The Mall at University Town Center is alive again.
Construction begins later this year on the revived $315 million project along Interstate 75 in Sarasota. Taubman Centers Inc., the owner of International Plaza in Tampa, decided to move ahead after signing Macy's, Dillard's and Saks Fifth Avenue to anchor the two-level enclosed mall scheduled to open with 115 other stores in 2014.
"With deals like this few and far between these days, we're thrilled to land these department stores," said John Eggert, director of development who is managing the project for Taubman.
News that Sarasota had attracted what likely is one of only two new mall construction projects in the country was welcomed in the city. But the Sarasota Herald-Tribune described the mood of local shoppers and civic leaders as "bittersweet" because Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom were not wooed back into the project.
Both had committed to opening their first stores in the Sarasota market, but backed out after the recession shelved the mall project in 2008. Neiman stopped all new store development and Nordstrom shifted its focus to the Nordstrom Rack outlet chain.
Saks will be moving into a new store twice as big as the one it will be closing in Westfield Southgate mall near downtown Sarasota. Dillard's will be replacing unprofitable stores it closed two years ago in Westfield Sarasota Square mall and struggling DeSoto Square mall in Bradenton.
The project, which covers 73 acres, is a joint venture between Taubman, based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Benderson Development, a Sarasota developer that made the high-end mall part of its larger, roughly 500-acre University Town Center mixed-use development that straddles the Manatee-Sarasota county line.
Taubman is managing what will be an 880,000-square-foot two-level mall. It is surrounded by what already is about 1.5 million square feet of retail with permission for about 400,000 square feet more, 500 hotel rooms and about 1,500 residential units.
Taubman, which operates a portfolio of 27 malls that led the industry with an average of $644 a square foot in sales in 2011, just opened City Creek in Salt Lake City in a joint venture with the Mormon Church that was the nation's only new regional mall this year.
Taubman's ability to sign up enough retailers for another new mall is seen as another sign of retailers' growing confidence in what remains a weak economy. But many chains are being tempted by today's comparatively low rents and Taubman's track record for high end centers. Yet while new competition will put additional strain on the three other traditional malls within 10 miles in Sarasota and Manatee counties, experts predict only minimal traffic diverted from malls in the Tampa Bay area.
"It's a totally different market and besides, Tampa Bay already has the same stores," said Leon Brockmeier, a retail specialist with Marcus & Millichap, a commercial real estate firm. "Some shoppers may go there out of curiosity once or twice for lunch until the novelty runs out."
Indeed, Taubman has opened its high end centers across the population centers of Central and Southwest Florida in Orlando, Naples and Tampa.
"We've spaced them out so there is minimal overlap," Eggert said. "This perfectly fills our void between Tampa and Naples."
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.