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University Mall envisions offices, apartments and big-box stores on its land

The evolution of University Mall near Tampa is about to move to the next chapter.

Mall owners are poised to file with county planners a new master plan for the dated, 95-acre property that envisions morphing the 36-year-old mall into a mixed-use project. Long term, they see a mall flanked by high-rise office buildings, apartments/condos and some big-box stores and restaurants in what's now a vast parking lot.

It's a redevelopment proposition cropping up at big malls nationwide now that local governments dish up more intense development rights as an answer to urban sprawl.

Short term, the owners would flatten a onetime JCPenney that has been empty since its most recent occupants, Steve & Barry's Sportswear, went out of business nearly two years ago.

After shedding the two-story building, the remaining 1.1-million-square-foot mall would remain a regional shopping destination with four anchor stores and as much enclosed mall as Westfield Brandon.

The changes reflect shifting needs linked to the growth of the mall's neighbors: four hospitals, the University of South Florida and possibly a light rail terminal.

"A lot has changed around here since this mall opened out on the edge of town in 1974," said Tom Locke, who manages the property for hedge funds Somera Capital Management and Rockwood Capital. "Now we're in the middle of a city."

Local government would have to approve zoning changes, but the mall has talked for a year with some unnamed big-box stores and restaurants for a first phase.

Now 90 percent leased, University recently added six tenants, including Jimmy Jazz and Soul Train, that further solidified the mall's reputation as a destination for young people's apparel including urban wear.

The owners spent $10 million on new entrances, a tile floor, a food court and a free WiFi cafe. But despite new granite-countertop bathrooms, they intend to keep University a working-class mall.

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Tampa Bay apparel retailers who unloaded the last of their cold-weather gear at deep discounts after the holidays are kicking themselves.

Blizzards up North and an unusually long, cold winter here have played havoc with demand.

To local stores, it's spring already. That left only slim pickings of cold-weather gear to sell at full price.

How much did demand heat up? During last week's chill, sales of winter scarves, hats, gloves and fire logs skyrocketed 200 percent in the Tampa Bay area, says Planalytics Inc., a Berwyn, Pa., forecasting firm that helps chains move goods in anticipation of demand altered by weather.

There's more: Boot sales leaped 61 percent, hot cereal 42 percent, windshield wiper blades 38 percent, cold-throat care products 21 percent and soups 15 percent.

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Shopper satisfaction ratings of the major supermarket chains were unchanged in 2009 even as food prices dropped 2.4 percent. (Yes, you read that right. After rising in 2007 and 2008, last year marked the first time prices fell for a full year since 1961).

Nonetheless, three big players in the Tampa Bay market improved in the American Customer Satisfaction Index compiled yearly by survey researchers at the University of Michigan.

Publix's ratings again led all supermarkets nationally, jumping 5 percentage points to the chain's best rating since the index debuted in 1995. Once struggling Winn-Dixie improved slightly, but remained behind its highest ratings in 2006 and 1995. Walmart improved 4 percentage points to 71, but was last among eight chains rated.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

University Mall envisions offices, apartments and big-box stores on its land 02/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 15, 2010 7:58pm]

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