Agribusiness  February 12, 2010

Midtown study starts with Foothills Malls question

FORT COLLINS – A team of consultants is edging toward a unified vision for Fort Collins’ commercial corridor, even as redevelopment flourishes in one of the area’s northernmost shopping centers.

The Midtown Commercial Corridor, which encompasses College Avenue from Prospect to Harmony roads including the Foothills Mall, holds the dubious distinction of containing 83 percent of the total vacant retail space in the city – 655,000 square feet. Even so, it represents more than half of all the retail sales in Fort Collins.

In October, the city hired a team to conduct a study of the feasibility of redevelopment in the corridor. The study is past the halfway point, and early indications are optimistic.

“The analysts tell me it’s a glass-half-full or better situation,´ said Josh Birks, economic adviser for the city.

Birks pointed out that 84 percent of the vacant space in the corridor is concentrated in a handful of big-box locations – the former JCPenny and Mervyn’s locations at the mall and the freestanding Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us, Circuit City, Linens ‘n Things and Wild Oats.

There are 120 acres designated for redevelopment in the near-term – five to 10 years – within the corridor, but the study started with some detailed work on the Foothills Mall. The magnitude of the land holding and its central location make it unlike any other site in Fort Collins.

“There’s more opportunity and strength there than weakness,” Birks said, acknowledging that there is a narrow window to maintain the mall as a retail powerhouse. “If we do not start a turnaround process on the mall in the next 18 to 36 months, we could lose that opportunity.”

Scenes from the mall

The consulting team has had some frank conversations with mall owner General Growth Properties Inc. According to Birks, the company has not committed to anything yet but is pleased with the team, which includes Warren Wilson, who served as senior vice president in charge of new development for GGP up until last year.

Wilson feels that by focusing the study on what’s achievable and economically feasible, stakeholders such as GGP are more likely to participate in a unified redevelopment vision.

“The team is concluding that there are tenants that aren’t represented at the mall, and it’s not living up to its potential,´ said Jamie Rusin, principal at ELS Architecture and Urban Design, a Berkeley, Calif.-based firm that serves as the prime contractual member of the team. ELS has worked on a number of projects that combine public and private interests, according to Rusin.

Overall, the consulting team feels that the mall property is well situated for redevelopment, with Rusin pointing to the fact that GGP has assembled parcels previously owned by anchors Mervyn’s and JCPenny. Macy’s and Sears still own their sites and must be on-board for any redevelopment. Discussions with the retailers so far have been positive, and they have told the team they are committed to Fort Collins and the mall.

“The Foothills Mall is a significant piece of the corridor, but it’s not the only story to tell,” Rusin said. “I think there’s a broad consensus that the corridor is ripe for redevelopment. Locally, (stakeholders) are very aware of the perceived and very real decline in the corridor.”

Rusin feels that the significant vacancies should be viewed as opportunities. The upside to having so many empty big-boxes is the large portions of land and building owned by relatively few.

“Many times, the difficulty is when there is small, fractured ownership,” he said.

New life for University Mall

But even with several property owners, a unified vision can develop. Rusin looks to the South College Avenue shopping center anchored by Whole Foods, Wilbur’s Total Beverage and Miramont Lifestyle Fitness as a bright spot.

“It appears to be doing quite well,” he said. “There are a number of indications that there are vital things going on.”

The center is now unrecognizable as the former University Mall, which underwent a massive redevelopment in the mid 1990s and new ownership in the early 2000s. Many of the aging pad sites are getting some attention now.

Developer Les Kaplan picked up the former Kelley-Moore Paint Co. at 2101 S. College Ave. last year. The 7,770-square-foot building on an acre-and-a-half lot was attractive to Kaplan as an investment, not only because of the nearby anchor stores but also because of soon-to-come amenities.

“With the Mason Corridor (transit project), there will be a bus stop, pedestrian overpass and an upgraded crossing for Spring Creek (bike trail),” he said.

With the help of Realtec brokers Aki Palmer and Nate Heckle, Kaplan set out to find a very specific tenant and found Full Cycle bike shop, located in downtown Fort Collins since March 2007.

“The most important element was the accessibility,´ said Tanja Wiant, owner of Full Cycle, about her move to Kaplan’s property.

The bike shop is a destination, so it doesn’t benefit much from the throngs of downtown window shoppers, she said, and hopes that the new spot will lead to more business.

The new location puts Full Cycle in a more central, highly visible spot with plentiful parking and twice as much space. The larger facility will allow the company to offer more amenities and services, such as a lounge and meeting space. Wiant added that the proximity to the Spring Creek trail and future Mason Corridor were also big draws.

Another newly remodeled pad site is now home to Radio Shack and will soon include a Floyd’s 99 Barbershop. Several building owners have tapped the same architecture firm, Vaught-Frye, to craft a common design atmosphere.

Crafting a common vision is the point of the study. The city will be heavily involved in developing the Mason Corridor’s multi-modal transportation service, which will likely compliment the uses along College Avenue. However, it will be necessary to engage the private sector to keep the ball rolling for Midtown.

“In a lot of ways, this study is the beginning of the beginning,” Birks said.

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FORT COLLINS – A team of consultants is edging toward a unified vision for Fort Collins’ commercial corridor, even as redevelopment flourishes in one of the area’s northernmost shopping centers.

The Midtown Commercial Corridor, which encompasses College Avenue from Prospect to Harmony roads including the Foothills Mall, holds the dubious distinction of containing 83 percent of the total vacant retail space in the city – 655,000 square feet. Even so, it represents more than half of all the retail sales in Fort Collins.

In October, the city hired a team to conduct a study of the feasibility of…

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