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Westfield Countryside Mall getting $12 million makeover

CLEARWATER

The floor tiles in front of Sears have been pulled up, exposing the rough surface underneath. The food court's ceiling has been ripped out, revealing a metal roof and the guts of electrical and sprinkler systems.

What's going on at Countryside Mall?

The answer is, North Pinellas' regional mall is getting its first facelift in 20 years. The owners of Westfield Countryside have just begun a $12 million makeover of the 34-year-old mall, a process that will unfold over the rest of this year.

"This will look and feel much like a brand-new mall," said Tara Martin, Westfield's regional marketing director.

The construction work will be done after hours so as not to disturb shoppers. It should last through November, and no sections of the mall will be closed.

"It'll be wrapped up by the holidays," said mall marketing director Kelly Edwards.

Westfield owns a mall in Countryside, Citrus Park, Brandon and two on Florida's west coast. Because of the tough economy, it recently trimmed hours a bit, opening half an hour later and closing half an hour earlier on weeknights.

At the same time, it has invested $100 million in remodeling these five malls over the past few years as part of its long-term corporate strategy.

Here's what's in the works for Countryside:

The floors: All of the old tiles will be removed, from Sears on the west end to JCPenney on the east end. Then workers will put down new white polished porcelain and carpet.

Food court: The space will be redesigned with higher ceilings, a reconfigured seating area with new furniture, and new storefronts incrementally installed at each eatery. The mall intends to bring in a couple more food vendors to fill vacancies.

Kids' play area: The "Playtown" area, with its make-believe cars and a crawl-through log, is 6 years old. It will be replaced with an ocean-themed area with bright sculptures of sea creatures for kids to climb on, graphics depicting ocean life, and a school of fish swimming overhead.

Escalators and concourses: The three banks of escalators will be replaced and two of them moved closer to the Sears and JCPenney entrances in corners now occupied by stores. Those stores will move. Also, dozens of fake columns and planter-bedecked barriers will be removed to open up the mall's concourse. More skylights will be added.

Storefronts: The mall is tweaking its design standards as retailers' leases come up for renewal. The new look, seen at recent arrivals like Coach, Coldwater Creek and Tilly's, features taller glass storefronts that offer more display space, and store signs mounted near the ceiling.

Coach sells purses, Coldwater Creek sells women's clothing, and Tilly's sells youth apparel.

"Our customers asked for these stores, and they're a good addition to our leasing mix," Edwards said.

In these grim economic times, Countryside Mall is getting by. The mall has only a few vacancies. It's an air-conditioned gathering place, and there are always people walking around in it.

"We're a community mall," Edwards said. "Some malls have peak times, but we're pretty consistent throughout the day."

It was intended to be that way. The Countryside neighborhood was built by U.S. Homes starting in 1969. Company chairman Charles Rutenberg meant for the focal point of the neighborhood to be the mall. When it was built in the early 1970s, it was the biggest mall in Florida.

After the mall's floor tiles started getting yanked out this past week, 61-year-old Nathan Brink relaxed on a bench and looked at the bare floor. Young mothers with strollers walked by.

"If they want to do all this work on the mall, that's fine with me," Brink said. "It means the mall is going to stay open."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Westfield Countryside Mall getting $12 million makeover 05/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 2:39pm]

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