Burnsville has declared the vacant former Sears store at Burnsville Center a hazardous building, citing nonfunctional sprinkler and fire alarm systems, and only a metal gate separating it from the rest of the mall.
Sears was one of the south metro mall's anchors until it closed in 2017. The company has dramatically downsized in recent years, closing hundreds of stores over the past two decades and declaring bankruptcy in 2018.
Should a fire start at the old Sears building, "[s]moke would propagate to the mall in a heartbeat. That's a huge problem," Burnsville Fire Chief BJ Jungmann said.
Typically, water from the sprinkler system would trip the fire alarm, but the city hasn't seen documentation that those systems work. In that case, the Fire Department wouldn't be alerted if a fire started.
As a result of the city's declaration, Seritage Growth Properties — the real estate arm of Sears — has 30 days from the day it receives the resolution to fix the building's issues. If Seritage doesn't, the city can seek the court's permission to enter the building and make repairs, Jungmann said.
The hazardous declaration is a piece of Burnsville's eventual plan to file a civil lawsuit that would compel Seritage to make the repairs, a city memo said.
"We don't know what the corrective solution is just because we haven't been in there," Jungmann said.
Seritage should have someone actively patrolling the building — on "fire watch" — if those systems aren't working, he said.
Seritage officials haven't been communicating with the city lately, Jungmann said. Several months ago, company officials said the problems would be fixed in three weeks, but the city hasn't heard from them since.
"It's left us with really no option but to go to this point," Jungmann said.
The building's foundation may no longer be safe, he said, in which case the city could eventually get permission to demolish it.
"We're basically babysitting their problem," said City Council Member Dan Kealey. "They've let it go."
The problem's root
The building's current woes began in late December 2022 when its sprinkler system's main pipe froze and cracked, sending thousands of gallons of water gushing into the store. The leak was under control by that evening, Jungmann said.
Sears had only intermittent heat during the winter months, city officials said.
Burnsville Center manager Kevin Eisenhut said a frozen pipe in the vacant Gordmans store also broke that same week.
"Between the two [stores], we lost 300,000 gallons of water," he said.
Eisenhut said he believes the building is structurally fine, but he doesn't know what maintenance has been completed there. The store tested negative for mold, he said.
He said he hopes a new buyer will come in and revitalize the old Sears space. Last fall, it was temporarily home to a textbook distributor, he said.
Kealey, however, said he believes mold and mildew may be lingering inside the property. The city would like to see it demolished, he said, which would create enough space to extend nearby Aldrich Avenue.
"That would be the ideal scenario," he said.
Seritage did not respond to a call seeking comment.
Mall co-owners, tenants respond
Burnsville Center was nearly empty Wednesday, except for a trickle of customers visiting open stores, including J.C. Penney, Macy's, Victoria's Secret and two vision centers.
The mall, owned by Kohan Retail Investment Group and 4th Dimension Properties, is under contract for sale.
That's according to Felix Reznick, a principal with 4th Dimension Properties. Anchor stores aren't included in the purchase.
Kohan bought the mall in 2020 for about $17 million at auction, a massive decline for a property once valued at $135 million. In 2022, Kohan sold part of Burnsville Center, including the Dick's Sporting Goods and Kirkland's Home spaces, to Pacific Square Burnsville, a developer.
Pacific Square Burnsville plans to remodel the old Gordman's store into an Asian grocery store and food hall and add a two-story structure that would become two restaurants.
Officials at the developer said they're "genuinely concerned" that Sears was declared hazardous.
"We strongly urge them to promptly collaborate with the Burnsville Fire Department to address the potential risks," said Marshall Nguyen, a Pacific Square Burnsville partner.
Yuval Atias, who opened his Customize It store selling custom-printed merchandise eight years ago, said the mall has "a lot of issues." He said most of his sales are online.
At Escapology, an escape room franchise next door to the former Sears, general manager Sara Beck said it's "concerning" that her vacant neighbor may have no working fire alarm.
The hazardous declaration might make her customers wonder if the mall is actually open, she said. Regardless, the long-empty store is problematic, Beck said.
"Having a dilapidated building next door," she said, "it's not a good image for our business."