tampabay.com

The morphing of the mall

Now it's mostly outdoors. It might have condos or office spaces. And it will be called something like a "town center."

By Mark Albright
Published June 6, 2007


Just as Disney's Animal Kingdom promotes itself as not a zoo, I'm here to tell you Clearwater Mall is not a mall.

Once the original - with four department stores, air-conditioned corridors, food court and shiny stone floors - was replaced by Costco, SuperTarget and assorted big-box stores in an outdoor setting, the place stopped being a mall and became one more sign of changed times in retailing.

In the lingo of retail developers, Clearwater Mall is a super-regional open-air shopping center.

Yet government officials, media and shoppers continue to label as malls five similar projects proposed for the former Bay Area Outlet Mall in Largo, three new retail hubs in spontaneous development in Wesley Chapel and another destined for the Big Bend area in southern Hillsborough County.

Sorry to pop the bubble, but only one new enclosed mall opened in the United States in 2006. And not one is slated to open in 2007 or 2008 anywhere in the country, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Make no mistake, malls like Tampa's International Plaza, the last one to open here six years ago, will survive and prosper. There just won't be as many.

That's because retail developers nationwide have turned to open-air hybrids described as lifestyle centers, power centers or town centers.

They are mixed-use projects with some housing, small hotels, office space and restaurants laid out in a throwback bearing a striking resemblance to Central Plaza, a 1950s shopping center that covered six blocks of St. Petersburg.

The trend is less about fresh air over air conditioning. The driving force is space for big-box stores in a slicker package.

In one corner of the project, typically, there's a Main Street for smaller mall stores, boutiques and Starbucks. Some have offices or condos upstairs. The street is lined with what's called "teaser parking" so motorists drive a lap before realizing the empty spaces are in a vast lot out back.

But dominating center stage is a lineup of up to 15 big boxes.

The pattern mirrors local retail development that surrounded the big malls with centers full of big-box stores.

"There is as much retail space within a mile of the big malls now as inside them, " said Patrick Berman, who heads the retail brokerage at Cushman & Wakefield in Tampa.

Developers are flocking to build them instead of malls because they are easier to fill, need not be built all at once and are cheaper to rent and operate. Department stores adopted their stores to fit because, as one top JCPenney executive once told me: "That's all they are building."

Malls are about leisurely shopping trips, smaller stores with edited selections and department stores' ability to draw a crowd.

But don't give developers all the credit or blame. Stores are a reflection of consumers. Big boxes flourish thanks to an explosion of products, the rise of discount stores, demands for one-stop, self-service shopping and consumers' insistence on getting in and out fast.

"In a mall, Barnes & Noble was happy with 2, 000 square feet, " said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "Now they want 21, 000 square feet and parking out front so shoppers get in and out quickly."

Want a preview? Go to Fort Myers. That's where Simon Property Group, which locally owns Gulf View Square and Tyrone Square malls, recently opened Town Center at Coconut Point. And that's where Richard E. Jacobs Group, which is developing Cypress Creek Town Center in Wesley Chapel, opened Gulf Coast Town Center.

The buildings are chipped block, stucco and barrel tile. There are fountains, an outdoor stage and public sculpture.

But comparison shopping is harder because most big boxes get exclusive leases. So it's either a Best Buy or Circuit City, a Dick's Sporting Goods or a Sports Authority, an Office Depot or a Staples, Linens 'n Things or Bed Bath and Beyond.

People don't walk from store to store. They drive.

Said Cushman & Wakefield's Berman: "It's the 1950s again."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.