Top stories of 2018: Boom, then decline, for retail on Route 58

Several more big box retailers announced closures in 2018, including Toys R Us in March and Kmart, which closed its doors Nov. 25.

The stores, once beacons for shoppers seeking blue light specials or the season’s hottest toy, have now joined the likes of Riverhead’s former Walmart, Sports Authority and Radio Shack franchises.

Modell’s Sporting Goods will follow in January, when the 20,000-square-foot store in Riverhead Centre calls it quits. Ashley HomeStore recently announced plans to lease that space.

Together, the shuttered former Walmart, Sports Authority, Toys R Us and Kmart comprise over 325,000 square feet of vacant commercial space — with no replacement tenants yet identified.

Yet stores in new shopping centers, some also without confirmed tenants, continue to be built in Riverhead. 2019 will mark the fifth year the original Walmart space has sat boarded up since the store moved to new digs farther west along the corridor. The idea of a movie theater at that site has been teased, but plans have yet to materialize. 

As he left office a year ago, former Riverhead supervisor Sean Walter said the future of Route 58 was one of the most pressing issues town officials must address going forward.

In 2003, Route 58 was zoned Destination Retail after officials observed the impact Tanger Outlets had in bringing revenue to the town through shoppers and tax dollars.

At the time, officials were tasked with striking a balance between preserving farmland and ensuring steady development to offset the removal of properties from the tax rolls. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, Mr. Walter pointed out that the big box stores helped keep tax increases reasonable.

What does the future hold for the retail corridor? 

Current Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said that creative, adaptive reuse may be key in thinking ahead.

Repurposing vacant stores for assisted living facilities, offices, municipal buildings or recreational uses may require zoning changes and, eventually, a look back at the town’s Master Plan, which has not been updated since 2003.

Photo caption: Kmart closed its doors in November. (Grant Parpan photo)