Thursday, January 23, 2003

'Neighborhoods' developer's theme for Forest Fair

Cincinnati Mills aims to open this Christmas

By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FOREST PARK - The company planning to redevelop Forest Fair Mall as a regional shopping and entertainment destination presented an overview of its plans at a business awards dinner Wednesday night.

The goal of the redevelopment is to "change the look of the mall entirely," said Dennis Connolly, a vice president and senior development director for the Arlington, Va.-based company, which bought Forest Fair in September.

"If you go to a regional mall, they all pretty much look the same, except for the stores," Mr. Connolly said before the awards dinner.

"We've gotten away from that, and made it more entertaining for people to walk around. After we're finished, somebody's going to walk into this mall (Forest Fair) and realize it doesn't look anything like it used to."

Most of the renovations will take place inside the mall, Mr. Connolly said, although structural changes to the entrances and parking lot and new design features on the exterior of the 1.6 million-square-foot facility are also part of the plans.

The renovations, which will bring a name change to Cincinnati Mills, should be complete for next season's Christmas shopping season.

Inside the mall, Mills will make liberal use of new graphic designs, colorful paint and various floor textures to add flavor to common areas and also define the malls new "neighborhoods" - numbered and themed areas of the mall that will feature different retail and entertainment offerings.

The "fashion neighborhood," for example, might have a dÈcor that is more subtle and sophisticated than other parts of the mall, earmarking it as a destination for trendy apparel shoppers, Mr. Connolly said.

"One reason we split our shopping centers into neighborhoods is as a means of helping people identify where they enter the mall because our malls are so big," he said.

"Another reason we identify neighborhoods is so there won't be a sameness to the mall like there is at most regional malls. People notice the change from one neighborhood to another."

Forest Fair is different from most Mills projects because it's a split-level mall, Mr. Connolly said.

Most Mills properties are the length of three or four football fields - long, ground level developments that encourage pedestrian traffic.

"From that standpoint, this (Forest Fair) is a new challenge," Mr. Connolly said. "But it's long enough, and it's big enough to achieve the same end" as other Mills' developments.

Still, a second floor means that Mills will have to sign more tenants to occupy the retail spaces surrounding the anchor stores than it typically signs at its other malls.

"We have 390,000 square feet of specialty merchandise space that has to be leased," Mr. Connolly said. "It's going to be a challenge."

But despite its challenges, the mall's new owners believe Forest Fair has a tremendous upside.

For one thing, Forest Fair already has many of the same anchor tenants featured at most Mills shopping centers, although Elder-Beerman department store announced this month that it would pull out of the mall this spring.

But such Mills staples as Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, Kohl's and Burlington Coat Factory are expected to stay and remain open during construction.

"We have as many anchors here already open as we normally do in our fully built-out malls," Mr. Connolly said.

"We've really got all the anchors in place, with the exception of Elder-Beerman, and their exit just creates an opportunity for us to fill their space."

The construction or transformation of ordinary shopping centers into behemoth shopping and entertainment complexes has become commonplace across the country, with the developments becoming major consumer destinations.

But the Greater Cincinnati area is one of the few metropolitan areas where no such retail projects exist - at least not to the extent that the Mills envisions, Mr. Connolly said.

"We've always had Cincinnati on our list of cities where we were interested in locating a Mills project," he said.

Forest Fair "has real potential and is a great market for this sort of thing."

But can Mills deliver on its promise to resurrect the struggling shopping center, which has undergone numerous changes over the years under different owners with limited success?

At least one local retail expert thinks that the answer is "yes."

"If any company is up to the challenge, The Mills Corp., has probably the best chance," said Stan Eichelbaum, president of the downtown-based Marketing Developments Inc.


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