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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 28, 2018 2 months ago

Retail therapy: Ambitious mall makeover hits its stride

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The metamorphosis of University Mall into Uptown, a next-generation mixed-use development, has picked up steam over the past year.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

The quiet transformation of University Mall in Tampa into an urban development concept, rebranded as Uptown, recently shifted into a new gear.

RD Management bought the ailing retail complex in 2014 for $29.5 million. It has since poured at least an additional $20 million into it as the company seeks to turn the 1.3-million-square-foot property into a mixed-use hive of activity that will build on the nearby presence of the University of South Florida, Moffitt Cancer Center and Shriner’s Hospital for Children.

Now Chris Bowen, RD Management's chief development strategist, says after nearly a year of behind the scenes activity, he’s ready for the project to stop flying under the radar.

“We are finalizing our master plan development, at the dirt level,” Bowen says. “People are going to see what it looks like to reinvent heavy retail.”

“People are going to see what it looks like to reinvent heavy retail.” Chris Bowen, RD Management’s chief development strategist

With anchors such as Sears, JCPenney and Macy’s abandoning University Mall — and all too happy to sell their big-box retail stores to RD Management — the stage is set for what Bowen calls a “paradigm shift." That's not only the mall, but also the surrounding neighborhood, which has languished right alongside the mall’s retailers.

“This whole area, we’ve taken it for granted and just assumed that this is just the way it is, but we’re here to say that it’s not,” Bowen says. “Within three to five years, everybody’s going to know that the paradigm will be broken; everybody will know what this is going to be. In development circles, that’s pretty quick, especially for the lift that we’re starting to take on.”

That lift involves winning local government approvals to add a host of amenities to the land surrounding University Mall, Bowen says, including as many as 1,700 residential units. 

Adding residential, office and even hotel space to the property will also go a long way toward turning the mall into what Bowen calls a “magnet site” for nonretail businesses. That particularly includes the tech and medical industries that want to work with USF and neighboring medical institutions, a group that also includes the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

“We have the largest medical district in the state of Florida right there adjacent to us,” Bowen says. “We also have one of the largest institutions of higher learning in the state right there within four blocks. We’re in the epicenter of it. We are reaching out to be a national player, a magnet site for tech, medical and biotech that fully leverages what is already there.”

The metamorphosis has already begun. Bowen says a tech company that specializes in robotics has opened in space above the mall’s food court, and he expects more to come into the 30,000-square-foot area being retrofitted as a loft-style tech cluster.

“It’s a blank canvas,” Bowen says, but at the same time, “I have important, key businesses and people already there. It’s a live site.”

That speaks to the unique challenges of Uptown. On one hand, Bowen’s task is to stabilize the retail. But he also has to do some politicking — not just in front of local officials, but as he walks the mall and gets face time with business owners who want to know what the future holds for them, and whether they have a role to play in the adaptive reuse of the property.

“I’ve got to communicate, a ton, every day to everyone,” he says. “But there’s a lot of curiosity out there that I think is really going to materialize in 2019, now that we’re starting to do the reveal.”

Bowen can count on the support of at least one retail partner: Burlington Stores Inc. (formerly Burlington Coat Factory), the publicly held clothing retailer that has managed to thrive amid the headwinds that have ravaged traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. Its companywide revenue has been rising steadily over the past few years, reaching $6.10 billion in 2017. Bowen says Burlington remains committed to Uptown, so much so it’s the one big retailer not to sell its space to RD Management.

“They’ve got the secret formula,” he says. “They will help guide us to what they’re seeing from an analytical standpoint and a market standpoint in terms of where retail is going.”

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