Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mall ownership aims to ‘open up’ in long-term plan

Westfield Wheaton will work to make shopping center more accessible to a redeveloped central business district

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Westfield Wheaton’s long-term plans include ‘‘active storefronts” along Veirs Mill Road, which would open the mall to shoppers in the Wheaton Triangle and reduce the separation from the rest of the downtown area.

The aim is to create a more accessible feel for Westfield with shopping and dining areas on the mall’s exterior funneling shoppers to the interior plaza, said Peter Tuck, development manager for Westfield, at a July 16 presentation to the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

‘‘Opening up” the mall would better integrate the physical and cultural identity of the downtown while also improving its public image, Tuck said.

Natalie Cantor, director of the county government-operated Mid-County Regional Services Center, said in addition to Westfield being more open to the downtown area, it will be important to connect the mall culturally with Wheaton’s diverse population.

‘‘Veirs Mill has long been the divide between a large regional mall and an independent downtown,” she said. ‘‘Westfield, when they first took over, stated they wanted to truly become part of the community, both spiritually and physically. This is the first real step to linking us so we can be seen as one destination.”

Examples of plazas in London and Sydney, Australia, with glass storefronts and outdoor seating and dining areas were presented as examples of open layouts Westfield has utilized.

Australia-based Westfield, with 126 malls worldwide, bought the Wheaton mall in 1997 and finished a $140 million expansion in 2005 that added more than 50 stores. Currently, the mall has more than 160 stores.

Wheaton resident Lisa Solomon, a member of the redevelopment advisory committee, said Westfield should better integrate with the downtown by using Wheaton’s multi-national flavor.

‘‘It would be really cool if we had a developed idea of Wheaton as international ... that this is kind of a funky place for a mall,” she said. ‘‘All the other malls are just really the same thing.”

Westfield’s future objectives were formed partly by the results of a market study done in October 2007 in which a third party conducted a telephone survey of more than 700 residents in the Wheaton and Kensington area.

The study showed that most of Westfield Wheaton’s customers were local residents spending short periods at the mall. It also showed that many county shoppers near Wheaton are bypassing the mall for Westfield Montgomery in Bethesda.

‘‘You have the same stores in Wheaton as you do the Montgomery mall and my daughter insists we have to go [to Montgomery],” said Kensington resident Eleanor Duckett, another member of the advisory committee.

Tuck said a perception that Wheaton is unsafe and what some have said were limited shopping options have long been issues for Westfield.

‘‘The one thing that surprised me about the market research is how few surprises there already were,” Tuck said. ‘‘We knew Wheaton has a strong appeal to its core, but it’s not dragging in as many people from a broader range as we would like.”

Efforts for a larger and more visible security staff on the mall’s premises have already been made to combat the public image problems, Tuck said.

One short-term way identified to increase the mall’s appeal is finding an anchor tenant for a vacant department store in the southern wing. Tuck said the space has been without a permanent tenant since Hecht’s left two years ago.

A temporary tenant, IFL Furniture, occupied the space until March, when it closed. Since then, Westfield has talked with both Kohl’s department store and Steve & Barry’s clothing chain. Tuck said the negotiations with Kohl’s fell through partly because the company scaled back its expansion, and Steve & Barry’s had been set to occupy the space before the company filed for bankruptcy earlier this month.

Tuck said Westfield is in talks with more than 30 retailers about filling the space, and about five, which he declined to identify, have emerged as possibilities. More than $5 million has been spent on developing the space for tenants, Tuck said, and Westfield ‘‘likely will spend a lot more.”

Filling the empty space with the right tenant could go a long way to making the mall more appealing, said Wheaton resident Diane Lynne, a committee member.

‘‘That available anchor spot is a real opportunity if you can find that store that would make the mall a destination,” she said. ‘‘If I have a few hours to shop, I’m going to drive all the way to Tysons [Galleria in McLean, Va.] because I want the full array of what they have rather than Wheaton, which has a limited selection.”

While the July 16 presentation outlined many of the challenges facing Westfield’s development, Wheaton resident and committee member Morey Rothberg commended Tuck on Westfield’s overall progress.

‘‘It’s hard to imagine some company in Australia just lands on Wheaton and says, ‘Yeah, we want to buy your shopping mall,’” he said. ‘‘In 1997, the place had a lot less going for it than it does now.”