Malls, Money and Moonbeam

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Investigation

Moonbeam companies amassed a portfolio of malls across the country, including Century III, then left a trail of unpaid taxes and empty, decaying buildings

By Michael Korsh and Neena Hagen   |   Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

June 20, 2024

Steven Maksin’s real estate empire was forged in the world of shopping malls and the flow of investment dollars that would lead him on a cross-country buying spree.

The company that he founded purchased the Burlington Center Mall in 2012, a sprawling New Jersey facility that once boasted an indoor fountain shaped like an African elephant and decked out with lava rocks and palm trees.

The next year, one of his subsidiaries purchased Century III Mall, a massive retail icon of the 1980s in the heart of the Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin.

Within months, another company that he led bought the Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, Ga., and the ShoppingTown Mall in a bustling commercial corridor just outside Syracuse, N.Y. Soon, more deals were struck to buy shopping centers in Nevada and South Carolina.

In just four years, the longtime attorney and his affiliated companies amassed a portfolio of 19 shopping centers that were built with enough steel and concrete to fill eight Acrisure Stadiums. Called a “visionary” by one community leader in Burlington, N.J., he pledged to make the malls major destination sites — once appearing on CNN, where he promised “thousands and thousands of jobs.”

Malls purchased by Moonbeam and affiliates

From 2011 to 2014, Moonbeam Capital and its subsidiaries purchased 19 malls and shopping centers in more than 10 states. While many of these properties were acquired with plans for revitalization, not all remain under Moonbeam's ownership today.

Date purchased     2011     2012     2013    2014

Date purchased
2011     2012     2013

The founder of Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC, a private equity fund that specializes in purchasing distressed properties for investors with the goal of turning them around, Mr. Maksin was named to a coveted advisory board at New York University’s business school and he endowed a scholarship at his alma mater, Kingsborough Community College.

But a decade later, the business that he directs and built into a vast real estate network has left a trail of empty, hulking shells across the country — retail centers that were once economic engines but have since racked up millions in unpaid property taxes, liens and a litany of building violations in places that were once celebrated as town centers, an investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has found.

Nowhere was the rot more rampant than at West Mifflin’s abandoned Century III Mall.

Touted as the third-largest mall in the world when it opened in 1979, the massive facility was plagued for years by smashed storefronts, widespread mold and a roof precariously caving in before work crews began tearing down the structure in March under a court order.

After the company failed for years to address the spate of code violations — including severe fire hazards — the Allegheny County district attorney launched an investigation and then filed criminal charges against the firm in January for endangering the surrounding community in one of the first cases of its kind in the county.

“The deterioration is beyond belief,” West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly said. “It’s an eyesore. It’s a hazard. It’s life-threatening.”

Sprawl and decay
Century III Mall's interior, as it looked last year. (Courtesy of West Mifflin Borough Council)

Local elected leaders met earlier this month with the company to discuss a redevelopment plan once the mall is razed, but there are no proposals in place and a court fight continues to be waged between the local government and the company over tens of thousands of dollars in fines and code violations on the shopping center.

While most of the retail centers owned by companies that Mr. Maksin oversees remain open — including malls in Ocoee, Fla., Columbia, S.C., and Greeley, Colo. — other centers in a half-dozen communities continue to draw harsh criticism from local leaders who claim the properties have been left to languish.

In one case, lawyers for a tenant in a mall near Syracuse, N.Y., went to court in 2019 and demanded that Mr. Maksin be jailed if he refused to obey a court order and pay millions of dollars in late taxes and penalties.

ShoppingTown Mall: Contempt... by Anonymous BiAO47pl7

A state judge ordered the company to pay the taxes, saying it “totally lack[ed] any semblance of good faith in dealing with its obligation” to come up with the money.

The case ended after Mr. Maksin’s company, which protested the county’s valuation of the property, agreed to sell the mall for $3.5 million to Onondaga County and be released from the taxes, interest and late fees — about $13 million.

Mr. Maksin did not respond to repeated interview requests or to detailed questions sent to his New York law firm by the Post-Gazette.

