The hollowing of Calhoun Square

Vacancies pile up at Uptown mall

Calhoun Square
Calhoun Square currently has 10 vacant store and restaurant suites. Longtime retailers believe the mall can be revitalized. Photos by Andrew Hazzard

When the Famous Dave’s sign came down from Calhoun Square’s facade in July, Jeffrey Gauss couldn’t help but feel a little down.

Gauss, an artist and retailer whose colorful shop Magnetic Originals has called the Uptown mall home for 20 years, believes there is a vibrant future for Calhoun Square for the next ownership group even if activity is sparse in the space today.

The 170,521-square-foot mall is currently owned by The Ackerberg Group and J.P. Morgan Chase, but it has been on the market since February.

Famous Dave’s, which had a location with regular live music in the mall since 1996, closed in July. Today, the three suites in the row next to Magnetic Originals are barren. Currently 10 store and restaurant suites inside the mall are vacant and an 11th, the current Arc’teryx store, will empty on Sept. 22.

“There’s space available and they should get creative with it,” Gauss said.

Kitchen Window has been in Calhoun Square since the mall opened in 1984. Doug Huemoeller, president of Kitchen Window, has been with the company since 1991 and has seen several ownership groups come and go over the years. He believes the current ownership group is not pursuing new leases for vacant space so whoever buys the property can start fresh.

“You don’t want to mess up anyone’s future development,” he said.

Huemoeller isn’t sure what went awry under Ackerberg Group management but said the lack of success wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge of the local market or poor relationships with mall retailers.

“They’ve been a great partner from my perspective,” he said.

The Ackerberg Group did not respond to requests for comment for this article. The local firm acquired the mall for $67 million in 2014, according to Hennepin County property records.

In recent years, the mall has tried to lure customers with non-shopping offerings. Last summer, they opened the building to dogs. In 2016, they lowered weekday lunchtime parking rates to $2 between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Right now, longtime retailers like Kitchen Window and Magnetic Originals are just waiting to see who that new ownership group will be.

Bremer Bank’s Calhoun Square
Bremer Bank’s Calhoun Square branch closed in December 2017.

Hopes for the future

Jeff Budish, a Twin Cities-based senior vice president with Colliers International who specializes in retail commercial real estate, said indoor malls in the U.S. are trying to reinvent themselves but are struggling.

“The success plan for [Calhoun Square], in my opinion, is to bring people in from an entertainment perspective,” Budish said.

The area’s demographics trend toward relatively young professionals who typically spend money on having fun, Budish said. Businesses that meet those interests will be rewarded.

“Retail still does really well if it’s the right type of retail,” he said.

A devoted Prince fan, Gauss can envision a world where fans of the deceased music icon would chip in to save the mall that inspired a song on 1998’s Crystal Ball album and transform it into a center for arts and culture. No matter who buys it, he’d like to see more space for artists, or office space for community-based nonprofits to help the local homeless population. He believes a concept like the Keg and Case market in St. Paul, which has multiple food vendors and local retailers, could also be successful.

“There’s only room for growth in Uptown,” Gauss said.

Huemoeller agrees, noting that Uptown is still a vibrant area with many choices for dining, shopping and activities.

Kitchen Window has worked to change its store experience over the years by adding more classes and events to get people in the door, Huemoeller said.

“You need things that are more unique and activity-based,” he said.

Once home to ComedySportz and regular live music at Famous Dave’s, the closest thing the mall has to entertainment today are the cooking classes at Kitchen Window and the variety of bar games at Libertine.

To maximize potential success in the space, any large equity firm should look to partner with a local operator, Budish believes. With the mall being such a large central location in Uptown, he thinks the city should also look to work with developers to get the most out of the space.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity there,” Budish said.