Rebuild It and They Will Come (Back)

CLEARWATER — The year was 1973.

The Watergate plot was thickening and gas lines were lengthening. Vietnam saw a cease-fire, and the world bid adieu to Pablo Picasso and JRR Tolkien. David Halberstam’s “The Best and Brightest” was a best seller; “The Godfather” earned an Oscar; and Secretariat won the Triple Crown.

And Clearwater Mall opened.

It was amid considerable fanfare on what used to be the Seville Peacock Farm. It was anchored by retail giants Gayfers, Ivys, Burdines and Montgomery Ward. It was at the mega intersection of U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard (Rt. 60). It was riding the enclosed-mall wave sweeping the country.

Eventually, however, the malling of America would leave losers in its wake. Prominent among them: Clearwater Mall. Bigger, better and newer is never good news for the prototypes. Barely five miles to the north on U.S. 19 would come Countryside Mall. It would eclipse Clearwater Mall. Big time. Other enclosed retail outlets — from Pinellas Park to Citrus Park — also ate into its regional base. Over time, Clearwater Mall lost cachet, customers and tenants. It never made it into the new millennium.

Enter the Sembler Co., the St. Petersburg-based developer of shopping centers.

“I had seen Clearwater Mall grow tired over the years,” recalls Greg Sembler, company vice chairman. “It had obviously had its day, and Countryside had become a great (Westfield) Shoppingtown.”

But Sembler also saw opportunity. A reincarnated Clearwater Mall could find a new niche, he sensed, because there was a post enclosed-mall trend afoot: the open-air, “power center” malls.

Open-air malls are cheaper to operate — with big savings in common-area overhead. They are also more convenient — with customers driving right up to a store instead of parking in the hinterlands and hoofing it from there. And “big box” anchors act as discount magnets to price-conscious shoppers.

“The enclosed mall is kind of dead,” states Sembler. “Very few are being built now, because the economics are very, very difficult. Even the major mall developers are looking at open-air designs.”

According to Patrick Berman, retail specialist with Cushman & Wakefield real estate company, the new Clearwater Mall “has hit the trend right on the money. It can capture the vast majority of consumers. They can save time and money, and you can hardly beat that.

“Sembler is the premier developer in this market,” adds Berman. “They took a huge dinosaur and gave it new life. It’s not your father’s Clearwater Mall.”

In partnership with the New Plan Excel Realty Trust of New York, which has since bought out Sembler’s interest, the Sembler Co. presided over the old mall’s razing and 18 months of rebuilding. The $100-million retail center celebrated its grand re-opening last November. It already has sparked a rejuvenation of nearby restaurants.

The catalyst, says Sembler, was signing up the “highest and best” of the targeted “big box” categories: Costco, SuperTarget and Lowe’s.

“The traffic counts got them excited,” says Sembler. “It wasn’t a tough sell. Once we put together the big three, our job was a lot easier.” SuperTarget, at 185,000 square feet, is the largest tenant in the 796,000-square-foot mall.

By the beginning of the year, the new mall’s space was approximately 99 per cent leased. Most leases are in the 5-to-15-year range. All but four of the 54 spaces are accounted for with a tenant mix ranging from the “upscale discounters” to Borders, Petsmart, Michael’s and Linens n Things to nail and tanning salons.

Among those celebrating the return of Clearwater Mall is Ralph Stone, Clearwater’s assistant city manager. Prominent, boarded-up spaces at the city’s biggest intersection sends all the wrong signals. It also means a big hit in taxable real estate value.

“There was a lot of concern and rumors about what the future would bring,” admits Stone. “Everything from apartments to storage. So we were thrilled to have Sembler step in. They did a first class job — not just on recruiting tenants — but in delivering aesthetics and landscaping. They made it a nicer place than some others might have. They live here too.”

Other Sembler Scenarios

The Sembler Co. is not your typical mall developer. Its stock and trade has been strip center development. Moreover, its chairman is based in Rome. Mel Sembler is U.S. ambassador to Italy.

The Clearwater deal has encouraged Sembler to look elsewhere for additional open-air opportunities. The company is currently in the preliminary stages of developing the 1.2-million- square-foot Winter Garden Mall as well as smaller open-air developments in South Hillsborough County (near Big Bend Road and I-75) and (a SuperTarget Center) in Kissimmee.

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