TAMPA — Casting off any doubt about the future of University Mall, new owners disclosed plans Tuesday to spend $10-million to bring the place up to snuff.
Included are remodeled entrances, family-friendly rest rooms, easy chairs in the corridors, Wi-Fi, a new escalator, a kids' soft sculpture play area and other amenities that are standard at rival malls.
More significantly, however, owners at Somera Capital Management "feel strongly that University Mall is an extremely viable shopping center."
That's the plan going forward, although Somera officials are still working out the "how" part. They're trying to recruit a fourth department store like Belk or Kohl's, sign big-box stores and get back chains they lost. Further down the road: perhaps medical offices and residential projects.
While the mall's leasing team kept the place full since the last remodeling in 1996, Somera is acting on assurances that its anchor department stores — Dillard's, Macy's and Sears — remain intact after the Shops at Wiregrass opens 10 miles north in Wesley Chapel this fall.
JCPenney closed its University store after moving to Wiregrass two years ago. Some local observers speculated that Dillard's and Macy's, which are building in Wiregrass, would split, too. But Somera has been assured they're staying.
"Rather than waiting for a 'Dear John' letter from a department store, we'll be proactive making this a property they won't want to leave that the community is proud to shop," said Charlie Christensen, senior vice president at Somera.
"They're trying to breathe new life into a tired mall," said Pat Duffy, who heads the retail practice at Colliers Arnold. "If the anchors stay, that's a good sign they're still getting the sales."
Some of the gloom about University sprang from its shift to second-tier tenants and the string of empty big-box storefronts lining Fowler Avenue, which still gets 60,000 vehicles a day.
Despite losing a few stores after the holiday, including the Disney Store and Demo, University, one of the largest in the market with 1.2-million square feet, is 96 percent leased. The mall did sales of about $350 a square foot, roughly the national average.
"It's far more vibrant than some of the press made it out to be," said David Conn, who heads the retail unit at CB Richard Ellis in Tampa. "I see the investment as a step to get the mall positioned" to go to the next level.
Somera of Santa Barbara, Calif., and Rockwood Capital LLC paid $145-million for the property in July, then put General Growth Properties, one of the nation's largest mall operators, in charge of marketing, redevelopment and leasing. Glimcher Retail Property Trust, the Columbus, Ohio, company that sold University, continues to manage the property.
Built in 1974, University Mall has been hemmed in by Westfield Brandon and Westfield Citrus Park and now to the north by three big retail projects, including Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel.
But Somera sees plenty left. About 140,000 people live within 5 miles, the University of South Florida is next door, 10,000 people work nearby at four hospitals and Busch Gardens is down the street.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or