When the Mall at University Town Center's design was first conceived in 2006, it was going to be as big as Florida's housing boom.
Some anchors beyond the department stores were going to have more elaborate spaces with outdoor entrances and a design that connected other planned retail and housing into a true town center.
The mall would have opened in 2010 with an 80,000-square-foot Neiman Marcus, a 138,000-square-foot Nordstrom and a 150,000-square-foot Macy's for the 900,000-square-foot center, with expansion possibilities up to 1.7 million square feet.
When Manatee County's Benderson Development teamed up with Forbes Co. of Southfield, Mich., who brought in Taubman Centers of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and word spread of the megamall's plans. But by 2008, the housing boom had already gone bust, leaving fewer people with disposable income to shop.
Taubman Centers took on a larger chunk of the project in 2011 after Forbes quietly left.
Even when the project was on hiatus from construction, the mall's design had to evolve with the changing market.
Greg Tysowski, vice president of design at JPRA Architects, led the work to illustrate a mall that visually said: "Welcome to Sarasota."
"It's definitely an uplifting feeling," Tysowski said of the mall's architecture. "It should tie in with the aspirations of the Sarasota market and is meant to be Sarasota casual."
That Sarasota casual feeling is designed to help shoppers feel comfortable and have a great experience, making it a place you want to go, he said.
Putting 'town' in town center
The original town center design work in 2008 incorporated a more urban design, akin to a town center development found in major metropolitan suburbs.
"It was more densified, including not only enclosed retail, but outward facing retail and residence and offices and a couple of restaurants and hotels," Tysowski said.
Shoppers could easily imagine in the early drafts how a Crate & Barrel could have fit with an exterior unit and on another corner, a small parking deck was attached to the mall atop street-level shops.
In a March 2008 sketch of the mall, the curvilinear vaulted skylight that served as the spine of the mall was more in an L-shape on one side. Neiman Marcus had a grand entrance for the mall with two restaurants and a large walking path leading to retail offices and shops on the end and a parking deck across from that.
The early sketches show how the mall would interact and connect with future retail and offices planned by Benderson in a tight network of streets. Development is still planned on the east side of the mall, but the large undulating parking lot and University Town Center Drive -- the mall's ring road -- disconnects the mall from that development. The early vision lacked the east parking lot, and instead brought the other planned retail and office space in tight with the mall.
On the west entrance, flowing fountains along the driveway led to the valet stand. The south entrance opened to office workers and hotel guests in an adjacent development.
"We were really trying to build layers," Tysowski said. "If you had an urban environment, you'd experience that, but it's pretty hard to put a large retail center in without a large parking lot."
That plan, which included a detached Muvico theater, was thwarted by the Sarasota County Commission in November 2006 with a 4-3 vote against the project, because officials thought there was too much of everything. A 2007 approval by the commission welcomed a New Urbanism design with narrow streets and a pedestrian friendly town center. In those days, Benderson Development took the lead for the shopping center's design.
Waiting for recovery
From 2009 until May 2011, Tysowski's team waited out both a recession and a legal battle Benderson had to settle.
The battle chiefly came from competitor Westfield Corp., which controls the Sarasota Square and Southgate malls. Westfield objected to Benderson's traffic analysis for the mall and wanted the state to deny the project. A settlement was reached between Benderson and the county that capped the commercial development and saw Benderson contribute $4.5 million for improvements to University Parkway. The state signed off on Benderson's plans on Oct. 31, 2008, putting an end to all the legal wrangling.
While that was going on, luxury retailers reneged on plans to open new stores. Neiman Marcus told the developers no thanks. Nordstrom, which still flirts with future plans of returning to the project, also backed out.
"Like everybody, we were hoping some things would survive," Tysowski said. "In this business, sometimes projects rise out of the ashes if another business gets involved or another partner steps up. I didn't get overly concerned."
When Tysowski picked up his pen again, he had some new challenges. Retail drives the design of the mall, and the main retailers had changed.
New anchors Saks Fifth Avenue and Dillard's joined the mall, so now he had to rework how those spaces would fit and how the rest of the building would accommodate them. Macy's now has a contemporary look with large glass entry walls, Saks is debuting a retro-modern design prototype that has its own exterior light show, and Dillard's wanted a traditional look with the retailer's arched entrances.
Six restaurants had to be incorporated on the east and west ends of the mall. A tighter budget -- $315 million -- came with the smaller footprint. Daily operating expenses had to be whittled, too.
"You don't have to blow the bank to make everyone feel this is a wonderful place," Tysowski said.
After the recession, the focus was squarely on the mall, as ancillary retail and development on the east side was on hold. Forbes left the mall's partnership and Taubman stepped up to be a 50-50 partner with Benderson, which included leading the design.
"When we got momentum to start again, we decided to take a fresh look at development," said Ron Loch, vice president of planning and design for Taubman.
That New Urbanism feel was lessened as the mall's parking lot puts Benderson's two University Town Center districts to the east and west at a distance.