Older malls across the country have been closing for years, partly because of the loss of shoppers and competition from online retailers.

But land-use experts interviewed by the Post-Gazette say the case of Moonbeam and its affiliated companies is a troubling example of what can go wrong when owners fail to meet their obligations and communities are forced to deal with sprawling, deteriorating buildings that are left behind.

Steven Maksin. (George Kash)

“Their strategy was to pay cash for assets, not invest back in them, bleed the rents, and then leave a vacant, decrepit parcel,” said Ryan McMahon, the Onondaga County executive.

“We knew the right thing to do was to divorce ourselves from Moonbeam in our community. But now, we’re still reaping some of the lack of investment and the chaos they created.”

By the time the companies were falling behind in fixing problems with the shopping malls — including three that filed for bankruptcy since 2018 — Mr. Maksin had emerged as an expert in the world of retail real estate.

He shuttles between a high-rise condo in Trump World Tower valued at $9 million — complete with 11-foot ceilings — and another condo overlooking the iconic Las Vegas strip that features a 16-car garage, a 24-foot grand foyer and floor-to-ceiling inlaid marble, property listings show.

A decade ago, one of his companies purchased a palatial 12,800-square-foot mansion with a sweeping view of Biscayne Bay in Bal Harbour, Fla. — featuring a glass elevator, a private waterfall, a movie theater, dual infinity pools and a towering portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

A company headed by Steven Maksin bought this mansion, "Villa Magnolia," in 2013, featuring a private waterfall, a movie theater, a wine room, and two infinity pools. (Luis Lacau/For the Post-Gazette)

Before it was sold to a land trust two years ago for $27.8 million — more than twice the amount that was paid for the estate — a CNBC show called it the “most expensive mansion in Bal Harbour.”

For years, Mr. Maksin swept into several of the communities where his companies were buying shopping malls, granting interviews to reporters about the promising future of retail and aging malls and their critical role in spurring economic development.

“We will make this a destination area,” he said to a public gathering in Burlington, N.J., in 2014. “And once you’re here, you should want for nothing.”

Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, the 57-year-old lawyer arrived in the United States in 1989 and spent the following decade ascending the country’s education system: first community college, then a business degree, law degree, and a final master’s of law in taxation.

Shuttered storefronts inside the Burlington Center Mall on April 12, 2017. (John Taggart/The New York Times)
Spending spree

Mr. Kelly, the mayor of West Mifflin, said he is perplexed that Mr. Maksin was able to buy expensive homes while companies under his control failed to pay their taxes or make basic repairs.

“It’s disgraceful,” he said, adding that plans to upgrade Century III fizzled out years ago. “You would have to wear a hazmat suit to go in there right now.”

The investigation launched by the Allegheny County district attorney took place after years of frustration by local leaders over the continued deterioration of the mall that reached $240,000 in fines for code violations. In addition to examining the company’s local activities, the district attorney’s office has been scrutinizing Moonbeam’s ownership structure.

The district attorney’s office declined comment last week because charges are still pending.

West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly, left, discusses Century III Mall Jan. 30 at the Allegheny County Courthouse. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is at right. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

Edward Sklyaroff, a longtime business associate of Mr. Maksin and an officer in several of the Moonbeam companies, said in an email to the Post-Gazette that many of the purchases went into “non-performing real estate assets” that have “suffered significant decline under prior ownership.”

“It is a very difficult and lengthy process to turn such properties around,” he wrote.

Much of the Moonbeam portfolio was built quickly, with seven malls purchased in 2012 alone at prices that were far from the staggering costs of today’s luxury retail centers.

After buying the Greeley Mall in Colorado for about $6 million in 2012, Moonbeam subsidiaries purchased other retail centers that same year in New Jersey for $4.4 million, in Iowa for $4.1 million and Indiana for $6.5 million, among other retail outlets, records show.

The next year, a subsidiary of Moonbeam Capital Investments bought Century III Mall — already saddled with a high vacancy rate — for $10.5 million in a deal that local officials had hoped would help turn around the once-vibrant center.

