Sunday, February 13, 2011

University Square Mall: Tampa, FL

The area of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater has not only been an area of phenomenal growth over the past several decades, but also phenomenal sprawl. University Mall, originally University Square Mall, is one of those malls that led the charge of Tampa sprawl located between I-75 and I-275 northeast of the city.  As a second generation mall in the region and the second in the city, the mall is not what it once was, but it is still hanging on for now.  It has also had a long life with a very dynamic anchor history originally opening over 36 years ago opening on August 15, 1974.  As an additional note, this is my third mall I have covered named University Mall and second in Florida, and I've only covered two malls in Florida so far.

University Mall is named as such for its proximity to University of South Florida.  It is also located near the Busch Gardens theme park.  The DeBartolo-built mall started out small with only one level anchored by Tampa-based Maas Brothers on the south end with Robinson's of Florida on the original north end.  Robinson's of Florida was actually a division of the same J.W. Robinson's in California, and the company hoped to tap the booming east coast market as well.  JCPenney also was slated to open with the mall, but arrived fashionably late in October of 1974, making up the west anchor of the mall.  The new and successful mall was definitely bringing growth to the area, so the growth did not stop there with Sears rounding off the mall in 1975 as the east anchor.  Lastly, Burdine's would join the mall in 1983 in an awkward pad between Sears and Robinson's where Burlington Coat Factory is today.  With five anchors, the mall was a powerhouse, and it dominated the north side of Tampa all throughout the 80's and 90's.

While the first photo shows an elegant view from the second floor addition, you can see the rest of the mall is incredibly bland.  I am sure when the original mall was in place, this was much more appealing with in-floor fountains, dark tiles and and other items, but now it's just a plain white hallway with the usual kiosks.  It looks dated, and not in a good way.  I also want to note that ALL photos here are submitted to me from id780.

Traffic...what this mall wants more of with 1 1/2 empty anchors (id780)

Detail of the peculiar skylights with a 90's whitewashed twist (id780).

Florida's volatile retail market meant that the mall would see many significant anchor changes over the years.  With University Square, these would not just be anchor changes but would actually lead to an interesting expansion.  The first of those changes came in 1988 when Robinson's was sold to New Orleans-based Maison Blanche.  While this made little impact on the mall, fireworks would soon erupt in 1991.  First, Maison Blanche sold the University Square store as well as seven other Florida locations to Dillard's.  This was accompanied by the shake-up in the industry that also featured the merger of Maas Brothers, which had merged with Jordan Marsh prior, into Burdine's.  Burdine's, previously stuck in a less than ideal anchor pad, seized the opportunity and moved their store into the former Maas Brothers.  Montgomery Ward then joined the mall, taking over the former Burdine's space.  Perhaps the arrival of Wards put a curse on the mall.

Here, we have center court of the mall and the escalators to the second level.  I cannot deny that is pretty cool (id780).

The wood trim next to the escalators looks a little cheap (id780).

Here is a view from the second level looking back towards Macy's, formerly Maas Brothers and Burdine's (id780).

Looking back down the escalators, which apparently approach the upper level from two angles off the center court (id780).

The biggest changes to the mall itself came in 1995 when Dillard's, then still new to the market, constructed a brand new store connected to the existing store, which had previously housed Maison Blanche and Robinson's.  When completed, the original store was converted to mall space, creating a two-level wing to an otherwise one-story mall.  This was likely done to compete with the new Brandon Town Center, which opened in 1995, and the addition to the mall was completed in 1996.  This unique change to the mall's footprint was also tried in one other mall in Florida, Tallahassee Mall.   Everything was going well for the mall, but the next decade would prove that the mall was losing ground, but it was still holding up far better than its sister mall Eastlake Square, which closed in 1998.

Here are a few more views of the vaulted area in the main court adjoining the two level part.  I wonder how this used to look (id780).

Here is the lower level of the two-level portion heading to Dillard's.  This originally would have had the mall entrance to Robinson's of Florida and Maison Blanche directly in view (id780).

Prior to Brandon Town Center, Tampa had only five malls, and all but one were originally very successful.  The others were Westshore Plaza, Floriland Mall, Eastlake Square and Tampa Bay Center.  The problem was, two more malls would soon arrive to negatively affect the five original malls with Floriland, Eastlake Square and Tampa Bay Center losing the battle completely.  The new malls, Citrus Park Town Center and International Plaza (and Bay Street) were very formidable foes.  As an older, smaller mall in an older side of town, University Mall was then forced to compete with not only Brandon Town Center, but also the newer Citrus Park Mall.  While the distance was still enough that University Mall held its own, the neighborhood around it began to decline and the strain was beginning to show.  The first was when Montgomery Ward closed in 2001.  Instead of a conventional department store taking the spot, the anchor which originally housed Burdine's was filled with Burlington Coat Factory.  JCPenney was the next to leave, leaving the mall in 2005 for a free-standing prototype store in Wesley Chapel that would eventually become The Shops at Wiregrass, a new lifestyle center that would prove the toughest blow for the aging mall. 

