Saturday, September 6, 2003

Retail reborn in mall overhaul

By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Construction is under way on a major renovation of Kenwood Towne Centre in Sycamore Township.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Call it the reconstruction era for Greater Cincinnati's malls.

At least four of the area's largest regional malls have invested millions of dollars in renovations to upgrade their facilities and attract shoppers. Three others are planning major makeovers.

Most malls have seen patronage decline and vacancy rates rise as many consumers ditch department stores - the traditional anchors of a mall - for discounters and specialty retailers.

The arrival in recent years of so-called "lifestyle centers,'' such as Rookwood Commons in Norwood, also has drawn shoppers away from regional malls with eye-catching architecture and a mix of upscale restaurants and specialty tenants in convenient, open-air layouts.

"It's a very competitive retail environment right now,'' said David Mengel, senior associate and retail specialist with developer CB Richard Ellis in Cincinnati. "Lifestyle centers, discount centers, big boxes, malls and strip centers are all competing for the same consumer dollar.

"With all the new places to shop, you have to give the consumer a reason to shop with you, or you're going to suffer,'' he said.

To avoid becoming retail relics, older malls - including Kenwood Towne Centre, Eastgate, Beechmont and Forest Fair malls - have set about various redevelopment strategies to re-energize their centers and boost sales.

Specifically, the mall developers - seeing the success of lifestyle centers and retail-entertainment complexes - are bringing more of those characteristics to their properties.

Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., for example, is building lifestyle elements into about a third of its mall renovations this year, including the 1.1 million-square-foot Kenwood mall, which it bought last summer for $218.2 million.

Construction already has begun on a nearly 100,000-square-foot open-air addition to the mall, just off Interstate 71 at Montgomery and Kenwood roads. When it opens next fall, the new "streetscape'' on the south side of the mall facing Montgomery will feature landscaped gathering areas, two new restaurants - including The Cheesecake Factory - and eight to nine new specialty stores yet to be announced.

To the west, the massive 1.5 million-square-foot, two-level super-regional Forest Fair Mall is being transformed into a value-oriented retail center with a major emphasis on entertainment.

The Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va., which bought the mall about a year ago for $69.4 million, says renovations will be completed next year. The renamed Cincinnati Mills will expand its existing tenant mix - including anchors Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and Kohl's - to offer a variety of entertainment venues, high-end and themed restaurants and off-price specialty stores and anchors.

The older malls are remodeling to go up against flashy new shopping centers, such as the new Deerfield Towne Center lifestyle center in Deerfield Township, the Center of Cincinnati in Oakley and the planned Rookwood Exchange in Norwood.

But the changes come at a time when regional malls face perhaps the toughest challenges in the competition for the precious consumer dollar, Mengel said.

For one thing, consumer shopping patterns have changed dramatically from a decade ago when people flocked to the malls not only to make purchases but also to gather in their free time.

Today, more people work, leaving them with less time to spend at the malls.

"I've got three active teenagers at home, and I'm putting in a lot of time in at work,'' said Kathy Baumgartner of Oakley, who was shopping recently at Rookwood Commons. "I like the stores here because I can just drive up to a store, get what I need and get out. I don't do malls because I don't have the time.''

Also, while most regional malls still rely heavily on foot traffic from department stores - which have been hard hit by declining sales and tight competition from discounters such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl's - most modern retail developments offer more alternatives to the "same old stores,'' Mengel said.

"Department stores are struggling nationwide, and that will have a big bearing on the success of the enclosed mall,'' he said.

Brett Kratzer, senior vice president at Cincinnati-based retail design firm FRCH Design Worldwide, said mall operators must break the perceived monotony and inconvenience of shopping at regional malls if they hope to attract new shoppers and maintain market share.

But new competitors have a big advantage - they don't have to reinvent themselves to offer consumers a new environment in which to shop.

"People are looking for something that isn't stagnant, and in a lot of instances, the enclosed centers are perceived as being stagnant,'' Kratzer said. "The new projects differentiate themselves in terms of retail format and also offer the same stores as the regional malls, plus new tenants that weren't here in Cincinnati before.''

Shopping mall metamorphoses

Kenwood Towne Centre: Construction is under way on a multimillion-dollar facelift that will include a 100,000-square-foot open-air "streetscape'' addition on the south side of the mall at 7875 Montgomery Road. Plans also call for an interior makeover of the 1.1 million-square-foot mall.

Forest Fair Mall: The largest mall in Greater Cincinnati - with about 1.5 million square feet of retail space - is being repositioned as an off-price, value-oriented mall with and emphasis on entertainment. The Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va., which bought the mall about a year ago for $69.4 million and will rename it Cincinnati Mills, is known for its innovative retail mix. Elements of recent Mills' projects have included multiplex movie theaters, themed restaurants and even extreme-sports skate parks.

Eastgate Mall: The 905,000-square-foot mall in Clermont County with about 80 tenants - including Dillard's, Sears, Kohl's and JCPenney - launched a major renovation early this year that is to be completed by Thanksgiving. The renovation will include a new food court and children's play area as well as interior redesign.

Anderson Town Centre: Much of the former Beechmont Mall is being demolished to clear the way for a new development that will blend shopping, a 15-acre park, restaurants and entertainment into what is being described as a "retail village."


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