When it first opened in 1997, local and regional media acclaimed the Brass Mill Center of Waterbury, Connecticut for transforming a long-blighted, desolate, contaminated old industrial site.
And, considering that the retail hub replaced an expansive collection of derelict buildings visible along Interstate 84, it probably improved Waterbury’s image not just to its natives but also to the thousands of motorists who passed by each day. On a chilly Sunday evening in February, it still seemed busy up to the point of closure; it took me five minutes to find a parking space, which, outside of Christmas, is a long time for your average car-oriented mega mall. (At over one million square feet of leasable space, Brass Mill Center is certainly no small potatoes.)
Given the time period that Brass Mill Center came into being, one might suspect that it sits squarely in Waterbury’s downtown, as part of a revitalization initiative. After all, at that time, most downtowns were still floundering, and malls were generally a surefire bet. As a result, scores of medium-sized cities welcomed malls to fill the gaping holes left from four decades of disinvestment in the city center. In fact, it seemed like a match made in heaven: bring people back to the long-dormant business district and re-assert the downtown’s formerly dominant role as a hub for retail and services. And, in many regards, the strategy worked: for a good part of the 1990s and into the first years of the new millennium, people started returning downtown to shop, even if, as soon as they stepped foot in the malls, the aesthetics and the experience differed little from what they might get at the one they grew up with in the suburbs.
But the Brass Mill Center is not a fundamentally downtown-based redevelopment. It sits about a half mile southeast of the heart of Waterbury’s business district, and, while within walking distance from downtown, it doesn’t show much visual evidence that its developers intended to tie it into a broader theme of downtown revitalization. The purple outline on the map below indicates the general boundaries of Waterbury’s downtown, while Brass Mill Center gets the red pin in the southeast corner.
According to a New York Times article from the mid 1990s, the Brass Mill Center replaced the Scovill Brass Works, an assembly of about 60 vacant structures left from the era when Waterbury rightfully earned the nickname “Brass City”. It formed the backbone of the city’s industry, and contributed to its meteoric growth around the turn of the 20th century. But the industry crashed by the 1970s, with local employment in brass manufacturing dropping from 50,000 to 5,000. The last efforts to restore the Scovill Dynasty came to a halt around 1985, when the few remaining buildings with any activity closed up shop after Century Brass Products Left.
For a city that depended so greatly on a single industry, it is no surprise that the brass factories of yesteryear stood just a stone’s throw from Waterbury’s downtown. So, even if the Brass Mill Center that replaced the Scovill campus isn’t a fundamentally downtown mall, it still sits at a central location in relation to the rest of the city. And regardless of the mall’s relationship to the city’s central business district, it appears on first blush to be doing well enough.
At any rate, the volume of cars coming in and out would suggest a healthy retail center.
So how does it look from the inside?
Pretty standard late-1990s. But a closer scrutiny of the mix of in-line tenants suggests that the Brass Mill Center is hardly flourishing.
Sure, it’s got some pretty standard national brands that are common to virtually every mall. And I didn’t see too many vacancies. But I suspect that a full one-third of the storefronts look more like this:
Lots of tenants who lack either national or even regional brand recognition. Mom-and-pop stores. Nothing wrong with this, but a mall with more than a half-dozen of these is probably eager to retain any tenants it can get its hands on. And truly successful malls may have some budget-oriented stores, but not usually low-end stuff that can work just as easily in a strip mall with outside exposure. Like these:
A dental office? Seriously? Do dentists need a mall to survive? For that matter, do people make an impromptu stop to a dentist appointment while shopping for shoes, mascara, and brillo pads? It seems baffling that a service that typically doesn’t accept walk-ins (how could it?) would appear in a retail setting that thrives on impulse purchases.
But the ultimate sign that not all is well at the Brass Mill are some of its anchor tenants:
Shoppers World occupies one-fourth of one of the anchor spaces: half of the first floor of a two-story department store. It’s not a well-known brand nationally, but has a few dozen locations spread out across 10 or so states, and it always targets areas where: the population is moderate income, the available retail space is cheapened through the recent departure of a higher profile tenant, or—most likely—both. I blogged about Shoppers World in an older post on the long-struggling Lafayette Square Mall in Indianapolis, where it is one of the few remaining anchor tenants.