Here is a well-centered shot of the east wing of the mall.  Move along... (id780)

A few shots were provided of the theater, but I've only posted one here.  If interested, I will add more of this very 90's theater (id780).

This is one shot of the food court, which is situated on the upper level keeping it alive.  I don't think I've heard of the restaurant here but this does make a tamale sound awfully good (id780).

Here, this is looking from the second level food court down on the first level (id780).

Now, with several newer, bigger malls in the region and a lifestyle center in a newer area, it was becoming obvious that University Mall was in a tight spot.  Dillard's would open a store in 2008 at Wiregrass, resulting in the store in the mall being downgraded to a clearance store.  JCPenney had already left, and Macy's also opened a store at the new center though they are so far maintaining stores at both locations.  The former JCPenney did find new life as Steve & Barry's University Sportswear (appropriate for a college-named mall) but the store closed with the chain in 2009.  K&G Menswear has also since come along as a junior anchor next to Sears.  While this looks troublesome, University Mall is still not a dead mall, and its current owners since 2007 Somera Capital Management/Rockwood Capital have plans to revitalize the mall partly through a demolition of the former JCPenney/Steve & Barry's site for new shops.

More of the food court.  Why did I have to be hungry when I posted this? (id780)

A view of the second level food court.  I like this part of the mall, which is a bit more elegant (id780).

From the food court onto Dillard's, things move downhill fast.  Pretty much everything is dead from there to the mall entrance, and Dillard's also abandoned the upper level as well.  Dillard's does not help at all considering their clearance stores have reduced hours (id780).

The most fascinating thing about this view looking toward Dillard's is that this was the center of a department store up to 1995.  I think there are few things more cool than converting old department stores into mall space, especially if the addition is a level higher than the rest of the mall. (id780)

The two-level wing of the mall brought some needed traffic to the mall at first.  It brought the mall a new theater and a new food court, which both have helped the mall stand out.  Also, both were wisely added to the upper level as well so that the space was not entirely dependent on traffic that might be bound for Dillard's.  The problem with the upper level wing, however, is it still is hurting from the closure of Dillard's own upper level.  Such additions are very dependent on the anchor, which means that hybrid designs like this must remain healthy.  Malls with third levels often get stuck with dead space, and this upper level portion clearly has a disconnect with the rest of the mall meaning a better anchor is badly needed in that location.

Here are a couple more views of the upper level, which does have a couple shops remaining past the food court.  Luckily food courts are not anchor driven, they are hunger driven. (id780)

Dark Dillard's is here to remind you that if you're looking for the final dibs on their most unwanted apparel you need to mozy on back to the escalators in center court.  Dillard's needs to change that slogan there to "Second Floor: The Style of No Life". (id780)

It is obvious at this point that University Mall is at a crossroads.  As the mall approaches 40 years old, changes will need to be made to keep the mall viable.  Those plans should most definitely include making the mall have fewer anchors, since clearly five anchors are way more than the mall needs.  Swapping the Macy's and Dillard's Clearance Stores would definitely help, since Dillard's is now only using the lower level.  The upper level wing is mostly emptying out because of this.  If the economy looks up in Florida, I can see this mall surviving but I do not see Dillard's maintaining a location in the mall for a long time as a clearance store. Maybe if the stores switched places, another anchor might be interested in the current store  Also, the most practical move to me is for them to demolish not just the JCPenney, but the entire wing extending from center court to where JCPenney was, converting it to outdoor shops and restaurants.  To keep the mall viable, each time an anchor closes, the wing of the mall attached to it should be demolished and likewise converted to outdoor shops, though I would also advocate attempting to lure big box anchors to fill the void before doing that.  I also believe that after the anchor switch that if Dillard's closes their store that Burlington Coat Factory should move into that space with the existing store demolished.  Eventually, if all of the anchors close, then the rest of the mall should be replaced with an open-air shopping center with an elegant central area featuring a roundabout, a small park and shops, but only if the mall loses all of its anchors.  Hopefully, this will not happen, but it is clear the mall needs to improve.  In addition, the mall is rather bland inside and needs a showy renovation.  How can a mall that looks like 1991 in a bad way compete with the newer malls?

Since the second level is also accessible via a parking deck, there is at least access to it other than the center court. (id780)

Macy's here looks so spooky after closing time.  I bet this store looked so much cooler with the Maas Brother's logo.  Since I did not take these photos, I have no other anchor photos available to me. (id780)

This contemporary mall entrance is pretty mod.  I wish the inside was as full of cutting edge design.  Maybe it will be soon. (id780)

This older mall entrance reminds me of the more distinctive classic "Florida Modern" look, and I like it. (id780)

Whatever they decide to do or are able to do, University Mall had 30 successful years.  For now, the mall is still holding onto enough anchors to stay successful, but unfortunately the mall must look at the possibility of gradually de-malling if that success is to remain over the years ahead.  It has both factors making the mall sick: newer, bigger options stealing its market area and a neighborhood that is less prosperous than its peak years.  Perhaps the neighborhood will continue to support it, though, but the current owners also need to do more to fix it up.