SARASOTA — The Tampa Bay area hasn't had a new major mall since 2008, when the Shops of Wiregrass opened in Pasco County.
But, if you're willing to expand your horizon a bit, there's one opening a straight shot to the south.
The Mall at University Town Center opens Thursday in Sarasota, at Interstate 75 and University Parkway. It's a 50-mile drive from downtown Tampa and about 39 miles from downtown St. Petersburg.
Touted as the only enclosed mall opening in the United States this year, the center will have the latest mall amenities, from touch-screen store directories to electronics charging stations. The 888,000-square-foot University Town Center is the first new mall in Sarasota in 35 years.
Developed by Taubman Centers and Benderson Development, the mall will have many of the same stores and features as International Plaza, its larger sister property in Tampa. It will also have a few surprises.
Here's a rundown for anyone looking for a reason to say, "Road trip!"
What stores does it have?
University Town Center will have more than 100 stores and restaurants, half of which are new to the Sarasota market but not the Tampa Bay market. Some of the big names are Apple, Crate & Barrel, H & M, Lululemon, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Michael Kors and Stuart Weitzman. Macy's, Dillard's and Saks Fifth Avenue will be the department store anchors.
What about the restaurants?
Again, most of the big restaurants already have locations in Tampa. Brio Tuscan Grille, Capital Grille and Cheesecake Factory have restaurants at International Plaza. Kona Grill and Seasons 52 have locations in the West Shore area. Perhaps the most notable will be Sophie's cafe inside Saks. Inspired by American fashion designer Sophie Gimbel, Sophie's is Saks' new upscale dining concept. Its first location opened earlier this year in downtown Chicago.
So what's the big draw for Tampa Bay shoppers?
Aside from the mall's shiny newness, probably Saks. The luxury department store pulled out of Tampa's WestShore Plaza in 2013, forcing loyalists to go to Saks' Naples store or its discount outlets in Ellenton or Orlando. If the Sophie's is anything like its Chicago location, it will become a must-go lunch spot with guests booking reservations well in advance.
Won't the mall compete with International Plaza?
No, at least not long term. Taubman intended Sarasota's mall to fill in the gap between its other centers in Tampa, Naples and Orlando, general manager Octavio Ortiz said. Locals and tourists in Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch are its obvious target market and, while many Tampa Bay shoppers will check it out, they aren't expected to become regulars.
How does it compare to International Plaza?
IP shoppers will recognize the glass elevators and bright concourses with skylights, shiny tile and comfortable seating. One major difference is the arrangement of restaurants. UTC doesn't have a food court or an area like IP's Bay Street, a clustering of bars and restaurants. The big-box restaurants are grouped at the mall's main entrances. Inside the mall, smaller food vendors are scattered throughout. Also, IP is significantly larger, with about 1.2 million square feet of space. It has about twice the number of stores as UTC.
What makes University Town Center especially notable?
Architects designed the mall to reflect Florida's sunny lifestyle. It's bright and airy with a 1,100-foot-long curved skylight and color-changing LED lighting system. More than 100,700 square feet of glass were used throughout, along with high-quality metal, natural stone and wood elements. The west entrance has a fountain and 65-foot-tall louvered glass pavilion with a chandelier.