UNIVERSITY AREA — As Laila Farishta settled into a sleek bar stool and cracked open her laptop, the college freshman looked like she belonged in a mellow coffee shop. But this wireless Internet lounge has no piped-in jazz music, no smell of a fresh gourmet brew wafting through the air. Farishta had come to University Mall.
One of the older malls in the Tampa area, University has struggled to maintain its relevance in recent years. Two years ago, it underwent a $10 million makeover, including the lounge with free WiFi, a remodeled food court and tile floors. The goal was to develop a niche by attracting more University of South Florida students, like Farishta, to study and, perhaps, spend money at some of the more than 100 stores.
"There were three reasons we wanted to do this: To make the shopping center more comfortable, to promote a longer shopping visit and to give the students somewhere off campus they can come and relax," said Keily Potter, the marketing manager at University Mall, which is owned by Somera Capital Management, LLC and Rockwood Capital.
And more upgrades could be in the mall's future.
In July, the Hillsborough County Commission approved zoning changes that will allow the mall to proceed with a major project that could include medical office space, apartments/condos and restaurants on the site, said Tom Locke, the general manager of the mall.
The effort may take years to realize, although short-term plans include demolishing the vacant JCPenney building and adding some big-box retailers to the mall, he said.
The movie theater closed in September, but officials said University is still 90-percent leased, including two new clothing stores — Madame Q, for plus-size women, and Spin Boutique, for juniors club wear.
For now, they say, future growth plans and a low-key study lounge nestled on the top level near the food court are spurring more interest in the mall.
On a recent weeknight, Farishta, 18, visited the mall for the first time. She brought her laptop, used the Internet and bought dinner from the food court.
"It's nice that it's easy to shop, study and eat," Farishta said, adding that she would be back.
For Victoria Brown, 39, the mall is a welcome alternative to the too-quiet library when she wants to surf the Web, but that doesn't mean she intends to spend any money while she's there.
"I don't shop here or eat here, I just come to hang out," said Brown, who is a student at Remington College in Tampa.
Students are not the only ones finding an oasis in the middle of the mall.
As a financial consultant, Anthony Giasi, 59, stops by to use the WiFi and grab a bite to eat between clients, he said. He appreciates the convenience of the adjacent food court and free WiFi, but thinks the area lacks in comfort.
"This place is great," he said, "but it needs some more inviting areas and maybe a little more greenery."
For shopping purposes, he prefers the more high-end International Plaza.
Most people who come to the mall spend some money, Potter says, even if they just buy a soda, lunch or a CD.
Also, more than 40 stores and restaurants have signed up for the mall's USF student discount program.
Each store decides the type and size of its discount.
For business owners such as Sam Waez, the changes are working to their advantage. Waez owns Pita Express in the food court, as well as several other Tampa Bay area restaurants, including Acropolis.
"A lot of students use the Internet," he said, "then they eat there and go shopping."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.