When a Shopping Mall Came to the Hamptons

Articles appearing on the front pages of their weekly papers 50 years ago—Feb. 3, 1972—were a surprise to many who’d begun making the Hamptons a weekend or summer home. Construction was beginning on a shopping center in their idyllic midst. Plaza East would be a first…and remain to this day the only of its kind.

The center’s history—enlarged, it is now the Bridgehampton Commons—encapsulates much of what has happened over those 50 years in the Hamptons. It reflects changes in elected government, land-use planning , commercial patterns and the makeup of the local population. But the mall’s enduring presence also reflects stubborn incongruities in a community consisting of resort, retreat and retirement sectors and of course, full-time working households.

Plaza East’s announcement wouldn’t have surprised those who’d followed the wrestling at Southampton Town Hall the previous few years over a master plan and zoning code for the stirring area, long a largely rural stretch infused by a summer beach crowd. A retail center along the two-lane Montauk Highway that threads the South Fork of Long Island was in the cards, though the town planners wanted design elements that led the developers to court. The upshot: the planners won a pledge to buffer the center from the country road, while the mall got its big parking lot in front and not tucked away in the back.

But, like a lot of town governance then and now, this fight went on greatly outside of public view, especially that of the weekenders. So at word of the looming construction, many of these folks hit the roof. A shopping center was exactly the kind of thing they’d crossed the length of Long Island to escape.* They scrambled, blustering about a lawsuit or threats to boycott W.T. Grant, the “variety” store that was Plaza East’s largest lease, but it was too late. The buildout went ahead to an opening that fall.

The lesson was learned, however.  Plaza East, together with other changes on the South Fork including the conversion of potato farmland to subdivisions, galvanized a resistance movement. One organization in particular—the Group for the South Fork, today Group for the East End—came to spearhead efforts to preserve swaths of the Hamptons from land development. Over time, that struggle, together with shifts in the New York City and larger economy, dictated a different local market from what the shopping center promoters at the outset of the 1970s expected.

Amid those economic tides, Grant & Co before long was in bankruptcy, and as Plaza East struggled in the early ‘70s recession, town officials groused about a sparse tree buffer as well as traffic issues on Montauk Highway. A different chain, Caldor, would take the Grant space. (Eventually the spot would become a Kmart.) The development pressures evolved: Whereas middle-class commuter homes were the prospect as the 1970s dawned and new expressways reached the South Fork, the central Long Island employment draw soon diminished, especially in aerospace, and rezonings limited the population capacity out east. So the wealthier retreat crowd soon became the driving force instead.

That was especially the case as the economy picked up by 1983-84. Enough total purchasing power was coming in that mall owner Kimco Development (as it was then called) was ready for a big expansion, and to upgrade its retail brands into the Eddie Bauer and Gap stratum.  But this time, the Group for the South Fork was prepared to fight the project, in what was called the biggest such local battle of the time.

The hamlet of Bridgehampton (in the town of Southampton) was perhaps the only spot on the South Fork where a retail complex of size could have happened in the first place.** At the time, and apart from a few vintage neighborhoods, it was a dowty crossroads between the historic villages of Southampton, East Hampton and Sag Harbor. *** In years past, it had housed farm laborers and domestic help and was known for street races of souped-up cars (these would get diverted to a formal track in the nearby woods where competitions drew crowds into the 1980s). Although a remarkable series of paternoster ponds cut north-south in Bridgehampton between ocean and bay, they were not yet an environmental priority in the early 1970s.  Beyond a historic few village blocks, Montauk Highway there was clear for commercial hopscotching. The original Plaza East sat next to a drive-in theater, since 1955 a local summer favorite, that finally closed in the early 1980s—its grounds became the center’s expansion turf.

But the surrounding community had gotten airs in the dozen years since Plaza East opened , and Kimco’s wish to better than double the retail footprint with 132,000 new square feet was a major trigger. The developer had something to offer, including a much bigger King Kullen supermarket plus a million-dollar site upgrade with subdued signage and lighting and—finally—the leafy plantings that had been promised initially. “It will be like walking on a college campus,” one lawyer for the mall said. Opponents scoffed.

Over nearly two years, the planners of Southampton town would weigh not only the aesthetics of such a big center but its economics (Was there really sufficient demand? Would it deplete business in the villages?) as well as the environmental effects. This last concern by then had become a political and legal minefield for any sizable project. The mid-1980s were seeing an unprecedented building binge in the Hamptons, encroaching on its bays and ponds as well as the underground (drinking) water supply, so the stress points were nearly everywhere.

Big crowds appeared at official meetings that usually hosted only handfuls, and they might include a celebrity neighbor like Cliff Robertson.  Whereas the 1972 Plaza East opposition had to muster foes off-season, this time the summer residents had plenty of opportunities to join in. If many year-round households were happy to have more stores and eateries at hand–the mall countered the protests with 2,000 names on a petition—the new gentry and its allied old-timers had plenty of punch behind their collective distaste.

