TAMPA — The University Mall isn't bustling on weekday afternoons. But it's not deserted, either.
A line eight-people deep waits at the BBQ counter in the food court. Children jump on inflatable trampolines in front of the Dillard's clearance store; shoppers browse racks at Burlington.
In the early 1970s, the Tampa mall was the place to be, but it hasn't been that way for decades. Nearly every major anchor store has left, leaving thousands of square feet of empty retail boxes — the latest being Sears, which announced last month it would close by November.
That was good news for RD Management, the New York firm that bought the struggling mall near the University of South Florida's main campus just under four years ago. The project's chief development strategist, Chris Bowen, has had ideas percolating for the Sears space — and none were for it to remain a retail chain.
"Malls are going away," he said. "What we are creating is the future."
The next anchors at the 100-acre property will be research institutes and dynamic office and co-working spaces, he said while sitting in a jewelry store he outfitted to be a sleek conference room inside the mall he plans to make a "research village."
For now, University Mall — which the developers call Tampa's future Uptown district — is stuck at an in-between phase.
It's not derelict, but far from buzzing.
It's a relic, a fading suburban-style mall with real estate more valuable than the existing retail stores inside. RD is one of dozens of developers across America trying to give these spaces a second life.
Bowen and others hope a new federal tax break program that designates the mall's census tract an "opportunity zone" could be the spur needed to get the adaptive-reuse construction underway.
For now, much of Bowen's ideas are in planning phases. RD won't break ground until an anchor has signed onto the project, he said.
In February, the firm said it would release a $1 billion development plan that has yet to go public, though Bowen has been open about his general plans.
"We're basically creating a city within an existing city," he said.
It was Bowen's entry as the project leader at the start of this year that marked RD's shift away from the retail-focused plan of new tenants, free-standing restaurants and lush landscaping that was announced after it bought most of the property in 2014 for $29.5 million.
Now Bowen calls the mall a "laboratory" as RD figures out its own perfect formula.
The premise: some indoor corridors that connect the big boxes to the mall will be knocked down to create pedestrian-friendly streets and outdoor store fronts. The spine of the mall is likely to stay as an artery for the property, offering meeting space and indoor retail space like is there now.
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Years down the line, Bowen envisions food halls, a dog park, apartments, high-rises and a lifestyle center that will turn its slice of Fowler Avenue — long known to be a seedy area with a large transient population — into a destination that feeds off of university life and research just down the street.
USF urban planning professor Elizabeth Strom has driven by University Mall on her way to work the last 13 years.
"Clearly for the past 10 or 15 years, it hasn't fulfilled its original function," she said. "We don't need to have a huge Dillard's right here, but we need other things."
That's not a unique problem.
A regional mall in Scottsdale, Ariz. — Los Arcos — was bulldozed in 2000. The razed property became "Skysong," an innovation center for Arizona State University. Today, it not only has research centers and campus incubators, but commercial leasing space and apartment complexes.
Newer projects have focused on what can be reused in old malls, rather than defaulting to tearing it all down.
"University Mall has a lot of good bones to it, good structure," said BDG architect Deighton Babis, who is working with RD on the Uptown project. "Tearing down and scarping doesn't make sense anymore when there's so much of the mall that can be reused."
The JCPenney that shuttered in 2005 has already been gutted. The high ceilings could be ideal for a wet lab, which house chemicals and heavy equipment. The loop system used for the mall's electric power is already strong and reliable.
Bowen pitches it like this: A company eager to expand could be up and running in a new office sooner than if an office is built ground-up. Meanwhile, the mall's spine will continue to operate as normal.
Still, there's no doubt the developers will need more investors to turn acres of old mall in a neighborhood that's long struggled into a thriving new city district.
The U.S. Treasury and IRS' new "opportunity zones" program announced in April could be that missing piece — but investors are still facing a lot of unknowns with exactly how it will work.
Florida census tracts, including the mall property and the proposed site for the Rays stadium in Ybor City, were added to the list of economically distressed communities in June.
The program is meant to spur investment by offering preferential tax treatment that allows investors to defer tax on prior gains until they are sold or exchanged.
Strom, the urban planning professor, said tax incentive programs have historically offered little evidence that they "move the needle," but can help facilitate development that would have happened anyway.
"Tax credits can get things moving," she said. "But they're not going to be the reason they work."
The new program could bode well for Uptown, she said, as would university buy-in from whoever takes over for departing USF president Judy Genshaft.
Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail real estate expert, saw the transformation that happened at the old mall in Scottsdale firsthand — a development led by that city's university.
He said in the latest wave of mall transformations, there's no one template that's going to work for every space. It's not like the builds of the 1980s and '90s, where every regional mall had the same blueprint.
The International Plazas of the world — modern, near city centers and with a focus on luxury brands — are still doing well.
It's the aging complexes built in, or toward the suburbs, that are having an identity crisis.
"There isn't a case study in this," said Babis, the architect. "We're in the early stages of redeveloping every mall in America."
Bowen said there are plans to officially remove the "University Mall" moniker in 2019, switching the development publicly to Uptown.
At that point it won't really be a mall anymore, he said.
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.