For local community leaders, “it was like hitting the lottery,” recalled Mr. Kelly.

Mr. Sklyaroff, who headed up the subsidiary known as Century III Mall PA LLC, did not respond to questions about the mall or to the events that took place that led to its demise.

The year after the mall was purchased by the Moonbeam subsidiary, bank fraud experts at JP Morgan Chase flagged hundreds of thousands of dollars sent by Mr. Sklyaroff to overseas accounts — one in the Czech Republic — according to suspicious activity reports filed with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Although there’s no indication the money had anything to do with the purchase of the Century III or illegal activities, the transactions raised enough concerns among internal officers at the bank in New York that they launched an inquiry.

The confidential report, obtained by the Post-Gazette, shows that between August 2013 and April 2014, Mr. Sklyaroff facilitated 19 wire transfers to a financial services company — totaling $1.8 million — that his bank, JP Morgan Chase, labeled as “suspicious” and having “no apparent economic, business or lawful purpose.”

In an email to the Post-Gazette, Mr. Sklyaroff confirmed he has “a strong business relationship” with JP Morgan Chase, but did not respond to questions about the report filed with FinCEN, which is part of the U.S. Treasury.

When the company took over the Burlington Center Mall in 2012, the once-thriving marquee retail outlet in an upscale suburb of Philadelphia had been deteriorating for years, records and interviews show. The previous owners had failed to invest in the property — leading to massive overgrowths and blight — and eventually defaulted on a $15 million mortgage.

“At one point, there was a guy out there with a lawnmower, holding it sideways to cut the bushes. That’s how pathetic it got,” said Paul Lucca, who owned an eyewear store in the mall.

Burlington Center was a prime target for the self-described resuscitator of ailing properties: The company paid $4.4 million for the mall.

ShoppingTown Mall in DeWitt closed in 2020. Three years later, weeds grow in the parking lot. (Rick Moriarty/Syracuse Post-Standard)
Plans go bust

Two years later, Mr. Maksin himself came to town, unveiling a $230 million master plan to transform the decrepit structure, describing it as “one of the largest and most exciting projects on the East Coast, and the most successful.”

Greeted by leaders of the town’s chamber of commerce, he held a banquet in the center of the mall, displaying artistic renderings of the redevelopment plans over trays of food and glasses of champagne, Mr. Lucca recalled.

Mr. Lucca said he spent $50,000 installing new glass windows and tile floors in his store to prep for the upcoming developments, at Moonbeam officials’ urging.

“They told me if I didn’t make my store look better for all the stuff that was coming, they were going to either relocate me or kick me out,” he said.

Moonbeam announced plans to renovate and expand the Burlington Mall. ([Camden, N.J.] Courier-Post, March 15, 2014)

But Mr. Maksin’s plans never came to fruition.

In 2016, the company cited complicated lease agreements as it announced a delay in the redevelopment, which was set to start earlier that year.

The next year, Mr. Maksin changed his message, telling TV reporters that there are “way too many malls,” and that drastic changes in the retail landscape forced the company to modify its plans.

“There was never any kind of movement on the mall,” said Kristi Howell, president and CEO of Burlington County’s regional chamber of commerce, who had called Mr. Maksin a “visionary” when he initially arrived in New Jersey. “There were lots of pictures, lots of talks and information sessions, but nothing to show for it. They never delivered on their promises.”

In 2017, Mr. Lucca moved his store out of New Jersey’s Burlington Center Mall — $250,000 in debt.

Ryan McMahon, Onondaga County executive, said conversations with Moonbeam executives "were never held in good faith." (Scott Schild/Syracuse [N.Y.] Post-Standard)

He said when he saw a worker for Moonbeam moving electrical transformers “from one part of the building to bring to the other part of the building, I knew they weren’t going to put any more money in.”

With the help of an angel investor, Mr. Lucca found a new storefront off U.S. Route 130, where his store, Vutt Optical, remains today.

