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Going to the mall in Tampa? In the future, that could look very different

Before long you won’t recognize Westshore Plaza and University Mall. Meanwhile, upscale International Plaza plans to keep on keeping on.
Shoppers at International Plaza during the pandemic.
Shoppers at International Plaza during the pandemic. [ SARA DINATALE | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 29

I recently found myself at not one, not two, but three Tampa malls.

In the past — for someone raised on Sbarro slices and food court french fries — hitting three malls in rapid succession for new sneakers and lunch with friends would not have been unusual.

But since those heady Fast Times at Ridgemont High glory days of America’s old-school, enclosed malls, they have been hit hard by our love of online shopping and other shifts. Then came the COVID-19 crisis that saw stores from J. Crew to Brooks Brothers shuttered,

“The malls were not doing well in the first place,” said Phil Trocchia, marketing professor at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. “The pandemic put a nail in the coffin.”

So post-pandemic, how will our malls morph?

Westshore Plaza, built more than a half-century ago at the edge of tony South Tampa, once sported a Saks Fifth Avenue. Today, Sears is closed as Macy’s and the JCPenney that got a reprieve from closing last year soldier on. The mall seems dark despite skylights that must have been a wow factor back in the day.

But plans are big for the mall property, which sits at a sweet spot — next to a critical Interstate-275 interchange and not far from Tampa International Airport and the Howard Frankland Bridge between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

At a Tampa City Council meeting in October, a project representative described evolving Westshore Plaza from a mall where “everything happens inside and nothing happens outside” to what developers call mixed-use — retail and restaurants, a hotel and residences, office space, green space and a grocery. No doubt, the eventual ads will have those urban buzzwords: live, work, play. The City Council gave it a thumbs up.

Westshore’s general manager Larry Scollo said in an email that the project is in the early stages, with details to come.

At the struggling University Mall, built in 1974 near the sprawling University of South Florida campus, metamorphosis is underway, with some stores shuttered and JCPenney and Sears gone.

This one’s a project to wrap your head around. On the 100-acre property will be an urban redevelopment “innovation community” called RITHM at Uptown, which stands for Research, Innovation, Technology, Habitat and Medicine. The plan won approval from the Hillsborough County Commission.

With relationships with the university, the nearby veteran’s hospital and the Department of Defense, the development is expected to showcase life sciences and technology research. Plans also call for retail, entertainment, condos and an extended-stay hotel. A digital studio is up and running in the old mall space.

A rendering of plans for the RITHM development at the old University Mall in Tampa.
A rendering of plans for the RITHM development at the old University Mall in Tampa. [ Courtesy of RITHIM ]

“If you look at a university research park, but embed a city into that, that’s what the University Mall property is planned to do ... an urban, walkable village focused on scientific research and development,” said lead developer Christopher Bowen.

That’s a twist on a theme Trocchia says is happening across the country: old-school malls repurposed into medical offices, self-storage, shared office space, Amazon distribution centers and charter schools.

It was a different view recently at the upscale International Plaza, where shoppers lined up outside Louis Vuitton and Gucci. The mall was built two decades ago, its original opening delayed because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In the pandemic, they have lost the Disney Store, Lucky, Godiva, Microsoft and Spanx. Anchors Nordstrom, Dillard’s and Neiman Marcus are open and, surprise, they added an Arhaus luxury furniture store last year. There are a few empty storefronts with occupants preparing to open or pending, according to marketing and sponsorship director Lindsay Grinstead. But she said the mall has more tenants open now than pre-pandemic.

“We feel really fortunate,” Grinstead said. “I’m not going to say it’s been smooth sailing for everybody ... but we’ve really noticed since the holidays traffic picking up.”

With health experts telling us outside is safer in the time of coronavirus, outdoor seating at the mall’s Bay Street restaurants has no doubt helped.

Trocchia said that some malls are adding experiences — think mazes or paintball ― to adapt. And malls already are more sensory than online shopping — think smell, taste and touch.

“The future of malls now is more experiential,” he said. “You can’t replicate these things online.”

The idea is to stop competing directly with Amazon and make us want to go to the mall.

“It’s a feel,” he said. “There’s a reason to get out of the house.”