The Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line Expressway has been slowly strangling retail trade in the city of Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, for 15 years.
Since the opening of the bridge and tunnel link in 1997, local traders have watched helplessly as shoppers have disappeared off toward the bright lights of Tokyo and Yokohama, just 45 minutes away.
Now, a new outlet mall is raising hopes that the flow of traffic might be reversed.
The Mitsui Outlet Park Kisarazu will open on April 13 next to the Kisarazu-Kaneda Interchange, with 171 stores and 28,000 square meters of floor space, including 21 brands opening their first branches in Japan.
Its operator, Mitsui Fudosan Co., hopes it will eventually grow to 200 to 250 stores and become one of the largest outlet malls in Japan.
The mall is mainly targeting customers across the bay in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture. Travel time for highway buses from JR Tokyo, Yokohama and Kawasaki stations is about 45 minutes, and Mitsui Fudosan expects that “75 percent of customers will come via the Aqua-Line.” Another source of customers could be Chinese tourists because Haneda Airport is only about 25 minutes away.
Kisarazu city officials are predicting that around 5 million people a year will visit the outlet mall.
"Folks coming on the Aqua-Line from across the bay used to just pass through Kisarazu," said Mayor Isao Mizukoshi. "Finally we'll be able to keep them from doing that."
The Aqua-Line connection opened in 1997 amid high hopes on the Kisarazu side of Tokyo Bay. Land prices skyrocketed before construction started in 1989, but were then punctured by the collapse of Japan’s asset-inflated "bubble" economy.
The expensive one-way toll of 4,000 yen ($49.50) limited traffic on the Aqua-Line from Kanagawa Prefecture and Tokyo, but the traffic in the other direction was substantial, with many locals using highway buses to go shopping in Yokohama and Tokyo.
In 2000, three years after the line opened, the Kisarazu Sogo department store closed. Shuttered stores became a common sight in the streets around Kisarazu Station.
The city's retail sales dropped 20 percent from 157.1 billion yen in 1997 to 123.4 billion yen in 2002, and the price of commercial land in downtown Kisarazu fell between 27 and 28 percent year-on-year from 2000 to 2003, the fastest decline in Japan for four straight years.
Land that cost 1.98 million yen per square meter in 1990 fell to 61,100 yen, or 3 percent of that amount, in 2011.
There have been signs of hope in recent years. A reduction of the Aqua-Line's toll started to increase the flow of visitors, and traffic volume jumped by 50 percent in 2009, when a pilot program charging just 800 yen for standard-sized cars equipped with the electronic toll collection system was introduced.
According to official land prices on Jan. 1, the city's commercial land prices increased by an average of 0.3 percent last year while residential land rose by 0.1 percent, despite a general fall in land prices in Chiba Prefecture following the Great East Japan Earthquake.
"With the opening of the outlet mall, we can finally use the Aqua-Line. This is our last chance to fight back," a Kisarazu official said.
"It'll become an option for people in Kanagawa when they go out shopping," added Eiji Kitada, the head of the Hamagin Research Institute's research department. "People just went to Chiba for leisure before, so this may lead to them doing something new."
But Hiroshi Yoshida, the chairman of Kisarazu downtown district's shopping arcade promotion association, sounded a note of caution: "We need financing to do things that will attract customers, but we don't have the strength to do that anymore."
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