Century III Mall in West Mifflin slides into retail abyss
Jay Natale had a good year in 1979.
The Steelers won the Super Bowl. The Pirates won the World Series. And Natale opened a sporting goods store in the new Century III Mall in West Mifflin.
“The first year was unbelievable,” Natale, 70, of Elizabeth said, recalling a mobbed grand opening at the mall. “We hit the jackpot on that one.”
The jackpot lasted for nearly 20 years.
Since then, the mall has spiraled downward, losing customers, retailers and property value, which drained hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes from West Mifflin and its school district.
A new owner, Las Vegas-based Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC, pledged to revitalize Century III, but malls have fallen on hard times. Online shopping turned malls across the country into ghost towns. In March, Sbarro, a mall food court stalwart, filed for bankruptcy for the second time in three years, citing a drastic drop in mall traffic.
Century III, with retail space as large as 20 football fields, once was the place to shop, drawing customers from as far as West Virginia and Maryland, Natale said. By 1997, he became frustrated with shoplifters and fights.
He closed his two stores in the mall.
“Just in time,” he said. “Maybe a little too late. The mall was going down the drain. It was getting bad.”
Haggling over taxes
The mall's value has been in free fall and debated in court since 1998, said Sharon DiPaolo, a Hampton attorney who handled the property tax appeal for Moonbeam, which purchased Century III in May 2013 for $10.5 million.
In 2006, the owner challenged the mall's assessed value of $112 million; it was lowered to $71 million. In 2011, the value fell to $27 million, records show.
Its value hit an all-time low last month when a property tax appeal was settled for $11.5 million. The 2012 reassessment pegged the mall's value at $134.3 million, a figure that no one involved with the appeal thought would hold up in court.
An appraisal done during the appeal valued the mall at $10.75 million, DiPaolo said.
Shawl L. Pryor, senior vice president of real estate at Moonbeam, said the settlement fairly reflects the mall's value. Moonbeam has said it is courting a multiscreen movie theater, though the company has not released details about possible development.
Assessors base the value of residential properties on similar homes in an area, recent sale prices, and approximate valuations of additions or remodels. The value of commercial properties such as Century III can depend on the income they produce, said Peter Sukernek, general manager and vice president of Howard Hanna Commercial real estate company.
“When the place was full, it generated a lot more money,” Sukernek said.
Budgets take a hit
Once West Mifflin's top property taxpayer, the mall saw its value fall, sucking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the budgets of the borough and the West Mifflin Area School District. Century III now might not crack the top five taxpayers, said borough Manager Brian Kamauf. Kennywood amusement park's assessed value is $14.6 million.
Dropping the mall's assessed value from $27 million to $11.5 million took about $315,000 in taxes from the school district's $46.7 million budget and about $117,000 from the borough's $13 million budget. District and borough officials planned for the decrease.
“It doesn't shut down shop at this point,” Kamauf said. “I'm not laying anyone off. We're able to continue.”
Assessment reductions in the past did not cause but contributed to public works layoffs, vacancies at the police department and other budget tightening, he noted.
Bright but empty
Century III — anchored by J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy's and Dick's Sporting Goods — was nearly a third vacant at the end of 2013. Its stores — Radio Shack, Vitamin World, Remo's Menswear and Century III Nails, to name a few — have empty neighbors with long stretches of unoccupied storefronts.
“I used to hang out here, but now it's blah,” Rachel Rhodes, 20, of Charleroi, said during a recent shopping trip. “This place used to be packed.”
Brian Vodner, 21, of Charleroi said he has been at the mall when the only other people there were an elderly couple walking laps.
About 20,300 people live in West Mifflin. President Obama visited the town a day after his State of the Union address this year, delivering a speech at U.S. Steel's Irvin Plant. The community is home to the Allegheny County Airport, Bombardier Inc., which makes people-mover systems for airports, and Kennywood amusement park.
Current and former tenants of the mall blame several factors for its decline. Natale said problems started in the mid- to late 1990s when a bus stop opened in front of Century III, drawing “gangs of kids” who roamed the mall, which had few security officers to keep an eye on them.
“People became afraid to go there,” Natale said.
Jack Miller, 58, of South Park, a longtime employee at Italian Village Pizza in the food court, said Century III's former owner, Simon Property Group, neglected the mall, driving away tenants and shoppers.
“They didn't fix nothing,” Miller said, noting the roof leaked and tenants used buckets to catch water. “People got fed up.”
Indianapolis-based Simon, which defaulted on $78.97 million in debt and sold the mall for $1 in 2011 to a Texas-based management company, declined to comment. Simon owns Ross Park Mall, South Hills Village and Grove City Premium Outlets.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.