So Shoppers World has a hold on the Brass Mill Center. As for the remaining three-quarters of the department store space?
That’s right—the notorious Burlington Coat Factory, the grim reaper of retail. It is virtually impossible to find a Burlington location across the country that is in an economically flourishing area. On those rare occasions where the surrounding neighborhood is strong, the Burlington still chooses the least-preferred structure, probably one that had long been vacant beforehand. (Incidentally, the aforementioned Lafayette Square Mall has BCF as its other tenant.)
Chances are, Burlington Coat Factory/Shoppers World took over at the Brass Mill Center when another tenant pulled out. Fortunately for this mall, at the time of this post, the directory reveals that the other three anchor tenants remain occupied by legitimate department stores: Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears—the trio that one can expect to see in over half of America’s malls these days, since the massive retail consolidation era put the kibbosh on most regional department stores.
But where does this leave the Brass Mill Center in the context of malls in general? I’d rate it a Class B mall. Its closure doesn’t seem remotely imminent; only “Class C” malls give evidence that their ends may be near. But Brass Mill Center is the only mall in Waterbury, a city of over 100,000 people, and it’s clearly not a prime destination. Those in the area who seek the shops that a true Class A mall would offer must travel to either the Danbury Fair Mall to the west or Westfarms to the east, outside Hartford. Granted, neither of these Class A malls is more than 30 miles away, so it’s not a huge trip. But Waterbury cannot claim a Class A mall of its own, which means that the city’s big brownfield redevelopment initiative is an economic laggard, less than 20 years after it opened.
Just go to such online review sites as Yelp and a very unflattering picture of Brass Mill Center emerges. While these websites are hardly a fair indicator of the mall’s retail offerings, they do provide a candid synopsis of the general public perception: it’s not a very nice mall. And, like many less-than-desirable malls, it’s not in a stellar neighborhood. But while most dead, dying or merely lukewarm malls are in struggling suburbs, Brass Mill sits in the heart of Waterbury’s inner city. Immediately adjacent to the mall, one encounters vistas such as these:
While the above photo doesn’t necessarily reveal that the neighborhood is rough, it does appear resolutely urban. Unfortunately, night was falling as I took most of these photos, but the few next pictures still give a good idea of the conditions next to the mall. This picture looks northward from the mall’s parking lot:
Here it is in daylight (in the summer):
The backs of the adjacent buildings are covered in gang tags. Not a typical view from a mall parking lot. Even more telling is the view along East Main Street, looking back at the mall:
Not only does a wrought-iron fence line the perimeter, but the mall turns its back to the neighborhood. Beyond the fence, once sees nothing but the service entrances for unloading merchandise. Even if people wanted to walk from downtown Waterbury, or the adjacent neighborhood for that matter, the design of the mall has made no effort to encourage them. It has done just the opposite.
Perhaps most interestingly, Brass Mill Center isn’t alone. Immediately to its northwest—and thus even closer to downtown Waterbury—is another shopping center.
Also a part of the former Scovill campus, the Brass Mill Commons is an equally suburban-minded assembly of big boxes, also with their backs turned away from the neighborhood and in full view of passers-by along the busy I-84 corridor.
Like the Brass Mill Center, the Brass Mill Commons appears successful enough. At the time of this blog, it hosts a grocery store, Barnes and Noble bookstore, the Toys “R” Us visible in the photo, and an array of outparcel restaurants, including such staples of suburbia as TGI Fridays and Chili’s. Unlike the mall, the redevelopment of this portion of the site appears to have salvaged two structures from the Scovill era.
The old structure, formerly Scovill’s executive offices, has become Timexpo: The Timex Museum, hosting educational material and a collection of timepieces from the Waterbury Clock Company (it didn’t get the name Timex until 1969, over 100 years after its founding). Timex Group USA, Inc.’s headquarters remain in Middlebury, Connecticut, directly to the east of Waterbury.
