Saturday, September 28, 2002

New owners, new theme give hope to Forest Fair

'Shoppertainment' old mall's new idea

By Randy Tucker,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FOREST PARK — Forest Fair Mall will undergo a name change and major redevelopment over the next two years that is expected to help the once-flagging shopping center reach its potential as a super-regional mall.

        That redevelopment won't just include a new look. It will also include a new emphasis on entertainment — something that's such a hallmark of other malls owned by the Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va., that the company has a trademark on the term “shoppertainment.”

[photo] A wing of the Forest Fair Mall as it looked Friday, with few stores and fewer shoppers.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Getting people to spend more time shopping by adding entertainment to malls is an idea that's becoming an imperative as retail stores fight against Internet sellers.

        It's also not a new idea, starting a decade ago with the Mall of America, the suburban Minneapolis complex.

        Mills has put its own twist on that theme — putting an ESPN X-Games Skatepark inside its suburban Atlanta mall. Its Grapevine, Texas, mall outside Dallas has an ice skating rink.

        Mills officials, who earlier this week agreed to pay $69.4 million to Miami-based Gator Investments for Forest Fair, said Friday that plans for renovations are in the early stages and have not been finalized.

        But when the Cincinnati area's largest enclosed mall opens under its new name, Cincinnati Mills, it will have many of the same stores, amenities and entertainment offerings as Mills' 13 other megamalls.

        “It will definitely have a Mills identity,” said Dennis Connolly, the mall operator's vice president and senior development director. “We'll be bringing more entertainment into the mix, and we'll really become a destination.”

        Elements of recent Mills' projects include multiplex movie theaters, manufacturers' outlets and themed restaurants.

   Location: Arlington Va.
   Operations: Owns 13 large malls throughout the country. Average size is 1.4 million square feet, roughly equivalent to Tri-County Mall in size. Each has 175 or more stores, and 12 to 22 large anchor stores. First mall was Potomac Mills near Washington in 1985. Under development are malls in Denver, Toronto, St. Louis, New Jersey, San Francisco and Madrid, Spain.
   Designs: The Mills malls are built in a racetrack format, with the main concourse in an oval shape.
   Store mix: Mills centers combine discounters, specialty stores, catalog stores and category killers. Forest Fair features several stores that are typical tenants of Mills centers, including Bass Pro Shops and Off 5th-Saks Fifth Avenue,
    1986: Construction of Forest Fair Mall begins, a $250 million investment by Hooker Corp. and its LJ Hooker Developments.
    October 1987: Hooker agrees to buy controlling interest in the B. Altman department-store chain. Also acquired most of retailer Sakowitz Inc. Earlier acquired Bonwit Teller.
    July 1988: Forest Fair Mall opens its east wing.
    March 1989: Mall opens entirely with almost 200 stores.
    June 1989: LJ Hooker puts Forest Fair on the block.
    September 1989: LJ Hooker files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
    Also filing are B. Altman and Bonwit Teller. Later, Forest Fair and Sakowitz join.
    October 1990: Bonwit Teller closes.
    November 1990: B. Altman, Sakowitz close.
    Summer 1991: Mall occupancy dips to 56 percent.
    February 1995: FFM Limited places the mall on the market.
    April 1996: Miami-based Gator Forest Park Partners Ltd. acquires Forest Fair and pledges to invest $10 million.
    July 1999: Forest Fair signs Bass Pro Shops and Burlington Coat Factory as anchors.
    August 2002: Spiegel the Ultimate Outlet opens.
        Other signature features of the malls owned by the real estate investment trust include gleaming hardwood floors and state-of-the-art television and sound systems.

        The company plans to open seven X-Games Skateparks over the next three years in large regional centers.

        While officials would not confirm plans for a skate park at Cincinnati Mills, Mr. Connolly said: “It's a possibility.”

        •Skateboard parks aren't the only unusual amenities that Mills puts into its malls.

        The company's planned development in New Jersey's Meadowlands, called Xanadu, will include the world's first indoor skiing facility, as well as an indoor wave surfing complex and a minor league baseball team.

        One thing that sets the soon-to-be Cincinnati Mills off from the company's other properties: It's a remake of an existing structure.

        Once the makeover is completed, Mr. Connolly said, the mall just off Interstate 275 west of Tri-County Mall is expected to attract people from as far away as Dayton, Indianapolis and Columbus.

        That was the goal of Forest Fair's original developer, LJ Hooker Developments.

        But by 1991, foot traffic had slowed to a snail's pace, mall occupancy had dipped as low as 56 percent, and the original owner had filed for bankruptcy protection.

        Gator Investments took over the property in 1996 after a number of failed redevelopment efforts and had begun to breathe new life into the mall with the signing of Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, Off 5th-Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet and Burlington Coat Factory.

        Longtime tenant Mel Nadler, of Nadlers men's clothing store, said he has seen an uptick in business at the mall over the past few years. He believes the trend will continue under the new owner.

        “We're been on a steady upgrade for the past four or five years,” Mr. Nadler said.

        But that won't happen unless the mall can overcome some of the same obstacles that have prevented Forest Fair from thriving.

        “There are stigmas to the property, and there have been a number of starts and failures,” said retail consultant Stan Eichelbaum, who took part in one redevelopment effort in the 1990s. “It is recognized nationwide as a major white elephant.”

        But if any company can bring Forest Fair back from the brink, Mills can, said Dave Mengel, a retail leasing specialist with broker CB Richard Ellis.

        “Mills is a heck of a lot bigger than Gator,” with more experience and more contacts with key retailers, Mr. Mengel said.

        Reporter John Byczkowski contributed to this report.


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