Converting Vacant Properties Like Downtown Department Stores

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Even with funding secured, redevelopment of large vacant properties like historic downtown department stores, is a challenge even as construction begins.

Throughout the United States, historic downtown department stores have not always converted successfully, leaving large buildings as vacant properties in downtown centers throughout America.

Traditional department stores had trouble by the mid-1970s. Names like Peck & Peck, Sibley’s and others folded or were sold off due to rising costs from advertising and the costs of maintaining the large buildings and scores of staff required by their personal service models.

“Burdened by high overheads, they had substantially lost out to discount department stores which were rapidly capturing sales that had once belonged to them,” wrote Vicki Howard in From Main Street to Mall.

Once shareholders saw the writing on the wall, many of the old buildings sold in tony locations like Manhattan. But what about the department store buildings in smaller cities, like Syracuse, New York?

The Syracuse Sibley’s building, with its four floors totaling 278,000 square feet, closed in 1989. While the building was used for as a call center operation and offices for several years, it’s long been one of the areas vacant properties.

A 2015 Empire State Development grant of $900,000, through the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council, is just one of many sources, which includes a long list of private donations and campaign funds, stockpiled to create the $10 million Redhouse Arts Center at the former Sibley’s Department Store, according to

Redhouse is constructing a large theater with seating for up to 400 and a smaller theater with seating for 125, rehearsal rooms and classrooms in the old Sibley’s building.

About $8 million in construction has started on the new arts center — though not without major challenges. Redhouse is still expecting to open a year from now, despite Aspen Dental Management Inc. withdrawing from a plan to move its headquarters — and 600 staff — to the building, according to the report.

The first construction work is breaking through an attached 800-car garage in order to make room for the rigging for the 25-foot high performance stage. The arts center is being built in a section of the attached garage that once served as the department store’s warehouse.

At this time, Redhouse is not sure what company, or companies, will take the place of the plans for the corporate dental headquarters. The arts center will also hold off on building a movie theater space.

About the author

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox is Editor of and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.