He said he equates his time in the Moonbeam-owned mall to “a bad relationship.”

While Mr. Maksin’s companies were buying properties, he was facing his own legal battles in state court in New York.

For years, he and a fellow Moonbeam company officer were mired in a lawsuit filed in 2011 that accused them of defrauding investors of hundreds of thousands of dollars — allegations that they vehemently denied.

As part of the lawsuit, Mr. Maksin was accused of devising a “daisy chain” of shell companies, specifically LLCs, which allowed him and the other defendants to shield their identities as they allegedly fleeced people who had invested in a popular Russian restaurant and nightclub in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y.

“They had all these fictitious entities, and they make it very hard to track down who owes taxes, who to sue, who to hold accountable,” said Raymond Zuppa, a former county prosecutor in New York state who filed the complaint.

Mr. Maksin eventually sued the investors for defamation and malicious prosecution, stating that “the entire causes of action for fraud and RICO (Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations) violations were comprised wholly of false and malicious statements.”

The case involving the night club was ultimately dropped in 2015, but not before the two sides waged court fights that lasted more than four years.

By that point, Moonbeam’s portfolio had swelled to more than two dozen malls and other commercial properties — while a troubling pattern began to emerge.

At the ShoppingTown Mall near Syracuse, Moonbeam failed to pay the property taxes and penalties dating back years and totaling $15.5 million by 2020, records show.

The ShoppingTown Mall was nearly empty in July 2021. (Rick Moriarty/Syracuse Post-Standard)

Mr. McMahon, the county executive, said conversations with Moonbeam executives “were never held in good faith,” which caused county officials to raise questions about the company’s repeated promises.

“Our meetings left us somewhat uncomfortable about this ever getting resolved,” he said.

In 2018, with the threat of tax foreclosure imminent on the ShoppingTown Mall, local officials pressed company executives for an updated plan to rehab the structure, which was spiraling into disrepair and racking up numerous code violations, records and interviews show.

After months of continued pressure, the company submitted a plan similar to the one that was unveiled when Moonbeam bought the mall in 2014. The sketches included a library that had left the mall years earlier.

“It was like a sixth grader did it,” said Kerry Mannion, DeWitt’s deputy supervisor.

The former Salem Consumer Square shopping center in Trotwood, Ohio, looked empty on Dec. 13, 2023. (Shutterstock)
‘Brazen failure’

In May 2019, New York State Supreme Court Justice Anthony J. Paris issued a stern order to Moonbeam executives: Pay the taxes or give up the property.

“It is time to stop the bleeding of the County taxpayers who have so far footed the bill for [Moonbeam’s] brazen failure to pay its taxes,” Judge Paris wrote.

Three months later, the Moonbeam subsidiary that owned the ShoppingTown Mall filed for bankruptcy and said it was unable to come up with the more than $15 million it owed in back taxes and penalties.

“He had no long-term plan,” Mr. Mannion said. “All he really did was collect the rents and then pay himself.”

At West Mifflin’s Century III Mall, inspectors fined Moonbeam subsidiary Century III Mall PA LLC about $80,000 in September 2018 for code violation charges.

That same month, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Last year, a fire believed by local officials to be intentionally set ripped through the top floor in April, destroying part of the roof.

Three months later, the borough council unanimously voted to condemn the building — the first step in the process of tearing it down.

By the end of the year, the company had negotiated with the borough to lower the total fines for code violations from $240,000 to $150,000, which remain unpaid.

For the past two months, work crews and a fleet of cranes and crushers have descended on the property, tearing down the structure into piles of rubble.

So far, borough officials said nearly half of the parking deck has been razed, but they expect the entire job to take 18 months. The company will bear the cost, estimated at $13 million.

At Salem Consumer Square in Trotwood, Ohio — where about 1 in 4 residents live below the poverty line — Mr. Maksin’s company left the property with a collapsed roof, along with several other building hazards noted by local officials, records show.

After failing to make repairs for years, Moonbeam’s subsidiary, Salem Consumer Square OH LLC, filed for bankruptcy in January 2021.

