Story by Pat Shaver
Photo by Rachel Jessen
IOWA CITY—What will fill about 40,000 square feet in Sycamore Mall is still up in the air, despite recent announcements that the space would occupy a nonprofit, according to mall officials.
“We’ve just started to market and we’re looking at everything,” said John Arlotti, Sycamore Mall’s vice president.
Kirk Cheyney, Fab Lab STEAM Room director of operations, a nonprofit community work center, said he had an agreement with the mall to take over the space, but noted no contract or lease had been signed when interviewed by the Corridor Business Journal earlier this month. Despite that, he led media through a tour of his designated space.
In the Corridor Business Journal’s Sept. 16 issue, Mr. Cheyney talked of his plans for the space. Mall officials did not respond for comment, but after the story published, wished to clear up some confusion.
“We’re not talking to him about the Von Maur space at this point,” Mr. Arlotti said. “It’s still a viable option, but there are a lot more hoops to jump through before we get to a point where we can do a lease.”
Mall officials are talking with three potential users for the former Von Maur space, not including the Fab Lab, he added.
Mr. Arlotti said the Fab Lab might be a better fit for the Ben Franklin space becoming available.
“I think the right size and location with the right application you could do it,” he said. “At this point we’re not ruling anything out.”
The mall has five or six vacant storefronts, not including Von Maur, Mr. Arlotti said.
About a month ago, the Dairy Queen in the mall closed. A frozen yogurt shop is expected to open there, Mr. Arlotti said.
“The good news is that a lot of people, back when Von Maur said they were leaving, decided Sycamore Mall was going to die, and we certainly changed that picture,” he said. “There are articles coming out fast and furious of retailers reopening and looking at sites that before they weren’t looking at.”
In July, Sycamore Mall leaders announced a plan to redesign and conceptualize the space. They are working with Shive-Hattery Architects and Engineers to help shape the mall’s transformation. They are working together to evaluate trends through the U.S., with a focus on the local community.
“We’re changing the look and feel and bringing back the social aspect of the shopping center and giving a community feel,” Mr. Arlotti said. “It’s working in other areas, we’ve seen it work. We’ve looked at a lot of different centers that have changed.”
The entrances into the center will be redesigned creating new retail opportunities throughout the mall.
“We’re trying to create an atmosphere that is almost a city downtown feel,” Mr. Arlotti said.
Mr. Cheyney hopes to fill the former Von Maur space with a Fab Lab, an international concept that was started at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2007.
“You can’t come to my shop and buy a pair of shoes, but you can come and make a pair of shoes,” he said earlier this month. “We already have a lot of places to buy shirts and shoes.”
There are about 200 Fab Labs throughout the world, varying in size and operation but sharing a common mission: enabling invention by providing access to tools for digital fabrication. They are all community centers that offer residents tools and equipment to build, create and invent.
Activities in Fab Labs range from technological empowerment to peer-to-peer project-based technical training to local problem-solving to small-scale high-tech business incubation to grass-roots research. Projects being developed and produced in labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, thin-client computers and wireless data networks, analytical instrumentation for agriculture and health care, custom housing and rapid-prototyping of rapid-prototyping machines, according to MIT’s website.
Von Maur moved to an 80,000-square-foot store in Coralville’s Iowa River Landing District in July. The city of Coralville is providing more than $16 million in incentives to Von Maur to move, including money to pay for lease termination fees to Sycamore Mall. The move left a major retail vacancy at Sycamore empty.