Barriers erected around access roads to the closed and dilapidated Century III Mall in West Mifflin frustrate drivers who had used them as shortcuts to reach busy routes 51 and 885 and businesses such as Giant Eagle and Home Depot.
To secure the mall, all access has been cut off, save a pothole-riddled large private road the mall’s owner is supposed to maintain — but doesn’t much — that runs from Route 885 parallel to the mall down the hill to the new UPMC Outpatient Center, Denny’s, Huntingdon bank and more.
Motorists’ headaches, though, don’t compare to the one West Mifflin Borough has endured with the mall that closed all its indoor stores in 2019. It became a raging migraine after a fire there on April 11 led officials to deem it “unfit for human occupancy” and schedule a condemnation hearing at 4:30 on Wednesday at the borough building.
The public notice on the borough’s website states testimony will be given by the borough’s building inspector and any affected property owner “as to the dilapidated and or unsafe conditions” of the mall. The results will be passed on to borough council for recommendations and actions. Any resident can attend and offer comments, officials stress.
The 1.3 million-square-foot mall opened in 1979, developed by the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., and at the time was the third-largest shopping mall in the world, according to multiple media reports. A 1996 merger with Simon Property Group lasted until 2011, and it was sold to current owner Las Vegas-based Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC in 2013.
Anchor stores inside the mall — Macy’s, for example — started closing in succeeding years, which is an issue malls around the country faced and are still facing. Century III had three outside stores with their own entrances — JCPenney, Sears and Dick’s Sporting Goods — and lease disputes and poor business conditions led each to close. JCPenney was the last store to close in 2020.
Those lease disputes, issues with creditors and nonpayment of taxes led to several sheriff’s sales and a Moonbeam bankruptcy filing in 2018. The mall has had a skeletal staff and maintenance crew still working there, and despite them having boarded up the structure, multiple break-ins, waterline breaks and vandalism have left it in a dilapidated condition, full of mold with broken glass, asbestos and other building materials. All utilities have been shut off.
Councilman Dan Davis said the borough has had enough. The frustration with Moonbeam escalated in 2019 when a waterline break caused by a utility shutoff caused major damage, violated building codes, and placed employees and mall patrons in danger. Butch Anthony, the borough’s community development director, said West Mifflin gave the mall one week to fix it. But officials found out Moonbeam instead told the last remaining indoor tenants to leave, and it closed the indoor portion of the mall shortly thereafter.
“But because of the fire, the current water condition in the building and the structural deficiencies, it’s a worse situation,” Davis said. “The building is now uninhabitable. No one should be in that building because of the conditions of that structure.”
This year, officials had hoped a proposal by Menards, a large home improvement store based in Wisconsin, to purchase the property would be the right remedy for their mall headache. But after a review, Menards backed out in March, as reported by the Pittsburgh Independent.
Moonbeam did not respond to a request for an interview for this story, but a company attorney is expected to appear and give testimony Wednesday. West Mifflin officials said the company — it lists Century III Mall PA LLC as part of it and owns the mall still in two parcels, according to the Allegheny County Real Estate website — has filed appeals to borough citations, and its bankruptcy filing has stalled efforts to redevelop the property and move forward. In fact, the company’s website lists Century III Mall as sold since 2019. A more current section of Moonbeam’s website cites malls it owns but does not include Century III. It has 10 other malls, six of them marked with sold stickers.
Quick research into some of those malls turns up similar frustration with Moonbeam’s lack of maintenance and its bankruptcy filings. Two of those include Shopping Town Mall in DeWitt, N.Y., that closed in 2020 and the Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, Ga., which Gwinnett County purchased in 2021.
Moonbeam still owes West Mifflin $80,000 in fines, Davis said. Anthony said most of that is for trash collection and lawn maintenance. The company just appeals and appeals, and the borough expects it to do the same if the recommendation from the hearing, which Anthony will lead with one of the borough solicitors, Greg Evashavik, is to condemn. Following that, action can be taken by council at either its caucus meeting Wednesday or its regular session next week.
The drumbeat to do something about the mall grew louder when a teenager who broke into the mall with others on June 3 fell 20 feet, breaking two vertebrae and collapsing a lung, according to reports. A first responder broke his ankle, Davis said, during the rescue. The young man and three others will be charged with trespassing.
Anthony and Davis, as well as the borough police and fire chiefs, do not understand why people keep breaking into the building and placing themselves in danger. Worse, the trespassers record it and post videos on social media.
“Borough staff and the police have found 36 postings on the websites — Instagram, TikTok — so 36 times it has been entered we are aware of since 2019,” Anthony said.
Davis said prior to that incident, West Mifflin police caught three people breaking into the mall in May, and they will also be prosecuted for trespassing. “We don’t have the time and effort to put 24-hour surveillance on that building,” he said.
Two residents came to the borough’s April meeting, one with a PowerPoint presentation on the dangers of the mall. The other solicitor, Phillip DiLucente, told them that everything legally that the borough can do has been done. The sticking point? The mall is private property, which limits West Mifflin, and the condemnation hearing became the next legal step.
Of course, as DiLucente said that night and Davis reiterated, Moonbeam can appeal a condemnation order.
The looming headache after the legal process is how to pay to demolish the structure. Davis said the borough has been reaching out to county, state and federal elected officials who understand the situation for help. “As far as demolition [costs], we’ve heard anywhere from $10 [million] to $15 million. There’s lots of concrete in the mall foundation — a lot of material everywhere in it.”
That just adds to the borough’s pain over the loss in revenue from the mall. Davis said it used to have a $100 million value, which has dropped to $2 million. It hurts not just the borough but also the West Mifflin Area School district, and most likely more so. “The borough has other methods to collect revenue,” he said.
“We need that building to come down and to develop and repurpose it. We need a tax base now. It’s valuable [property]. Jefferson Hills, it’s really growing, and there’s Pleasant Hills, West Mifflin and Baldwin all around it. It’s a viable area,” Davis said.
Anthony said a hearing like this is very unusual; the borough normally holds one a year on a number of single houses scheduled for condemnation. Those can be resolved and condemnation orders revoked if the property is repaired and brought up to code. “We don’t normally deal with any this large [as the mall],” he said. Moonbeam fixing it to avoid condemnation? “Not an impossibility, but it’s highly unlikely it will happen in this case,” he said.
Davis and multiple borough officials said the public does not grasp the difficulties West Mifflin faces in resolving the mall situation. He also predicts it won’t be a fast process.
“People think we’re not doing anything, but we have to follow the rules,” he said. “The public thinks it’s easy to seize a property and then tear down a mall, repave a terrible road. It is not.”
The borough is already thinking about fixing the traffic snarls and backups at the Mall Drive intersection with Route 51 below the mall caused by more vehicles heading to businesses there, a direct result of the closed mall access roads drivers used to use.
“We need to talk to PennDOT,” Davis said. “There’s not enough time at the traffic light for the increased flow to Route 51. We need to re-time the light there. … And it affects everything on down Route 51, puts more traffic on Lebanon Church Road, and people try to squeeze through Century III Plaza [instead] of using the mall road.”
And, he fears, the legal proceedings to come could cause another traffic headache on the riddled roadway between Route 885 that follows the mall to that intersection.
“That road is terrible,” he said. “I feel sorry for anyone who uses it as a shortcut. They [Moonbeam] do have the option to shut it down rather than fix it.”