Editorial: City was right to pull out of mall negotiations

Published 8:45 am Tuesday, May 5, 2015

It is disappointing to hear the city has given up negotiations on redeveloping the Oak Park Mall site for Hy-Vee. However, we are glad to see the city make a smart decision to back away from the deal. More to the point, we are frustrated with the businesses that appear to have been too greedy to come to terms.

After city officials announced the impending purchase agreement last October, we were supportive of the city’s efforts to take control of Oak Park Mall to redevelop the property for another business. After all, Austinites have complained for years about the mall’s parking lot, as well as its ownership, who appeared to have allowed the mall to fall into disrepair at the cost of its tenants.

The city was well aware of the perceived blight the mall had become as well. Mayor Tom Stiehm famously said half the calls he received during his first few terms were from residents who wanted the city to fix the mall’s parking lot.

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Though the city had few options to fix the parking lot, it made sense for Austin and Hy-Vee to partner in an effort to redevelop the property. A $3.2 million donation from the Hormel Foundation to buy the mall was an even better step.

Yet business interests appear to have dashed any chances of the deal coming through.

The city struggled to ensure Younkers, ShopKo and Cinemagic 7 would go along with the deal, which would have allowed them to become standalone stores. City officials had much paperwork and legal wrangling to do to get deals in place — the city drew flak from mall tenants after the mall owners sent lease termination notices a month earlier than expected, though city attorneys fixed the issue after two weeks of negotiations.

That legal wrangling is ultimately what killed the mall deal. The city went through the proper procedure to purchase the mall, but it couldn’t get all sides to come together. That was evident when, last month, attorneys from Younkers parent company The Bon Ton drew up a final draft of an agreement and then canceled it a week later, only to make 22 additional demands.

In this case, the city of Austin has done everything it could to bring an economic development project together that could have had huge implications for Austin. The city acted as the middleman for several large companies during the negotiations, only to watch the deal fall through after the businesses couldn’t agree.

As a small town home to a large corporation, we have a unique history when it comes to dealing with the desires of a large corporate entity. That could be why it is so disheartening to see this deal fall apart because a few businesses wanted far too many perks from each other over a simple building. It’s frustrating to know this deal was almost settled last month if attorneys from Younkers had only stuck to their “final” draft.

We are grateful to the city of Austin to have put so much time into a project so many people cared about. We do not know what lies in store for the Oak Park Mall property, but we are pleased to see city officials have kept taxpayers in mind and ended negotiations on a bad deal before it could get any worse.