The two-level Crate & Barrel now has its entrance inside the mall. The mall doesn't have parking decks today, but could have one when expanded. Instead, the parking
lot undulates for shoppers to enter both the first and second levels.
The skylight and mall changed from an L to an I shape, stretching 1,100 feet and connecting Macy's to Dillard's with three glass rotundas. That skylight became one of the mall's centerpieces as Taubman pushed to use the latest technology in light display and shading.
Let there be light
Tysowski's attention turned to the Florida sun in the later designs. His mission to use the skylight to provide natural lighting without heating up shoppers.
The design team switched to more energy-efficient glass and, in a later sketch, placed wooden louvers at the skylight to act like a trellis, he said. Those louvers resemble palm fronds.
"Inside you have louvers that span across the arches to give a sense of shade," Tysowski said. "Like you're walking across a trellised arch or along a palm tree boulevard."
The V-shaped louvres are thicker on the west side of the mall to provide shade when the sun is at its zenith. The combination dapples light and gives the mall's walls and ceiling body from the shade. Those louvres were inspired by plantation shutters, Loch said.
"We looked at ways to let natural light in, but a way to shield heat and UV rays," Loch said. "The solution is what I think is going to make this center more special than most properties."
High efficiency, insulated glass is used to allow light to beam through the ceiling, but reflects UV rays and keeps heat out, Loch said. A ceramic paint-type material is infused in the glass to create shade and deflect heat.
At night, the reflected glass turns black, so the team added LED lights with the louvres creating a custom-controlled light display that illuminates the skylight.
West entrance work
The mall's front door -- the west entrance facing Cattlemen Road -- started off with an Orlando look.
The earliest sketch of the main entrance fell short on being unique, looking strikingly similar to the Mall at Millenia -- the basic template for the mall. The grand entrance featured a flat rotunda -- almost like a dinner plate -- similar to the Orlando mall with pyramid-type fountains along the walkway.
"Everyone loved the Mall at Millenia," Tysowski said. "In this case, we thought it needed to be more unique."
A template only does so much, because the type of tenants and stores that commit to the mall early dictate how a mall is going to look.
"Retail was always the driving force," he said. "The mall was always the center of attention. We had buildings attached to it, as well as reaching out in different directions, and we always envisioned it was a classical shopping arcade."
The design quickly squared up turning the round pavilion into a cubed pavilion with a squared overhang. The entrance opened up more as a gathering spot, but the sketches still gave the mall a metropolitan feel with white walls that could be mistaken for limestone or granite in the sketches.
Taubman wanted to include Egyptian limestone, but civil unrest in that country last year forced the company to go with jura stone from Israel and Germany. The stone, known for its durability and ease to clean, is from the Jurassic age and is embedded with fossils.
"The visitor will find the product very warm and attractive," said Jeff Boes, director of planning and design for Taubman. "It is literal fossil stones you can go up to the wall and see."
The German stone is used on the exterior lower-wall surface, split with the Israeli stone to create a rhythm through the mall.
"It's proven to be a durable choice," Boes said. "The jura stone from Germany is the same product we used on Mall at Millenia."
What shoppers will see on Thursday is a 65-foot-high louvered pavilion with energy-efficient glass along with a port cochere, or a drop-off canopy at the valet area to protect customers from the rain. Approaching the entrance, a low, linear infinity fountain spills over three illuminated blocks with date palms on each side.
"That entry canopy is flanked by four of some of the premier restaurant offerings that provide fabulous environment," Boes said. "It's dramatic both day and night and gives us that iconic view from the exterior, especially when framed by Macy's, Saks and Dillards."
In the latest sketch, silver plantation-like shutters stretch horizontally across the glass pavilion with UTC embossed behind the metal and a canopy that came close to honoring famed architect Paul Rudolph, who is noted for the Sarasota Modern design.
"We did go back to old Rudolph and we were inspired," Boes said. "We didn't want to mimic the Sarasota Modern look literally, but we did try to incorporate some of those touches, even in the signage, light-filled spaces and in the contemporary forms. We feel we're carrying on a strong tradition in Sarasota architecture."
Inside the grand court, a tubular multi-pendant chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Customer lounges on the concourse are carpeted and on the first level near Dillard's, a children's play area sponsored by Lakewood Ranch Medical Center will give families a break.
Construction photos show tweaks have continued since the final sketch. The monument sign at the front is slightly altered. It's difficult to tell if one last "UTC" logo will be included inside or outside of the pavilion.
On other entrances, "UTC" is featured in channel letters atop deep blue siding. The sign pulls in with other monument signs across the mall's campus into the District West at University Town Center, using a hint of palm fronds to match the Florida landscape.
While the town-center feel disappeared in many areas, Tysowski is proud of the west entrance with Cheesecake Factory, Seasons 52, Capital Grille and BRIO Tuscan Grille.
"That's as close to any kind of Main Street," he said. "It made it more exciting and gave more reason to go to these places."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.