The intersection of Routes 19 and 31 in the Town of Sweden is a classic example of suburban blight. There is a vacant lot on the southeast corner of the main intersection in the town, and that corner of the intersection is dominated by a huge black and white sign that reads, “THIS CORNER FOR LEASE 914-631-6200. Unfortunately, area code 914 is the area code for Westchester County, just north of New York City, 343 miles southeast of the Town of Sweden.
Empty storefronts and vacant lots are the signature image of suburban blight, and the Town of Sweden has more than its fair share. There are eight vacant stores in the two strip malls behind that vacant lot. Seven stores have been abandoned in the Sweden Plaza on Route 19, including the big box store that used to anchor that strip mall. The situation is so bad that there are weeds growing in the parking lot and the sign for the Sweden Plaza lists only five tenants: Dunn Tire, State Farm Insurance, a hair salon, a nail salon, and a can and bottle recycling store. Things are better in the Sweden Corners Plaza on Route 31. There is only one abandoned store but it is right in the middle of the plaza next to Big Lots.
According to an article in the New York Times, a mall that has a vacancy rate of 40% is dying. A mall that has a vacancy rate between 20% and 40% is unhealthy, and a mall that has a vacancy rate of 10% is in trouble. Using that criteria, the Sweden Plaza is dying and the Town of Sweden’s Republican politicians are to blame. They are the ones who gave a tax abatement to Wal-Mart to move out of that plaza and built yet another strip mall just east of the Sweden Plaza on Route 31.
Underperforming malls are known as “greyfield” and “dead mall” estates, while abandoned big-box retail stores, such as the one in the Sweden Plaza are called “ghostboxes”. Real estate developers and economist have known about the greyfield – ghostbox problem since 2001, when the professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers published a study showing that underperforming and vacant malls were a fast emerging problem in suburbia. It is pretty obvious that the Republican politicians in the Town of Sweden weren’t paying attention.
Old plazas get shunned for the next new thing, and soon the acres of parking lots in the old strip mall sprouts weeds. Towns, like Sweden, are then caught between a rock and a hard pace. Do they let the buildings rot, or do they spend thousands of taxpayer dollars trying to find a developer who can attract a new tenant or new use for a dying mall like the Sweden Plaza.
The Town of Sweden was lured by the siren’s song of increased tax revenue that a bigger Wal-Mart was supposed to bring. In short, the Sweden politicians fell for the latest incarnation of the big box theory. They welcomed a faceless retail giant into the town, and the result was more suburban sprawl and more traffic snarls on Route 31, without any regard for what would happen to the retail space in Sweden Plaza. James Howard Kunstler describes this kind of situation as the “geography of nowhere”.
The situation on Route 19 north of that blighted intersection isn’t much better. On the west side of Route 19, north of Wegman’s, there is a dead bank building and a dead fast food joint. Somebody is mowing the grass around the dead bank building. But there are five and six feet tall weeds growing outside the dead fast food joint right next to the major north-south road through the town of Sweden. It’s a disgrace, and it is destructive of property values throughout the town, but nobody on the Sweden Town Council seems to care.
Suburban decay is deadly and contagious. Vacant storefronts send the message that the action is elsewhere; so businesses and potential new residents go elsewhere. Tax revenues drop; upkeep on the properties surrounding the dead mall declines, and property values plummet. The next time you drive past the dying Sweden Plaza, try to picture it with a big sign out front, “Suburban blight brought to you by the Sweden Republicans.” You might want to keep that in mind when the town election rolls around in November.
But not all suburban communities suffer from suburban decay, only the poorly led communities do. If you go north on Route 19 for about a mile into the Village of Brockport, you’ll find a thriving Main Street business district with no vacant store fronts.