The city of Norwalk and the southwest Connecticut region have good reason to celebrate an important addition to their retail scene: The SoNo Collection, which opened in Norwalk in October and which has grabbed a significant amount of attention far beyond the city of 90,000.
This three-level, 700,000-square-foot, enclosed mall boasts Abercrombie & Fitch, Kay Jewelers, Sephora and Zara among the retail tenants. Its Nordstrom anchor is only that chain’s second store in Connecticut (the first being in Farmington, Conn.). At press time Bloomingdale’s was preparing for a November opening as Nordstrom’s The SoNo Collection co-anchor.
The SoNo Collection is one of the mere handful of enclosed malls to be built from the ground up over these past few years. Among those relatively scarce mall developments are American Dream, in East Rutherford, N.J. (like The SoNo Collection, American Dream opened last October); Taubman’s Mall at University Town Center, in Sarasota, Fla. (2017); and Westfield World Trade Center (2016) and Brookfield Place (2015), both in New York City.
The former GGP initially began development of the $525 million SoNo Collection, but it was Brookfield Properties (successor to GGP after Brookfield acquired the firm in 2018) that completed the project.
Opening a new mall is no activity for the faint of heart, to be sure, but the elements behind the construction of this one could hardly be more compelling, its developers say. “There are a couple of broad-brushstroke reasons why this works so well,” said Matthew J. Seebeck, CSM, senior general manager of The SoNo Collection. “The first one is location, location, location: We have a fantastic development site right near the intersection of two of the most traveled highway corridors in the U.S., with I-95 and U.S. Route 7.”
The highly visible site is in the path of commuters to and from New York City, by car or train. The mall sits in the trendy SoNo (for South Norwalk) waterfront neighborhood of restaurants, bars, shops and galleries and has benefited from significant revitalization and transportation investment (SoNo is home to one of four commuter train stations in Norwalk).
Another plus is the area’s affluence: Norwalk lies in the heart of Fairfield County, on Connecticut’s wealthy so-called Gold Coast. The median household income in Fairfield County between 2013 and 2017 was $89,773 annually, versus the 2017 U.S. household median of $61,372, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“The SoNo [Collection] is a really interesting and exciting project for a couple of reasons,” said Timothy G. Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association. It is the first major retail development completed in Connecticut in a number of years, for one thing. “That is a really good sign that developers looked at the market and decided that Connecticut was ready for more retail development,” said Phelan.
Moreover, The SoNo Collection is in turn attracting other retail, restaurant and entertainment concepts. Some of the other new-to-market tenants are toy retailer Camp (which launched in New York City last year), shirt specialist Untuckit, and bowling and restaurant concept Pinstripes. The SoNo Collection was about 90 percent leased at press time, and the retail openings are to continue through the rest of this month and into early next year.
By no means does The SoNo Collection have this part of Connecticut all to itself, however. The Macy’s-anchored Stamford Town Center is about 10 miles away, and Westfield Trumbull mall, with both a Macy’s and a Target, is about 20 miles away. Even so, The SoNo Collection does more than simply duplicate those, observes Denise L. Robidoux, managing director of asset management and program implementation at Goman+York Property Advisors, an East Hartford, Conn.–based real estate consultancy. “This project really adds to that and brings some new tenants to the market that we haven’t seen,” said Robidoux. For instance, she notes, in the past anyone desiring to shop at the likes of Zara would have to drive to New York City or Boston.
The SoNo Collection is part of a larger transformation that has been occurring in Norwalk’s urban core. Several development or redevelopment projects have either been completed over just the past several years or else are now under way. Among the notable mixed-use projects taking shape is The Waypointe District, which will provide about 660 luxury apartments plus restaurants and entertainment and retail space. Several new restaurants have opened at The Block at Waypointe, a district comprising about half a dozen buildings and offering a cluster of retail and dining establishments. The former Loehmann’s Plaza, meanwhile, is being redeveloped as a mixed-use center constituting nearly 111,000 square feet of retail, restaurant, entertainment and recreational space.
“Retailers and restaurants that were not able to secure a footprint inside The SoNo Collection will be looking to capitalize on this regional traffic”
Besides generating jobs and tax revenue, The SoNo Collection will spur secondary growth and investment around the area, says Norwalk Mayor Harry W. Rilling. “Retailers and restaurants that were not able to secure a footprint inside The SoNo Collection will be looking to capitalize on this regional traffic,” Rilling said. The mayor also lauds Brookfield for helping provide space for public events. The SoNo Collection in particular offers three public spaces in which people can sit and relax, or which may be employed for a variety of community events. One of these is the SoNo Garden, an outdoor space on the third story that offers views of Long Island Sound and Norwalk Harbor, and which will hold such activities as yoga sessions and movie nights, starting this new year.
“We’ve added a lot of art to the shopping center, which is very important to the southwestern Connecticut community at large,” said Seebeck. The center displays art from local, regional and national artists, such as hand-painted murals and interactive lighting displays. “We’re really focused on not just being the shopping center that is on the highway,” said Seebeck, “[but] we’re trying to be part of the community and add to the community, rather than just being a separate retail building.”
By Beth Mattson-Teig
Contributor, Shopping Centers Today