Northgate would be CBL's first mall to hold a school; company says it fits new approach

Staff file photo by Mike Pare / The Sears store at Northgate Mall is shown before it closed more than a year ago.
Staff file photo by Mike Pare / The Sears store at Northgate Mall is shown before it closed more than a year ago.

In what would be a first at a CBL Properties mall, the company says that turning the former Northgate Sears store site into a public school fits its new town center approach.

"It's definitely an interesting use," said Stacey Keating, a spokeswoman for the Chattanooga-based mall giant that operates shopping centers across the country. "I think it would draw traffic."

Hamilton County Schools is expected to discuss on Thursday the idea of renovating and remodeling the 179,000-square-foot former Sears, which closed a little more than a ago. The site could become a new home for Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

Keating said that a public school isn't in its current portfolio of 108 properties in 26 states, including Northgate and Hamilton Place malls in Chattanooga.

"It's something we've discussed," she said. "It's really a market-specific approach."

But Keating said that it's too early to say if such a school would work at the Hixson site because the specifics have not been outlined yet.

CBL doesn't own the Sears property. A real estate group related to Sears Holdings owns the store. Sears filed for bankruptcy in October 2018.

Bassam Issa, another big Northgate area property owner who recently bought the former J. C. Penney store at the mall with Chattanooga Lookouts owner John Woods, said a school at the nearby Sears location would work.

"It's a good thing," Issa said about the idea. "We need a school. That Hixson location is a good fit. It's central to that side of the city."

Rodney Bass, who with wife Susan run the longtime Colony 13 shop in Northgate Mall, said that while a retail use for the old Sears might be best for them, malls are changing.

"People would be picking up kids. They may stay and eat and come in and shop," Bass said.

His wife said that they want something to fill the Sears site.

Malls are "putting in different things," she said, citing what CBL is undertaking at Hamilton Place.

Stephen Lebovitz, the CEO of CBL Properties, told financial analysts earlier this year the revamp of the Sears space at Hamilton Place mall is "a prime example" of its strategy to reinvent its locations into town centers.

"We'll get more sales and traffic from new users," said Lebovitz, adding that the addition of Dick's Sporting Goods, Dave & Buster's, an Aloft Hotel and other uses will boost sales by at least three or four times.

CBL in 2017 bought the Hamilton Place Sears store and the Northgate Mall Sears auto service center. But CBL passed on the Sears store at Northgate.

One question about a school at the Hixson shopping center would be its proximity to restaurants which serve alcohol, such as Applebee's, which is located in the mall.

But exemptions for such sales have been previously passed by officials in downtown Chattanooga.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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