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Village struggles to remain optimistic

Old Hyde Park Village has reached a crossroads. Some say the 17-year-old center needs to evolve to survive.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 1, 2002


HYDE PARK -- Old Hyde Park Village opened in 1985 as one of the first shopping centers in the nation to feature specialty stores, restaurants and townhouses in an open-air, upscale setting.

Jacobson's department store, with its imported marble and plush furnishings, starred as the main attraction. Then came Banana Republic, Ann Taylor and other big firsts for the Tampa Bay area.

Within a few years, shopping center managers reported that for every tenant they signed, they turned down 10 who didn't fit the concept. Neighbors quickly turned from protesters to shoppers.

Seventeen years later, Jacobson's is gone. Banana Republic has given notice and others are thinking about it. One representative of the owner, Madison Marquette, describes the situation as "dire."

The shopping center at Swann and Dakota avenues stands at a crossroad. Can it attract and keep tenants that draw the crowds? Or will it lose out to new shopping destinations, such as International Plaza and Channelside?

Village officials cling to optimism, buoyed by the City Council's decision last week to allow more types of businesses to move in.

Tenant traffic isn't exclusively outbound. New shops come as others go.

Take Christy Shivel. After more than a year of researching retail centers, she chose Old Hyde Park Village to start her dream business, an orchid shop. The Wild Orchid opened Oct. 17 across from the Blackhawk Coffee Cafe.

So far, she's meeting sales goals.

"I've had a really good response," she said. "People are very excited about the store and they are happy to have it."

Shivel picked Hyde Park because of foot traffic and apparent sales. She spent several afternoons sitting in the village noting how many shoppers carried bags.

Given the tough economic times, she expresses no regrets about signing a lease.

"Considering the circumstances, I think Hyde Park is doing well," she said. "I don't think any of the shopping areas are getting as much traffic as they used to."

Longtime tenants acknowledge a slump. About two dozen signed a letter asking council members to support the rezoning, which neighbors opposed.

"With empty stores, Hyde Park will become a haven for the homeless and crime will increase," wrote Sheila Kopelman, owner of Stationery Square.

Charlie Purcell, manager of Nicholson House, said the gift store has done well in the past eight years, and only lately has he noticed a decline. He doesn't blame the location. The Nicholson store at International Plaza feels the economy, too.

Purcell prefers to take a wait-and-see attitude. He sees a prosperous future for the village, starting with the Christmas rush.

"I don't think it will actually die," he said. "It's unique. People like to walk around. They just put lights in the trees, and it's really looking good."

With new zoning in place, shopping center officials said they hope to announce a tenant for the Jacobson's site by year's end. A large bookstore surfaced as a possibility. So did Lifestyle Family Fitness and Crate & Barrel.

Rezoning paved the way for a number of potential tenants, including a hotel, medical offices or a grocery store. Previous zoning limited the Jacobson's site to a department store and the AMC 7 movie house to a theater.

"A lot things were hanging in the balance," said marketing director Heather LaBrecque. "We're excited about having the opportunity to be really serious with our potential tenants."

Mall industry experts say Hyde Park's struggles aren't unique. Shopping centers across the country are looking for ways to stay profitable.

"Everyone is having a very difficult time. No one is doing superbly well," said Patrice Duker, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, which has 40,000 members worldwide. "Consumers are cutting back a little and going shopping because they need something, not because they want something."

Mixed-use centers face a particularly tough time when they lose an anchor, she said. While traditional malls can choose from large department stores and discounters, Hyde Park Village needs smaller, more exclusive retailers.

The centers' success depends on the demographics of neighbors and the mix of tenants.

Hyde Park may be feeling its age, Duker said, and may need to evolve to survive.

The winning formula is elusive.

"They were the first kid on the block and, unfortunately, they have to be the first kid going through the reinventing," she said. "It's a challenge."

Shopping centers have no natural life span but generally need a facelift every eight or 10 years, she said. They often beef up the common areas, expand the food court or add new stores.

Competition doesn't necessarily spell doom, Duker said. Older, successful malls dot the country. In Minnesota, for example, a 40-year-old center prospers in the shadow of Mall of America, the nation's largest shopping and entertainment complex.

"Some people like small centers," she said.

In the Tampa Bay area, about 3-million square feet of retail space has opened since Madison Marquette took over Old Hyde Park Village in 1998. Many of Hyde Park's firsts have second, even third, stores in the region. Hyde Park's once state-of-the-art theaters are now obsolete.

"Our own successes have caused our own failures," said City Council chairman Charlie Miranda, during the rezoning request. "But unfortunately that's the way of life."

No matter what happens to the Hyde Park retail area, the future of the adjoining townhomes seems secure. Like many South Tampa properties, the units have doubled in price during the past several years and don't take long to sell.

Although the housing market has slowed somewhat, demand for the townhomes holds steady, said Marilyn Bergman, a South Tampa real estate agent. People like the charm of Hyde Park and the proximity to stores and restaurants.

Unless the Village goes completely dark, Bergman expects the units to remain popular. The shops are just a piece of the puzzle.

"I don't think the shopping center necessarily drives the real estate there," she said. "I don't think the loss of tenants would make people say, 'I think I'm going to move, because I can no longer walk to Williams-Sonoma,' " she said.

Rob Barrow bought a townhome on Rome Avenue in 1994, largely because of the location. He frequents the stores, the restaurants and the monthly music festivals.

Barrow hasn't seen a lot of turnover but says the units generally sell within a few months. And for a good price. He estimates his 2,200-square-foot unit is worth about $325,000, up from $160,000.

As head of the Old Hyde Park Village Residential and Commercial Association, Barrow supported the rezoning as essential to attracting new tenants. He considers the current lull just temporary.

"We're not concerned about the Village going under by any means," he said. "It's just weathering the storm."

-- Staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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