The combination of Brass Mill Center and Brass Mill Commons has introduced a disproportionately large amount of automobile-oriented shopping in central Waterbury, atypical of cities of this size. But there’s more.
The long shadows, cast by an early sunset, make it hard to see the Home Depot in the left of this photo, but it’s there, behind the large parking lot. But it isn’t a suburban big-box. Just to the north, and sharing the lot, is another shopping plaza, for which I cannot confirm the name, but it appears to be Waterbury Commons.
To prove that it’s an urban setting, one only has to look at the 19th century buildings in the background. And here’s the location of this Home Depot/Sports Authority/Petsmart in relation to downtown Waterbury.
The internet is coy about this particular development, but it obviously doesn’t mesh with the buildings that surround it. It’s hard to imagine that it is anything other than a redevelopment of another former factory site, razed in an effort to restore revenue-generating, job-creating, tax-paying businesses to what is otherwise the inner city of Waterbury.
The photos and maps prove that automobile oriented shopping centers flank the city’s central business district on two sides, and, in the case of the Brass Mill Commons/Center, the complex stretches onward for a half mile. From a 2015 perspective, it would be hard not to condemn these initiatives as a slap in the face to Waterbury’s heritage—to the very industry that elevated it from a town to Connecticut’s fifth largest city. And it’s certainly no triumph of historic preservation. But, after remaining vacant for fifteen years, with no other prospect of transforming a blighted and heavily polluted site, it’s hard not to rebut with the flippant “it seemed like the good idea at the time.” The 1995 New York Times article recognized that the mall proposal “breezed through public hearings with hardly a dissenting word”, and that even downtown retailers “rallied to the cause”. The city’s post-industrial malaise was so profound that decision makers in the community jumped at the first offer.
The result, less than 20 years later, are suburban shopping centers that are active but hardly destinations, a downtown that remains largely challenged for lack of businesses, and an utter lack of connectivity between the two districts, leaving the impoverished surrounding central neighborhoods in their wake. If the Scovill Brass Works (or its competitors, Anaconda and Chase Brass) continued to languish up to the present, would developers propose a shopping mall as part of the transformation? Probably not. Over the last decade or so, the general public perception of aging industrial buildings has shifted remarkably in favor of preservation, particularly if the buildings sit in an otherwise walkable, pre-automobile (and probably pre-zoning) urban neighborhood. Demolition of the Scovill campus ostensibly cost a fortune because the buildings were so solid. They may have been vacant in 1995, but it was unlikely that most were dilapidated past the point of no return. And Waterbury could have been championing its industrial legacy through hip adaptive reuse, even if it occurred slowly and incrementally. Such an initiative evokes what Lowell, Massachusetts has accomplished in recent years through its extensive, well-preserved industrial quarter and American Textile History Museum. Meanwhile, its economically lagging neighbor, Lawrence, demolished its old mill buildings and wilts amidst an expanse of parking lots where the factories once stood.
While it may not be fair to condemn Waterbury to the fate of Lawrence (just as it’s equally unfair to dismiss Lawrence altogether), it does appear that the city hastily seized an opportunity that has yet to generate any real spillover benefit. Waterbury can claim the dubious distinction of featuring a functional, far-from-dead, suburban mall in a truly struggling urban neighborhood—the most extreme juxtaposition of these extremes that I’ve ever seen. But has it stimulated any further improvements? My suspicion is that the well-heeled residents of Waterbury haven’t stepped foot in the Brass Mill Center in years; they go to Danbury or West Hartford to shop. And the city’s profile as a whole suggests it has yet to carve out a post-industrial niche for itself. At the very least, Waterbury’s population has fortunately remained steady over the years despite significant job loss, probably because of an influx of low-income immigrant newcomers who find it offers the cheapest housing while remaining relatively close to New York City. Catapulting the comparatively low cost of living as a marketing strategy within an otherwise expensive region may be Waterbury’s ace in the sleeve. Beyond that, few opportunities remain for creative transformation of the old factories…the sort of thing that could otherwise boost the brand of the brass city.