Justine Griffin / Herald-Tribune – I knew when I strolled down the aisleway at the Mall at University Town Center for the first time earlier this month — looking past the empty, half-completed storefronts and the plywood panels on the floor — that the mall looked and felt familiar.
So I traveled to Orlando and Tampa to get a feel for Taubman Centers’ other properties in Florida, the ones that have had the greatest influence on the look, feel and tenant mix on Southwest Florida’s newest retail hub.
Taubman Centers hired the same architect that built and designed Mall at Millenia to come up with the look for UTC. The Orlando mall’s timeless design, seen in its sleek glassware and beautiful overhead skylights, has been replicated inside the Mall at UTC.
“For decades, Taubman Centers espoused a design policy of building relatively subdued malls, though with great materials, to better showcase the retailers,” said Faith Hope Consolo, chairwoman of retail leasing with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York. “While other companies were building faux environments, Taubman maintained this practice.
“Today, the centers are more architecturally striking, but Taubman’s projects are still all about the retailers.”
At the Mall at Millenia, the center’s premier restaurants — PF Chang’s, Capital Grille, Cheesecake Factory and Brio Tuscan Grill — are built into the mall, almost exactly like what you see when looking at the main entrance of the Mall at UTC.
Brio and the Cheesecake Factory are accessible from inside the Orlando mall’s main entrance (whereas Cheesecake and Seasons 52 have mall entrances at UTC), adjacent to where shoppers are greeted by an elaborate fountain which leads to the mall’s central atrium.
“The new mall in Sarasota is going to be smaller and less upscale than Millenia,” said Jeff Green, Phoenix-based retail analyst. “Millenia is always busy, too. It’s well placed in Orlando, so it has a strong tourist draw.
Green estimates that nearly 40 percent of the mall’s foot traffic comes from tourists, despite Orlando having several other retail offerings, including Florida Mall near the airport and two large outlet properties.
Early estimates show that the Mall at UTC will attract 1.2 million shoppers from St. Petersburg to Fort Myers.
Unlike UTC, the Mall at Millenia has far more upscale tenants. Tucked strategically between Bloomingdale’s and Nieman Marcus department stores, are two floors of high-end brands like Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Armani, Coach, Jimmy Choo, Tory Burch, Rolex, Prada and Burberry.
At the mall’s other wing are a blend of more affordable, but still well-known brands like Journeys, Gamestop, H&M, Urban Outfitters and Microsoft.
Instead of a B&B Burger and Beer Joint and Kona Grill, Millenia has a Panera Bread and California Pizza Kitchen inside the mall.
Macy’s — three stories of merchandise — is unlike any Macy’s department store in Sarasota County, with stuff for every kind of shopper.
Mall at Millenia is tucked along Interstate 4 in between downtown Orlando and Central Florida’s many theme parks, and sandwiched between the city’s two premier outlet malls. Just east of the luxury mall is an Ikea.
As shoppers exit I-4 onto Conroy Road, they’re dumped into a retail corridor not unlike Sarasota’s University Parkway. Nordstrom Rack, Best Buy, Super Target and a DWS Shoe Warehouse are across the street from the mall. A neighboring plaza hosts a Party City, Ulta and Old Navy.
Restaurants like BJ’s Brewhouse and Jimmy John’s are set in between retailers.
Just beyond this cluster of shopping and dining are residential neighborhoods: condominiums, apartments and townhouses and homes.
It looks, to me, as a more fully developed Lakewood Ranch.
Meanwhile, in Tampa, International Plaza has been the place to shop for more than a decade.
Southwest Florida shoppers have flocked to the retail center near Tampa International Airport since it opened with high-end stores like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.
Even though Southwest Florida still doesn’t have the same appeal for luxury department stores (outside of an expanded Saks Fifth Avenue with a new Sophie’s restaurant,) the opening of the new mall will definitely impact the number of shoppers who regularly travel to Tampa to shop.
“The Sarasota center will be more reminiscent of Millenia, which is a touch more upscale than International Plaza,” Consolo said. “But not by much. What all Taubman centers will have is the best in each class that is appropriate to that market. Taubman builds and acquires in top demographics. Their centers attract the affluent and aspirational shoppers.”
International Plaza is different kind of retail animal: it is the true definition of a “shopping destination.”
The mall has something for everyone, with a blend of upscale to affordable retailers, a food court and an outdoor streetscape that stays open late with restaurants and bars.
Bay Street feels more like Citywalk at Universal Studios in Orlando. It’s hard to believe that it’s part of the mall. When the mall closes, Bay Street stays alive late into the night, offering options at The Pub and dining experiences at restaurants like Cheesecake Factory and others.
This spring, International Plaza welcomed Lifetime Athletic & Spa, a country club-esque fitness center with full spa amenities in between Dillard’s and Nordstrom. The members-only club was the last piece of the puzzle for the retail hub, which partners with the neighboring Renaissance hotel for shuttle transportation to and from the airport.
“International is hard to compare to Sarasota because it’s much larger and more expansive,” Green said. “Taubman has perfected its technique in appealing to the higher end luxury shopper. As a company, they’re really getting back to the roots, which is being a strong high-end mall owner with lots of customer bells and whistles.”
The mall’s impressive concierge desk offers currency exchange — umbrellas when it’s raining and restaurant reservations for shoppers. They even stock bandages for ladies shopping in uncomfortable shoes.
The Mall at University Town Center is similar to International Plaza in its mix of tenants.
UTC will have some high-end stores, but more affordable brands, too.
But hopefully some of the Tampa’s concierge elements make it to Southwest Florida, too.