Justine Griffin / Herald Tribune – The shopping scene in Southwest Florida is about to change as we know it, as retailers and mall operators brace for the entrance of a behemoth new player.
Opening in 53 days, the $315 million Mall at University Town Center — packed with tenants like Apple, Crate & Barrel and Saks Fifth Avenue — will become the most upscale retail center between Tampa and Naples and the only new traditional mall opening in the country.
“The uniqueness of the Sarasota market — getting a new mall when no one else is getting new malls — shows that the retail environment is in flux,” said Jeff Green, a retail analyst with Phoenix-based Jeff Green Partners who is familiar with the local shopping scene.
As a result, Westfield Group, the Australian mall operator behind Sarasota’s Southgate and Sarasota Square malls, is reinventing its properties in an effort to remain relevant.
The 880,000-square-foot Mall at University Town Center, developed by Michigan-based Taubman Centers and Manatee County’s Benderson Development, has poached several of Southgate’s key tenants, including its premier anchor, Saks. Others jumping ship are Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Gap, Cache, Express and Gymboree.
Even Francesca’s, a new women’s apparel and accessories retailer that opened in Southgate in March, has announced it will open a store in the Mall at University Town Center come October. Francesca’s was the first retailer to open a new, permanent store in the Westfield mall since Ziti, an Asian-Italian fusion restaurant, arrived in 2012.
To combat its new retail opponent, Southgate — for decades this area’s high-end shopping destination — plans to transform into an outdoor lifestyle center, mixing retail with dining and nightlife: a dine-in movie theater concept and new restaurants like BRAVO! Cucina Italiana.
Its new name: “Westfield Siesta Key.”
Westfield Group, a 55-year-old company with roots that reach back to the suburbs of Sydney, is no stranger to change, showing a remarkable ability to adapt to changing times, fierce competitors and new geographies.
“What you have here is a company with a serious global perspective on retail and development trends,” said Faith Hope Consolo, chairwoman of retail leasing with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York. “They are tough negotiators — what Westfield doesn’t do is quit.”
In fact, Westfield, which operates more than 100 malls, has a new way of reinventing properties, either by redeveloping existing centers to fit a different mold or adding unlikely tenants such as Costco or Target.
Its successful properties in California, which encompass residential towers and sometimes pair high-end tenants like Neiman Marcus with Target or Costco, have flourished, even as most traditional malls suffered after the Great Recession.
Two of its efforts are just up the road, in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
WESTFIELD CITRUS PARK
In Tampa, Westfield dominated the Hillsborough County high-end market with Citrus Park Mall, in a wealthy suburban neighborhood in Tampa.
But in 2001, Taubman Centers opened International Plaza, a game-changing upscale retail center in the Westshore district of Tampa — a mere 10 miles away.
Anchored by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom , and boasting a retail lineup that included an Apple store, a Cheesecake Factory and other popular brands, International Plaza attracted many of Citrus Park’s tenants.
But more than a decade later, Citrus Park Mall has endured, and it has no vacancies.
H&M — a trendy Swedish retailer selling fashionable apparel and accessories that will make its regional debut at the Mall at University Town Center — and a Paul Mitchell cosmetology school will open at Citrus Park later this year.
In 2007, the center added Dick’s Sporting Goods as a fourth anchor, joining Macy’s, Dillard’s, Sears and J.C. Penney.
The property also has a food court, Regal Cinemas and a Johnny Rocket’s diner.
Years after International Plaza opened, Citrus Park has the majority of its upscale tenants, among them Ann Taylor, Brookstone, Eddie Bauer, Sephora, Swavorski and White House Black Market. Many of Citrus Park’s retailers have stores in International Plaza, too.
The mall evolved to fit the needs of the suburban communities it serves in the Tampa area, offering a quick shop-and-dine experience for its customers. Shopping at International Plaza, which is in a high-traffic area of Tampa, can involve a daylong commitment.
“Today, the key word is ‘busy,’ ” said Shannon Brzuchalski, spokesman for Westfield Group in Tampa Bay. “Having a variety of shopping, entertainment and service outlets in one place saves consumers time and makes their life a little more enjoyable.
“We must constantly take the temperature of the community to find out what consumers want — and then deliver it,” Brzuchalski said. “You have to truly know your shopper to find your niche.”
WESTFIELD COUNTRYSIDE MALL
In Clearwater, Westfield’s Countryside Mall has transformed from an outdated enclosed shopping mall built in the mid-1970s, into a recently renovated center that blends entertainment with groceries, shopping and dining.
In 2009, the Australian company pumped $12 million into Countryside, a high-profile center near the Clearwater beach destinations that sits next to U.S. 19, a busy thoroughfare that stretches north from St. Petersburg.
Westfield claims that Countryside serves more than 9 million residents and tourists each year.
As a part of the renovation, the mall company added an outdoor streetscape corridor for restaurants, complete with valet parking.
Another $32 million went into the restaurant and the addition of a Cobb Theater 12, which opened in 2011.
A new mix of dining options, including a Bar Louie, BJ Brewhouse & Restaurant, Grimaldi’s Coal Fired Pizzeria, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and PF Chang’s China Bistro came in 2011 and 2012.
“Westfield has always been good at bringing the community mall,” said Green, the Phoenix-based retail analyst. “They reach out to the local communities they’re in and offer what they think they need.”
Westfield Countryside will welcome a Whole Foods Market later this year. The grocery store is taking over a part of the Sears on the west side of the mall. Sears has remained open, but renovated its space to fit a smaller mold.
“Countryside represents the first Westfield mall with a Whole Foods Market,” said Brzuchalski, the mall company spokeswoman. “Based on an international model, Westfield has added grocery stores to several malls in its portfolio.”
In Sarasota County, Costco arrived at Sarasota Square in 2012. Similar to Countryside, the mall operator pumped $50 million into the Sarasota center in 2005 when it added an AMC 12 movie theater and renovated the food court.
While Countryside Mall has evolved to offer more than the traditional shopping experience with its new line of dining and nightlife options, the center still has its iconic indoor ice skating rink.