Project is banking on right mix for success
By MARK ALBRIGHT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000
After limping back to health one new restaurant at a time, St. Petersburg's downtown revival is about to get its first big burst of new retail in decades.
But while BayWalk will bring first-run movies and new chain stores back downtown for the first time since the 1970s, this is neither a full-scale mall nor the reincarnation of the ill-fated upscale Bay Plaza project. It's an urban entertainment center, a relatively new-fangled shopping hybrid that doesn't have much of a track record.
And BayWalk's success is far from guaranteed, especially whenever the next recession puts a lid on discretionary spending.
Urban entertainment centers are chopped-down versions of festival marketplaces, those sprawling community gathering places built in the 1980s that rely on entertainment, restaurants and people spending a few bucks to kill time rather than serious shopping. Among the best-known are Underground Atlanta, Quincy Market in Boston and Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Festival marketplaces were built largely as tourist attractions, often in cities with few visitors, and as a result there were more misses than hits.
Although urban entertainment centers have only a third as many retail storefronts to fill, they face the same challenges: Paid parking. Higher tenant turnover and empty storefronts because restaurants and stores that rely on fickle tastes and pop culture trends come and go.
Managers live in constant fear that the moment their center doesn't look crowded, it will look dead, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Only a handful of urban entertainment centers have been built since a Florida prototype called CocoWalk debuted in Miami's Coconut Grove in 1990.
That's a project that has been copied with mixed results in South Florida and in Tampa's Centro Ybor and Channelside, as well as St. Petersburg's BayWalk. CocoWalk has survived its own ups and downs as tenants came and went. Other developers twice failed to expand CocoWalk's bounty with adjacent clones.
The formula is deceptively simple. A handful of trendy restaurants and balcony cafes are wrapped around a courtyard. Movie theaters with state-of-the-art sound, plush seats and stadium seating woo those turned off by the old neighborhood multiplex. Live music, fountains and lots of milling people give pedestrians the idea there's something to do inside. About two dozen retailers sell gifts, books, trendy apparel and other impulse items to people waiting to eat, catch a flick or just wander.
Urban entertainment centers have prospered at Mizner Park in Boca Raton and in the older downtown of Delray Beach.
But of three urban entertainment centers opened in Fort Lauderdale in 1998, one closed within a year and a second is riddled with vacant storefronts. In the teeming heart of Orlando's tourist corridor, Point Orlando has not been fully leased since it opened three years ago.
Still, developers aren't being suckered into building these projects by city planners' slick-looking drawings, favorable zoning and government subsidies. Americans' spending on travel and entertainment is growing at a far quicker pace than overall retail spending. So is spending during travel. Tourists' No. 1 diversion is shopping.
Another drawing card: The latest incarnation of the movie theater has made the older megaplexes obsolete. Once AMC Theaters opened a state-of-the-art theater in Oldsmar it shuttered older theaters at Clearwater and Countryside Malls.
This new type of town gathering place is getting a lift from some other trends. Many big developers are becoming followers of New Urbanism, a buzzword for anecdotal evidence that people are getting tired of the sameness and long commutes of suburban living. Many chain retailers and apartment builders are taking a fresh look at downtown locations where customers can live, work and play. Outdoor shopping on the human scale of Old Hyde Park Village in Tampa is gaining plenty of mall-building converts all over the country.
How this all translates to BayWalk is an unanswered question. Developers with the Sembler Co. hope to get about 40 percent of their business from tourists. St. Petersburg's downtown area has long been a draw for beach vacationers looking for something to do. Only recently, however, have tourists had enough options there to stretch the experience beyond an hour or two.
The opening of 25 new restaurants since 1997, new residential projects, local museum expansions and the seeds of nightlife sprouting downtown all bode well for BayWalk.
City officials are estimating BayWalk will draw 2-million people a year, about the same number as visit The Pier on the opposite flank of the downtown waterfront. After Centro Ybor's recent opening reception, Sembler, a partner in the Ybor City project, became more optimistic about BayWalk's drawing power. The developer is now forecasting up to 4-million visitors a year.
"I think we'll average about 10,000 people a day on a year-round basis," said Craig Sher, Sembler president and chief executive. "We were walking on eggshells about what was going to happen at Ybor, but the restaurants there have been doing 30 to 40 percent more business than they expected. There were two-hour lines to get into dish," a restaurant that also will be in BayWalk.
BayWalk has more parking than Centro Ybor. With 4,200 seats, BayWalk's Muvico theater will be the only stadium-seating theater within the city limits. While Ybor City frequently generates weekend crowds in the tens of thousands, downtown St. Petersburg hosted 17 events and festivals in 1999 that drew more than 10,000 people. "BayWalk will be jammed during all those events," said Sher.
Sembler, which made a fortune building suburban shopping centers, has a national reputation but only limited experience in developing other types of retail projects. Two decades ago the company belly-flopped in Melbourne with its first and only regional mall. A St. Augustine factory outlet center Sembler developed in the late 1980s was a big hit. The jury is still out on an unconventional four-story Sembler project in Atlanta that includes a three-story sporting goods store, a ground floor Publix and the first two-story Target anywhere -- all of it interwoven around a four-story parking garage.
Nonetheless, the St. Petersburg company has filled BayWalk with a mix of tenants designed to appeal to different market segments. Because Sembler hopes to get 60 percent of the center's business from Tampa Bay area residents, success hinges on how well the company understands its own hometown.
The BayWalk fare ranges from the urbane to basic burgers and a breakfast deli. Several restaurants will have window service for speedy lunches and outdoor seating. In addition to a courtyard stage, three of the restaurants are set up for live music. A handful of stores specialize in tourist retailing. The biggest gamble is the apparel stores. It was no small feat for Sembler to persuade apparel chains to set up shop in a downtown bereft of such retailers since Maas Brothers departed in 1991. But Sembler gave apparel stores just enough space so that success would send a signal for others in the herd-like garment trade to follow.
The proof of whether this urban entertainment center is a winner, however, will not be apparent when it is mobbed during the opening months or even the peak tourist season this winter. Most likely the real test will be which stores survive the doldrums of August and September 2001.
-- Mark Albright covers retail and tourism for the Times.
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