Lakewood Ranch Herald

University Town Center mall expected to bring economic boon to region

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the impact of the new mall.


LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The much anticipated University Town Center will become the busiest retail hub from Tampa to Fort Myers when the mall opens in two years, analysts predict.

The $315 million construction project is slated to officially break ground Monday after nearly two decades of planning.

When complete, the luxury indoor shopping mall will directly pump more than $400 million a year into the regional economy -- spurring growth for nearby commercial centers, boosting property values and creating thousands of new jobs along the way.

"It's massive," said Patrick Berman, senior director of the retail brokerage at Cushman & Wakefield of Florida Inc. "Just look what happens when you build a couple of expensive houses in a neighborhood. The same will happen here for retail. It will make the pie bigger for everybody."

Anchored by a Saks Fifth

Avenue, Macy's and Dillard's, the mall will house 115 stores and six sit-down restaurants in 880,000 square feet along University Parkway near Interstate 75.

More than half of those retailers will be new to the market, according to the developers.

A typical regional mall will generate $450 in sales per square foot each year. That number rises to about $550 for more luxurious centers, Berman said.

Even at conservative estimates, the University Town Center will produce about $440 million a year in local consumer spending, not counting the added sales likely to come at the nearby big-box stores.

The mall also will lead to 1,000 temporary construction jobs and another 2,000 positions when it opens in the fall of 2014.

Coupled with the Benderson rowing facility, Main Street Lakewood Ranch and smaller out-parcel centers, the mall will help South Manatee gain a bolder identity to lure other major employers to the area, said Anthony Mazzucca, managing director of NAI Manasota, an area commercial brokerage.

"All of a sudden you have something to crow about," he said. "The key is what this will say about the area for general office, industrial and residential development. This spot, and a 10-mile radius around it, now is a regional center."

Michigan-based Taubman Centers Inc. announced in February an equal ownership share with local retail giant Benderson Development on the mall -- putting the wheels in motion for Monday's groundbreaking.

Site plans filed with Sarasota County in April show an anchor on each side of the mall and the third in the middle. Parking will surround the shopping center on the 73-acre property, which will use the Cattlemen Road extension as its main entrance.

The blueprint calls for a fourth anchor to be added in the future -- possibly a Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom, two of the luxury department stores originally envisioned for the center.

A second phase will include two hotels, 220,000 square feet of general office space and 1,700 residential units. Portions of that project have been penciled in for a late 2014 opening.

Officials at Benderson and Taubman declined to comment on the project until after the ground-breaking ceremony.

Creating a regional focus

"There's a hole in the market in the Sarasota area," John Eggert, development director for Taubman, previously told the Herald. "We hope this center will fill that and meet the demand for a dominant shopping destination."

Construction of the Town Center comes at a time when retail projects across the country remain on hold from the economy's historic tumble.

In fact, it joins another Taubman development in Salt Lake City as the only regional shopping malls to break ground this year.

Smaller than the University Town Center, Taubman's 700,000-square-foot City Creek Center in Utah will feature a Macy's, Nordstrom, and 80 specialty stores and restaurants.

The mall will become the first to open in the U.S. since the Mall of Turtle Creek in Jonesboro, Ark. in 2006, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Similarly, the University Town Center will become Southwest Florida's largest retail development since International Plaza in Tampa was built 11 years ago -- again by Taubman.

"The synergy this is going to create will be tremendous," said Charles Wilson, a commercial builder in Sarasota. "This will bring shoppers to the area who might say this is a nice place to live, let's open a regional office here."

Officials compare the Town Center's impact to that of the Westfield Brandon Mall just 40 miles up the highway.

Before the mega shopping center opened on what was previously a cattle farm in 1995, West Brandon Boulevard was mostly local traffic, with a few sporadic retailers.

Today the corridor has grown to six lanes and the mall sits at the busiest intersection in Hillsborough County. Other satellite retail businesses and restaurants emerged.

"It helped to identify an area that was not well-known to many," said Tammy Bracewell, president and CEO of the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce. "As more people became familiar with the area, housing demands increased. This then expanded the needs of our local businesses, including retail and service providers. The entire community grew as a result of the mall's location."

The University Town Center will set the bar for lease rates in the entire area, forcing others to adjust what they now charge in order to keep pace.

In some instances that will mean lowering rents, but for most, nearby commercial lease prices will surge with the increased demand.

Taubman last year collected average company-wide rents of $45.22 per square foot, with a 90.7 percent overall occupancy rate, according to public financial records.

The project also will heighten residential property values in north Sarasota and South Manatee, especially in communities like Central Park where there's now lower price points, said Gloria Weed, managing broker of the Michael Saunders office in Lakewood Ranch.

Apartments in the area also will see an uptick from mall employees seeking to live closer to work.

"People who like to shop at a higher-end mall will find this an added amenity to the area," Weed said. "When everybody asks where's the closest regional mall, that's the one thing we're missing here."

New traffic system coming

One of the concerns long-time area residents have expressed is the added traffic a development of this scope will bring.

Average annual traffic counts along University Parkway adjacent to the mall are expected to grow from 62,000 vehicles a day now to 73,600 by year 2018 and 92,600 by 2028, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

To better handle those loads, engineers are designing larger off-ramps at exit 213 on I-75.

The new diverging diamond interchange, used in western states, has never been done before in Florida.

The system uses two roads that snake over each other twice as they go below the highway overhead bridge, allowing left turns into the interstate without ever crossing over oncoming traffic.

"This is a very busy intersection," FDOT spokeswoman Cindy Clemmons said. "This (interchange) is a new concept. It's supposed to move the traffic better and lessen the conflict points."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter Coming Monday: What local businesses, residents have to say.

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