Two weeks after the filing, Mr. Maksin purchased another Florida residence: a $6 million, 6,500-square-foot oceanfront condo in Sunny Isles Beach, just miles from the mansion in Bal Harbour.

The entrance to the Gwinnett Place Mall, now mostly closed. (Shutterstock)

In Duluth, Ga., the Gwinnett Place Mall bled more than 82% of its property value during a Moonbeam affiliate’s ownership — a loss of more than $12 million, according to county tax records.

At one point, a Gwinnett County economic development leader led a drive to rid the mall of the company’s ownership.

“They talk and talk and talk and do nothing,” Nick Masino told an audience of business leaders at a community forum.

Construction workers demolish a parking deck at Century III Mall on June 12. (Benjamin B. Braun/Post-Gazette)
Taking risks

In 2018 — with the mall nearly empty — police found the corpse of a 19-year-old woman that had been decomposing for two weeks inside the facility. Her death was ruled a homicide.

In New Jersey, local officials were forced to expedite closing the Burlington Center Mall after a pipe froze and burst in 2018, completely flooding the deteriorating structure.

The next year, Moonbeam sold the barren mall to a Texas real estate investment firm for just over $20 million — nearly six times the purchase price.

Despite the return, Mr. Maksin was quoted in a local news story as saying the 97-acre plot was a blight on the community.

“The cancer is the empty mall,” Mr. Maksin told The Star-Ledger newspaper upon announcing the sale. “We sold it as a land deal. Nobody cared about the mall.”

In an email, Mr. Sklyaroff said Moonbeam companies have succeeded in attracting new tenants to at least four of their shopping malls, including a luxury car museum at the Greeley Mall, and two of their office complexes, one of which includes a training facility for the Nevada State police in Las Vegas.

Though Mr. Sklyaroff said taking on distressed properties — many in foreclosure — can be difficult and time-consuming, questions abound among West Mifflin officials over why the company purchased so many older malls at a time when such centers were losing shoppers.

Despite numerous efforts from the Post-Gazette, neither Mr. Maksin nor other company officials responded to questions about why the firm did not pay the taxes and fines at some of its centers.

Albert Saiz, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Urban Economics Lab, said some real estate companies specialize in taking risks on underperforming properties, but they need to be capitalized to take on the losses or they can create greater problems for local governments.

The companies ultimately have to be able to pay the taxes and ensure the buildings are up to code, he said.

Birds fly by the remains of Century III Mall at dusk on June 12. (Benjamin B. Braun/Post-Gazette)

Megan Horst, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, said it’s critical that local leaders and private investors look for ways that aging malls can be salvaged.

What’s not clear is whether local governments screen investors enough when they come to town to determine whether the businesses were financed enough to meet their obligations. Moonbeam and its affiliates are private companies and do not have to publicly disclose their funding sources.

“City leaders, planners, community members, and others should be demanding more of property owners of major properties,” she said.

In Portland, she pointed to a plan approved by local leaders to revitalize an aging mall northeast of downtown: 5,000 new housing units, along with restaurants, an office campus and green space.

Older shopping malls will continue to decline across the country in the years ahead, and in many cases, the burden ultimately falls on the local government, experts said.

Mr. Sklyaroff said he remains “confident that we will succeed in the redevelopment of Century III Mall.”

But after years of watching the mall deteriorate, Dan Davis, a West Mifflin council member, said he has serious questions about whether the company will fully commit to any such plan.

“Anything that they were doing, we couldn’t believe in them,” he said. “We have been asking for 10-plus years. Over all this time, the assessed value of that property has kept going down and down.”

Bloomberg investigative reporter Jason Leopold shared the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network’s suspicious activity reports for this story.

Michael Korsh:

Neena Hagen:, 267-593-9716


Michael Korsh
Neena Hagen

Photos / Video

Benjamin B. Braun
Esteban Marenco


James Hilston
Laura Malt Schneiderman


Laura Malt Schneiderman

Top video

Tim Robbibaro/For the Post-Gazette
James Hilston