Forty minutes northeast of Baltimore, at the Boulevard at Box Hill shopping mall in Harford County, hundreds of empty parking spaces surround a J.C. Penney store. Signs out front proclaim: “CLOSING. Entire store, 75 to 90 percent off. Everything must go!”
J.C. Penney, which is closing 150 stores in malls nationally, is one of several major retail chains going bankrupt or shifting to strictly online selling as the coronavirus recession and competition with Amazon.com have combined to drain mall-based retail.
Veronica Cassilly, a retired environmental science teacher, shakes her head outside of the big box store. She says she’s disgusted, in part because the mall itself is fairly new – but soon to be partly vacant and thrown away, like a giant fast-food container.
“J.C. Penney is a renter, and now they’re done, and the land is wasted – and it happens over and over and over again,” Cassilly said.
According to a recent study by an international investment bank, Barclays, the percentage of U.S. malls with a vacancy rate of more than 20 percent – putting them in danger of failing -- increased to 28 percent in September, up from just 8 percent a year ago.
And yet, despite the acres of vacant mall space opening up in Harford County and elsewhere, not far from the J.C. Penney here, a developer is planning to clear-cut more than 300 acres of old growth forest to build a brand new retail and business project.