Before the owners of the aging University Mall sank $35-million into expansion, they commissioned an artist to sketch their vision of the future.
He drew tall columns and glossy floors, chandeliers and atriums. He drew slick storefronts and balconies. And he sketched in people. Crowds of people. People on the escalator, near the railing, chatting, smiling. People on the benches, in the food court, loaded down with packages.
People on almost every square inch of the drawing.
In the coming months, the people who wrote the check will find out if life imitates art.
At the very least, marketing manager Lori Merhege predicts, "This expansion will make us more competitive."
The 22-year-old mall has drawn historically from southern Pasco County and the Carrollwood area, as well as the college set. But many shoppers in recent years have bypassed University for West Shore Plaza and Brandon TownCenter, glitzier places with complete food courts and more eclectic store offerings.
Officials with the Chicago-based Heitman Retail Properties, which operates University Mall and others including Sarasota Square Mall and The Falls in Miami, hope to turn around that trend.
Despite the summer heat and an equally oppressive construction project along Fowler Avenue, they have planned a gala unveiling Aug. 1.
"The Big One," they call it.
Shoppers will find 20 new stores, including American Eagle, Sam Goody, Nine & Co. women's shoes and Bond Jewelers.
Also new is a food court. It's hard to believe, but two decades ago some malls were built without this modern-day smorgasbord.
Not anymore, Merhege said.
A long escalator will take University Mall patrons to an upper-level food court with 11 restaurants arranged in a semi-circle and seating for 520 under an atrium. Selections include Spanish, Cajun, Chinese and Japanese.
Also new to the mall is a three-level parking deck on the north end.
These renovations have been two years in the works. Last year, a new Dillard's was added to the mall. (The old one vacated to make room for the 20 new stores and food court.) Marble floors and molded ceilings were put into the 190,000-square-foot store.
And more changes are on the way. In December, the mall's indoor movie theater will go from six to 16 screens.
With the additions come a new look and a theme: The Environmental. The mall has been divided up into land, sea and heaven motifs, Merhege said.
From the center court, cutouts of striped tropical fish hang from twine on rafters resembling waves. That's the bay, Merhege said.
The upstairs food court: Stars and moons decorate columns. A 12-foot chandelier hovers over the escalator, a five-pointed star on its underside.
With all these renovations, University Mall boasts 1.3-million square feet, a size that surpasses West Shore and the proposed Citrus Mall. It is bigger than Tyrone Square in St. Petersburg. And, yes, larger than Brandon TownCenter.
Five department stores anchor University Mall: Sears, JCPenney, Burdines, Montgomery Ward and Dillard's. The intended payoff, according to a Heitman Retail news release, will be the establishment of University Mall as "the premier shopping destination in the North Tampa market."
How quickly that will happen is, to some extent, in the hands of the state Department of Transportation, which has been working since March 1995 to widen Fowler Avenue from four to eight lanes. DOT officials said this week they expect to wrap up construction on that project toward the end of August. Heitman Retail, meanwhile, has prepared a full schedule of promotional events Aug. 1-4.
They have lined up Walt Disney's Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Tampa Mayor Dick Greco for the Aug. 1 grand opening. Other days' activities will include clowns, stilt walkers, jugglers and face painters, autograph sessions with Tampa Bay Lightning player Igor Ulanov and a karaoke machine.
And, they hope, crowds resembling those in the sketch.
New places to shop
On Aug. 1, the University Mall will unveil its $35-million expansion. American Eagle (clothing)
The Athlete's Foot
Bobby Allison ATT Cellular Center
The Finish Line (athletic wear)
Gymboree (children's clothes)
Kirklands (home furnishings)
Lids hat wear
Nine & Co. (women's shoes)
Pocket Change game room
Rack Room Shoes
Trade Secret, (beauty salon)
Pelayo's Spanish Cafe