Saturday, July 13, 2024

These $1 million restaurants, empty for years, don’t factor into future planning decisions

The lights are still on at the former Romano's Macroni Grill, but no one has been home for a long time. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
The lights are still on at the former Romano’s Macroni Grill, but no one has been home for a long time. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

WILMINGTON — The lights are on, but no one has been home for a long time at the former Romano’s Macaroni Grill in Mayfaire.

Romano’s isn’t the only long-term vacancy in the area. But what happened to the restaurants? What’s happening with them now, and what impact do their long-term vacancies have on the surrounding area?

What happened?

Romano’s closed in January of 2015. Brinker Industries, a restaurant group with a share in Romano’s – as well as Chili’s and several other chains – packed up and left, literally, just days before its lease at 1035 International Drive expired. The company removed much of the equipment from the restaurant and, while Brinker could not take the physical building with it, property records show the company still owns it.

The former Main Street Brewing Co., across the parking lot from Romano's. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
The former Main Street Brewing Co., across the parking lot from Romano’s. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

Romano’s sits across an empty parking lot from the former Main Street Brewing Co., a short-lived restaurant that closed long before Romano’s.

Located at 1055 International Drive, Main Street took over for Smokey Bones, owned by Darden Restaurants, which also owns Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and other chains.

When Darden pulled up stakes in 2007, former Front Street Brewery owner John McLatchy took a sublease from the restaurant giant. But shortly afterwards McLatchy closed the restaurant, having already sold Front Street Brewery.

When CBL and Associates purchased Mayfaire in June of 2015, the Tennessee-based company inherited the restaurant locations, and has been trying to lease them ever since. The restaurant buildings are worth over $1 million each, and sit on valuable property owned by Mayfaire.

What’s going on now?

Paige Coniglio, specialty leasing manager for CBL, would not offer specifics, but said “our leasing team is working with a number of potential restaurants for these spaces.”

CBL and Associates has been trying to lease these spaces for some time. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
CBL and Associates has been trying to lease these spaces for some time. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

That’s undoubtedly been the case for the last two years that CBL has owned the property, since there are no tax abatements or exceptions for un-leased property.

According to Malissa Talbert, communications manager for the City of Wilmington, the city does not offer any tax breaks for vacancies, even long-term ones. Neither does New Hanover County, according to Communications Coordinator Jessica Loeper. So CBL continues to pay tax on the land, and the $1 million building at 1055 International Drive (Brinker pays tax on the building at 1035 International Drive).

According to Coniglio, Brinker’s ownership of the former Romano’s spot “does not affect leasing.” Are the leasing rates for the expensive buildings too high? Coniglio would not quote a rate, saying only “lease rates vary on a multitude of factors.”

It remains unclear what has kept these high-profile restaurant locations empty. One thing is clear, it hasn’t stopped developers from proposing other restaurant spots, including one right across the street.

What do long term vacancies mean for planning and development?

There are lots of reasons a restaurant spot – or two – might become what New Hanover County calls “long-term vacancies.” It could be over-saturation, lack of demand, traffic issues, or just coincidence — a run of bad luck for the property management.

It is difficult to say what has kept 1035 and 1055 International Drive empty for so long. But it appears to not concern city or county planners. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

But none of those possible reasons are considered by either Wilmington or New Hanover County planning authorities when new developments are proposed.

For example, the Renassiance North development directly across Military Cutoff Road from Mayfaire, will likely house new restaurants, so will the massive, 1-million-square-foot CenterPoint development down the street, at the intersection of Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads.

According to Wilmington Senior Planner Christine Hughes, when it comes to nearby vacancies, even conspicuous, long-term ones, “it’s not really a planning issue.”

Hughes added, “while we work to help stimulate redevelopment and adaptive reuse, the vacant restaurant space is really more of an issue for the property owner than the Planning Department. Analysis of the overall development of Mayfaire would have been done at the time of the rezoning and initial site plan approvals and any improvements to the transportation network, etc., would have been based on a full build out scenario.”

Wilmington Senior Planner Brian Chambers, who handles future development, concurred, saying, “vacancy rates are really outside the scope of plan review.”

The empty Mayfaire restaurants are within Wilmington city limits, and thus subject to the city’s planning guidelines, but it’s a similar story at the county level.

According to Loeper, the New Hanover County Planning and Land Use Department holds that “long term vacancies are not considered in the Planning Department’s review, recommendation or decision on projects.”

Loeper added that, in general, long-term restaurant vacancies are “not something that planning departments consider as they are private business arrangements.”

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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