The social media post dubbed it the "Official Couch of Cary" — an IKEA pull-out sofa.
Clever pun aside, IKEA's decision to pull out of Cary before ever breaking ground has disappointed town leaders and fans of the Swedish furniture company. More practically, it has left a 380,000-square-foot hole in the much-anticipated redevelopment of Cary Towne Center, the 39-year-old indoor mall at Walnut Street and Cary Towne Boulevard.
"We are certainly disappointed with IKEA's decision to pull out of the project," said Stacey Keating, director of public relations and corporate communications for the mall's owner, CBL & Associates Properties, a real estate investment trust based in Chattanooga, Tenn. "IKEA was an important component of our multiphase plans to redevelop Cary Towne Center into a vibrant mixed-use center."
IKEA was supposed to be step one in the redevelopment, and plans for the store, North Carolina's second, were making their way through the town's approval process. Then they stopped.
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CBL Properties imagined surrounding IKEA with buildings offering a mix of uses, including restaurants, retail, offices and housing. Fundamentally, those plans won't change, Keating said.
"We will be developing new plans that incorporate the space that IKEA was to occupy," she said. "Our plans have always called for a mixed-use redevelopment of the property that incorporates entertainment, retail, restaurants, apartments and offices."
But some in Cary wonder whether the redevelopment plans will survive IKEA's withdrawal.
"I can't imagine anything short of IKEA being able to save that place," Grady Ormond said in a Facebook thread about the furniture company's decision. "It is so depressing."
Jeri Ross Bills agreed. "Cary Towne Center is a disaster," she wrote. "I don't see how it can be saved now."
But Keating is optimistic, in part because in retail, location matters. "Cary Towne Center enjoys an excellent location in a dynamic and growing market, making it ideally situated for a future mixed-use redevelopment, and we look forward to revitalizing the heart of Cary’s retail area," she said.
As for the timeline of a redeveloped Cary Towne Center, Keating couldn't offer one. "IKEA’s projected opening was not until 2020, so until we have a more concrete plan in place, I can’t really speak to the timeline," she said.
In the meantime, Cary Towne Center remains a traditional indoor mall, with anchor tenants, small storefronts, kiosks and a food court.
But like many traditional malls, Cary Towne Center has seen better days. Gone, for example, are anchor stores Sears and Macy's. And while CBL & Associates doesn't report midyear occupancy rates, the mall's directory lists a total of 81 tenants but shows spaces for 119. That's an occupancy rate of roughly 68 percent, well below the national mall average.
IKEA wasn't the first company that was supposed to help breathe new life into the mall. In 2015, Topgolf sought a rezoning that would have allowed the company to bring one of its golf-themed entertainment venues to Cary Towne Center. But TopGolf abandoned its plan amid opposition from neighbors. The company then looked at Crossroads Plaza in Cary and in Research Triangle Park, though nothing materialized.
In an email, Topgolf communications manager Morgan Schaaf said Topgolf remained interested in North Carolina, where the company has just one location, in Charlotte. "We are evaluating a few areas there in North Carolina, but we don’t have anything we can announce quite yet," Schaaf said.
Across the road from Cary Towne Center, Columbia Development has received the rezoning needed to move forward with Fenton, another proposed mixed-use development with a Wegmans grocery store, retail shops, other businesses, housing and two hotels.
A spokeswoman said IKEA's departure would have no impact on Fenton. "Like others, we're disappointed for Cary in the loss of the opportunity with IKEA," said Connie Bryant Breedlove, vice president of The Wilbert Group, a public relations firm. "Our mixed-use project, Fenton, continues as planned. It will be a tremendous asset for Cary, and we are confident it will spark additional development in the area."