It’s hard to conceive of a city that needs a new shopping mall in a country overpopulated with shopping sprawl.
Yet about 10 years ago, the Taubman Centers, the national mall developer, teamed up with the Benderson Development Company, a real estate firm with headquarters in Sarasota, to build the 880,000-square-foot Mall at University Town Center east of Sarasota, close to Interstate 75.
As it turned out, the timing could not have been worse. After the 2008 economic crisis, people stopped driving when they could and certainly stopped shopping with any gusto. In the more than six years since the recession, only three major enclosed malls were built in the United States.
So far the Sarasota mall is doing well, according to William S. Taubman, the firm’s chief operating officer. Nevertheless, no one is disclosing numbers that would help measure any success for the mall, which opened in October.
Mr. Taubman credits the rising stock market, rather than the decline in gas prices, for motivating shoppers. “People don’t decide to buy a Chanel bag because the price of gas goes down 4 cents,” Mr. Taubman said in a telephone interview. “It has more to do with the stock market.”
The gleaming two-story mall is anchored by an 80,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue along with a Macy’s and a Dillard’s. Both Saks and Macy’s closed stores at nearby malls to open at the new mall. There is also a roster of brand-name stores including Michael Kors, Godiva, Apple and even a Tesla car showroom.
The upscale chain restaurant of choice these days is Capital Grille, which made its Sarasota debut at the mall. The Saks has a Sophie’s restaurant, named for the wife of Bernard Gimbel, one of the chain’s founders. Only two other Saks stores have a Sophie’s.
Sarasota County is leading a group that is developing a rowing park on a body of water next to the mall. “The 2017 world championship rowing competition will be held there,” said Mark Chait, executive director of leasing at Benderson, adding that Benderson intends to build hotels on the mall property.
The mall’s owners have reason to be optimistic. Sarasota’s tourist numbers have risen smartly, with many visitors from the Midwest, Britain and Canada, said Tom Heatherman, head of communications at Michael Saunders & Company, a real estate firm based in Sarasota.
In 2008, Sarasota attracted 769,000 tourists, measured by those who stayed in paid lodging, who spent an estimated $587 million. Last year, it lured 998,770 visitors, who spent an estimated $1.57 billion, according to Visit Sarasota County, which tracks tourism data for the county.
And where construction of new hotels had stalled, now a number of properties are on the schedule for the next several years. Among them are a Kimpton, a Westin and a Marriott.
A spate of construction on new high-priced apartments is also underway. At the Vue, which is expected to be completed in the next year and a half, prices for apartments range from $800,000 to well over $3 million, and the building is 85 percent sold.
Thomas B. Luzier, a real estate lawyer at Dunlap & Moran in Sarasota, says there has been a strong increase in the prices for high-end homes. They ranged from $1 million to $2 million, he noted, but recently there has been an increase in sales in the $2 million-to-$4 million range.
Many of the new hotels are in downtown Sarasota, however, not near the new mall. Jeff Green, an independent retail consultant in Phoenix, is not so certain about long-term prospects for the mall, which is about a 25-minute drive from St. Armands Circle, a popular tourist shopping area on a key.
St. Armands has the advantage of being a brand-name shopping destination near an affluent community and beaches, with a healthy mix of national and local stores, he said.
“What I question about the new mall site is that it is far from the affluent families who live on the coast,” he said. “How do you pull them past St. Armands all the way over to the east side?”
Because of St. Armands’s location, the mall is less likely to affect stores there than businesses in the city’s other malls, Mr. Green said. “It is not a very big pie to be sliced so many ways.”
But Mr. Taubman said he saw an opportunity. “We were looking for the customer who is making $100,000 and more. We thought we saw a hole in the market,” he said. “There was no dominant upscale mall. The area needed to be satisfied with a better shopping venue.”
The Mall at University Town Center is also accessible to a wide range of local shoppers, including families living at nearby Lakewood Ranch, a residential development with 9,000 homes. Heather Kasten, who heads the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, said the average household income at Lakewood Ranch was $100,000.
The mall seems carefully aimed at that market. It is not inundated with ultraluxury brands like Hermès so that a middle-income customer would feel uncomfortable shopping there, said D.J. Busch, an analyst at Green Street Advisors in Newport Beach, Calif., which follows the real estate industry.
“It is a little bit of a step down from the Taubmans’ traditional tenant, but still a middle- to upper-income customer,” Mr. Busch said.
“Tesla does not have to be the highest of the high end,” he said. “For those tenants, the mall would have a Maserati store. Taubman picks the right tenants very well. Taking the highest rent is not necessarily the best strategy for a center. They are careful about picking the appropriate tenants for that market.”
Despite the new hotels, the Ritz-Carlton is not likely to find new competition in the luxury category. Though its main hotel is not on the Gulf of Mexico, it has its own beach club in a city where there is not much beachfront property available for construction.
“If you have a luxury brand, you have to have beachfront,” said Herve Humler, president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.
A number of experts expect the tourist traffic at St. Armands to remain robust. The bigger question is the future for the Mall at University Town Center and the Main Street shopping area, which is on the mainland and not as close to the beaches and some of the upscale residential areas. The coming hotels are largely planned for the Main Street area, where there are national chain stores, including a Brooks Brothers and a J. McLaughlin, and some of Sarasota’s more popular restaurants.
“When Whole Foods came to Main Street, there was a thought that a more sophisticated customer would follow,” Mr. Green said. “Sur La Table did come, because they like to be near Whole Foods. But the sort of gentrification they were looking for is not occurring.” That may be partly because retailers are being lured to the new mall.
Norman Gollub, the downtown economic development coordinator for the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, counters that there is only a 5 percent vacancy rate downtown and the notion that the mall would hurt that market is not proving true.