June 22, 2020

The Boston Globe


Outside the box: From yoga to dining to movies, malls are moving outdoors to bring customers back

At Patriot Place, hundreds of people have watched films on a giant screen mounted in one of the Foxborough mall’s parking lots. Restaurants are serving patrons at outdoor tables. A spot overlooking Gillette Stadium will soon be abuzz with spinning and yoga classes.

The Street Chestnut Hill has increased outdoor seating, is helping its dining establishments create or expand their patio service, and is considering more frequent sidewalk sales.

Prompted by the economic challenges posed by COVID-19, area shopping malls are making greater use of their outdoor spaces to help compensate for lost or reduced indoor business activity.

“Since we are an open air center, we have always used outdoor spaces. But in the COVID world, we are expanding it and making even more use of it than ever before,” said Meaghan Coombs, marketing director of The Street, owned by WS Development. “We have heard from our businesses and guests that they really feel more comfortable being outside.”

As of June 23, the state authorized restaurants — which had been limited to outdoor dining and takeout — and some other retailers to offer indoor service. But with tight rules still governing indoor activity, malls say they will continue seeking creative uses of their parking lots, sidewalks, and grassy areas.

“Even with the state now allowing indoor dining, there will be restrictions that will make the outdoor dining experience as important as it had been prior to indoor being allowed,” said Brian Earley, vice president and general manager of Patriot Place, the Route 1 mall owned by The Kraft Group.

“Other outdoor opportunities beyond dining will continue as restrictions on indoor operations continue to exist through the reopening phases,” he added.

Some managers see the expanded outdoor activity continuing even beyond the pandemic.

“We now realize how absolutely important it is for our restaurants, for instance, to have the flexibility to be able to serve outside,” said Mark Whiting, general manager of Northshore Mall in Peabody. “What started somewhat as an experiment has now proven to be a critical part of providing the flexibility our businesses need here.”

Showcase Cinemas, which temporarily closed its Patriot Place theater in March due to the pandemic, partnered with Patriot Place to offer four Friday night drive-in movies, starting with a May 30 screening of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” benefiting a local food pantry, according to Mark Malinowski, Showcase’s vice president of global marketing.

“We realized we had the same idea and we said, ‘Let’s do it together,’” Malinowski said of Showcase and Patriot Place, crediting the mall with helping his company locate the 800-square foot inflatable screen and other logistics for the outdoor showings.

Noting it began in the 1930s as a drive-in theater company, Malinowski said Showcase enjoyed revisiting that tradition and was pleased to have sold a combined 700 tickets for the four shows. “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” will be screened Friday, June 26.

Patriot Place, meanwhile, has worked closely with Foxborough officials to expedite needed approvals for its 17 full-service restaurants to offer and in some cases increase outdoor seating along the mall’s pedestrian concourse, even as they resume indoor service under the new rules.

“We are encouraging them to expand outdoors where they can safely do so,” Earley said.

Based on the response to the drive-in movies, the mall also is exploring hosting an outdoor comedy show, and encouraging its fitness and yoga studios to expand the number of outdoor classes they offer while incorporating social distancing. Earley said the mall also encourages people to use its nature trail behind Bass Pro Shops

The Street has expanded to more than 100 the number of
outdoor seats across its property, including along the shopping center’s green, a popular space for picnicking and other passive recreation.

For restaurants looking to add or expand their patios, the mall has assisted in designing the outdoor space, sourcing furniture, and securing local approvals.

“The restaurants are really excited and the community is really excited,” Coombs said of the outdoor dining opportunities, now augmented by the limited indoor service.

The Street also is encouraging fitness studios to make greater use of the green for classes, and envisions more frequent sidewalk sales, according to Coombs, noting that WS Development’s other Massachusetts shopping centers — Legacy Place in Dedham, MarketStreet in Lynnfield, Derby Street Shops in Hingham, and Boston Seaport — also are expanding outdoor activities.

Northshore Mall is able to accommodate patio dining largely because of its completion last year of the first phase of The Promenade — a walkway along its main building — where most of the outdoor tables are located. Five restaurants offered outdoor service last year, with two more set to join them this year and one of the five expanding its seating, according to Whiting.

“Because we have the Promenade in place, we are able to assist those restaurants in providing outside seating, offsetting some of what they are losing inside due to the state mandates,” he said.

Whiting said the mall hosted the Big Apple Circus under a tent in its parking lot last year and is open to such other outdoor entertainment as pop-up drive-in movies and an art show. It would also consider a pop-up retail event during the holidays. And next year, Lifetime Fitness Center will open at the mall with a facility that includes an outdoor pool and a patio.

In an era when many malls are redefining themselves to keep pace with changing customer needs, some managers see their new use of outdoor spaces as a sign that malls can adapt.

“We constantly have our eyes on the future,” Whiting said. “We understand the pandemic may be a temporary setback. But if you look at the 60-plus-year history of Northshore Mall, we are constantly transforming and reinventing ourselves.”

By: John Laidler

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