New York Mall Owner Tries to Hang On With Debt Storm Swirling

Shoppers at the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse, New York, in July.

Photographer: Maranie Staab/Bloomberg

The pandemic has hit few mall operators harder than Pyramid Management Group, a family-run owner of 14 U.S. shopping centers worth $4 billion before lockdowns hammered property values.

Reappraisals — triggered last year amid the firm’s mounting mortgage delinquencies — slashed valuations on eight of Pyramid’s malls by 59% on average, leaving those centers worth less than their debt.

Even with that burden, Chief Executive Officer Stephen J. Congel is optimistic his company can withstand the crisis that has pushed other mall owners to file for bankruptcy.

“I’m paying a $50 bounty for somebody who can come up with a more dramatic word than ‘apocalyptic,’” Congel said in an interview. “We don’t believe that to be the long-term forecast for the viability of the industry.”

Malls were losing market share to e-commerce and discount retailers long before the pandemic. Now, as tenants withhold rents and shutter stores, only about half of the country’s 1,100 enclosed regional centers are likely to survive, according to Floris van Dijkum, an analyst with Compass Point Research & Trading.

Read more: Mall Values Plunge 60% After Reappraisals Triggered by Bad Debt

The delinquency rate on regional mall commercial mortgage-backed securities was 22.9% in February, the highest of any real estate category, according to Moody’s Investor Service. Even the strongest landlords — Simon Property Group Inc. and Brookfield Asset Management Inc. — have talked about walking away from some of their shopping centers rather than throwing good money after bad.

For Pyramid, many of its malls benefit from being “the only game in town” in their New York and Massachusetts markets, but the company may not have the financial staying power to weather prolonged troubles for tenants, according to Gwen Roush, an analyst with rating service DBRS Morningstar.

“A big anchor vacancy or extended period of lower foot traffic and possible need for longer periods of rent relief for tenants is a bigger hill to climb for them versus a Brookfield or Simon,” Roush said in an email.

Falling Values
Mall City

Old Value

($ Million

Reappraised Value

($ Million)

Crossgates Albany $470 $281 -40.2%
Destiny USA Syracuse $710 $203 -71.4%
Palisades Center West Nyack $881 $425 -51.8%
Poughkeepsie Galleria Poughkeepsie $237 $68.6 -71.1%
Walden Galleria Buffalo $600 $216 -64%
Source: Bloomberg CMBS data

Hardest hit among Pyramid’s properties was Destiny USA, New York’s largest mall, in the company’s headquarters city of Syracuse. The center was valued at just $203 million after a 71% appraisal reduction last year and has $430 million in CMBS debt. In addition, Moody’s this month downgraded $285 million in municipal bonds deeper into junk status, citing the mall’s “rapid decline in occupancy.”

New York State's Biggest Mall Reopens

Shoppers at the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse, New York, in July.

Photographer: Maranie Staab/Bloomberg

Pyramid’s Palisades Center in West Nyack, New York, had its value cut to $425 million last year from $881 million in its 2016 appraisal. The Poughkeepsie Galleria’s appraised value plunged 71% to $68.6 million.

While he’s not prepared to part with any properties yet, Congel said he can’t guarantee Pyramid — the company founded by his father in the 1970s — will be able to keep everything. He’s been hearing from vulture investors sniffing around for distressed real estate bargains.

“They’re always circling wherever they smell rotting flesh,” he said. “That’s their genetic makeup.”