Southampton’s planning board and its longtime chair, Roy Wines Jr., were an embattled bunch. They pushed back against many of the development schemes—commercial and residential–that came before them as the 1980s boom proceeded, but were under constant attack from preservationists for accommodating too much. The shopping mall battle fit that pattern. Meanwhile, developers, sensing an increased Reagan-era judicial sympathy for property rights, were prone to sue for “takings.”  In July 1987, the harried board finally opted for a rezoning that would have quashed the center’s expansion.  Kimco promptly went to court.

For more than a year, the project’s fate went from the public hearing room to the legal conference rooms. In March 1989 came word of a settlement: Kimco basically would get the enlargement it sought, with some further concessions for public benefit. Bridgehampton Commons would be born. The Group for the South Fork stewed. A few months later, it would issue a blast demanding “new blood” on the planning board.  (Roy Wines served on but grew ill and died in 1996.)

Robert DeLuca, who joined the Group for the South Fork staff ahead of the expansion battle and has headed the Group for several years, told me in a 2020 interview that Wines was masterful in steering such development decisions. “The cynical view is that the town knew it had to go through the legal process to get to the foreseen end,” he said. DeLuca acknowledged that many Hamptonites are of two minds, wanting both a rural atmosphere and convenient amenities, but criticized the center as unnecessary commercialization that invited only more of it.

In another 2020 interview, Eric Shultz, who served with Wines on the planning board and has stayed active in Southampton affairs, faulted “elite environmentalists with their cocktail parties to raise money” while “we’re here in the trenches” dealing with unavoidable growth issues. “Your job is not to stop development, it’s going to happen,” he said of the town duties, but to see that it’s orderly and ecologically sensitive.

So has the debate gone on for decades since. Kimco in 1993 actually sought an allowance for more retail space with hardly a peep of opposition. The area’s politics have tilted toward the preservationist side, but the influx of additional wealth nevertheless has filled available parcels with “McMansions” and invited heavy trade traffic to service them. Perhaps symbolizing how the two worlds are inseparably tied: Milton Cooper, co-founder and executive chairman of what is now Kimco Realty, for years has had a grand home on a bucolic rise over Bridgehampton, a mile or so from his shopping complex.

In any case, the long line of strip centers that some feared 40 or 50 years ago did not come to the South Fork, and patches of greenbelt or farmland still separate the hamlets. Instead, the town of Riverhead, a good half hour away at the head of the east end’s two forks, sought out the big-box store onrush and got it. That alleviated much of the consumer pressure in tony areas, and online ordering for delivery has taken care of the rest.

Today, Bridgehampton Commons remains a busy if low-key commercial operation. It retains a middle-class vibe—the huge King Kullen, a Staples, PetCo, WilliamsSonoma, Ulta Beauty, Panera Bread and of course the Kmart, which survives as its parent company dries up. A recent build-on modestly enhanced a T.J. Maxx store to allow for its off-price sibling Marshalls as well. Most shops weathered the Covid era even as the owner clearly desired more juice.  But the Marshalls addition took four years and faced resident opposition.  Kimco most recently spent months before that same Southampton planning board getting approval for new color-coordinated signage that, with logos, could boost tenant appeal. 

“The center is a vital everyday shopping destination for many,” Kimco’s regional president, Joshua Weinkranz, responded to my question about who is considered the core clientele in today’s Hamptons. And the mall’s relationship with Southampton officials? “[T]here is always a natural negotiation and, ultimately, partnership that is achieved with properties like this. We believe Kimco has built an increasingly supportive, productive and mutually beneficial relationship with the town government over our years as owner.”  So how about a birthday party later this year? “We do not have anything independently planned for the 50th anniversary at the moment but would welcome the opportunity to do so in concert with the local community if so desired.”

I doubt celebration is quite the mood. If the planning approvals are grudging, that reflects the very mixed emotions of the Hamptons of 2022. Some are sorry the Commons ever got built or enlarged, even if they appreciate fresh produce in February at a reasonable cost or stock their home offices at Staples. Alternatives exist: Boutique fare, to the extent it survives in brick and mortar, is to be found in the villages. The gourmets and the greens patronize the South Fork’s farmstands, in season and at high prices. Nearly everybody can make the drive to Riverhead.

At the same time, there’s lots of angst about super wealth pushing out the South Fork’s stalwart base, and a nearby hub for its necessities or simple pleasures has become over the years part of the Hamptons fabric. As Bob DeLuca put it, “If there’s a Kmart left on the planet, it’s going to be that one.” — 2/03/22

*By 1969, the sizable SmithHaven Mall had opened in rapidly developing parts of Suffolk County to the west, a reasonable drive as new highways were opened. Suburbia was at the doorstep.

**A smaller center, also owned by Kimco and featuring a modest Macy’s, was developed about the same time in Hampton Bays. Although technically on the South Fork, that largely middle-class hamlet is west of the Shinnecock Canal, considered the entry line to the gilded “Hamptons.”

***The Bridgehampton community had also lost its own longtime weekly, the News, by 1971. An adversarial replacement, the Bridgehampton Sun, was started in 1980 but only lasted a couple of years.

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

One thought on “When a Shopping Mall Came to the Hamptons

  1. Fascinating. I wish you would identify ten places from ponds to golf courses and airports and reservations, hotels and horse playgrounds — and tell their stories through time. Then you have a book

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