A coveted “anchor” tenant when the mall opened in 1973, the 185,000-square-foot department store was moribund for years before it finally closed in 2018. Back then, signs plastered over the former Sears entrance in Briarwood’s east corner promised “more shopping, dining & entertainment” were in the works.

But owner Simon Property Group was already struggling to fill the space it had. It took an ownership stake in Sears to delay its closing, and in 2016 did the same with Aeropostale. Last year, it bought Forever 21 out of bankruptcy, and in November agreed to pay $1.75 billion for bankrupt JCPenney.

Short term, Simon’s moves keep its malls looking good by preventing more vacancies. Long term, it’s giving the company more control over their future: Sears had previously owned its own buildings, but as part of the 2016 deal, Simon gained control.

Now it’s unveiled plans to demolish the Briarwood Sears. The company has made no formal announcement and did not return calls or emails–but a recent for-rent listing by Colliers International shows a four-story building on Sears’ site.

“I’ve been talking to Simon Properties to redevelop Briarwood for this kind of use the past four or five years,” says commercial real estate broker Jim Chaconas, who runs Colliers’ Ann Arbor office. “Big tech and other large companies want to do business in our town, and downtown doesn’t have the space, parking, or housing options they need.”

“Developers are looking at how to repurpose old, underperforming mall space,” says Neil Saunders, managing director and retail analyst at GlobalData Retail. “They put those plans on hold early in the pandemic, but now the dust is settling, and they’re starting to look at those plans more seriously again.”

Colliers is marketing the proposed LEED-certified building for research and development, office, or medical use. Rent is listed at $35 per square foot, with occupancy in 2023.

If it’s successful, the building will be just the first step in Simon’s post-Sears vision for Briarwood. The listing also shows a “proposed gourmet grocer” and a large block labeled “proposed residential.”

“There’s a view that mixed-use developments are a much more sustainable use of land than a retail-focused mall,” says Saunders. “This is especially so if housing is included.”

Ann Arbor-based Oxford Companies owns many properties nearby, including the landmark 777 Building. In a May 2019 Observer article, CEO Jeff Hauptman sketched a vision of a reimagined Briarwood as the center of a vibrant “suburban-urban” district.

This could be the beginning of that transformation–if Colliers can find tenants for the space. With the pandemic still out of control, Chaconas has yet to receive any serious inquiries.