily fit into a regional mall. Across the country we’re seeing a number of malls, including the Dover Mall, beginning to see more warehousing, distribution, logistics — those kinds of activities.”
Mr. Hugg said the mall could take advantage of the “buy online, pickup in store” shopping trend that gained popularity through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stores that offer retail shopping at the mall are able to also serve as warehouses for online shopping purchases under the city’s zoning. Mr. Hugg said while Macy’s does not offer in-person shopping, it was able to stay in the Dover Mall because it is part of a chain of retail stores.
“The Macy’s store was an established retail store that still has a retail function, albeit not walk in and buy things off the floor. But it is part of a retail chain. … that allows you to pick up items in the store, return items in the store, conduct various retail transactions on behalf of Macy’s,” Mr. Hugg said.
He said he hopes the zoning change could “get some interest” from companies that would take advantage of the mall’s existing parking lots, loading docks and high ceilings for warehouse-type facilities.
There were no comments during a public hearing held prior to the vote.
The city’s planning commission also approved the change 8-0 with one member absent during the vote.
In 2017, there were plans to expand the Dover Mall with the construction of a power center built on 83 acres behind it. It would feature more stores, restaurants and parking with direct access from Del. 1.
At the time, John Paradee, a lawyer who represents Simon Property Group along with Western Development Corp., said the mall was “in jeopardy as it currently exists.”
Those plans dwindled in 2019 due to the hefty $31 million price tag attached to expanding access to the mall from Del. 1.